After Mohamed Zidan's move from Denmark via Germany to the UAE, the Egyptian's knee injury has turned his football dreams into a nightmare, writes Ali Khaled.
Pro League: Baniyas and Mohamed Zidan remain on opposite sides of the injury fence
On the day we meet, Mohamed Zidan is beaming. The previous night, his former club Borussia Dortmund had beaten Real Madrid 4-1 in one of the season's most dramatic matches, the destruction of the Spanish giants putting the German club within touching distance of a place in the Uefa Champions League final.
But joy, vicarious as it was on this occasion, has come fleetingly for Zidan since he joined Pro League side Baniyas from Bundesliga club Mainz last summer.
On December 16, the Egypt international was injured in a Pro League match against Al Wasl. Since then, his season has been one long nightmare.
"In the first 10 or 15 minutes, I twisted my leg and I felt my knee snap, I felt a searing pain and I could not carry on, so I asked to be taken off," he recalls.
"Two days later, I underwent some tests at Salama Hospital and the doctor said that my knee was fine, that there was nothing wrong with it, just a simple twist which needs a bit of physiotherapy and rest."
The diagnosis drove an unfortunate wedge between club and player who could not agree on the seriousness of the injury.
A subsequent series of conflicting medical reports on the extent of the injury did not help relations.
"The pain was really severe, and at the time I felt straight away that I could not finish," he says, recalling his initial reaction.
"So to see a hospital report claim that my knee was OK, I was not convinced.
"Of course, I believed the doctor and his diagnosis based on the tests and the X-rays, but deep down I knew something was wrong."
Despite several consultations in Abu Dhabi, there was never a consensus on the severity of the problem. Examination by Dr Luis Serratosa, of Real Madrid's medical team, suggested no serious damage and though a knee exercise programme aimed at improving muscle strength was devised, no recommendation was made for surgery.
But the pain did not go away. Eventually, in a desperate effort to prove he was not exaggerating the injury, Zidan flew to Germany in March to meet two of the world's leading experts in the field of sports medicine. This time, high resolution MRIs revealed "clearly a complex tear of the medial meniscus as well as delaminating chondral lesion grade III-IV on the medial femoral condyle".
In layman's terms, his Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) was damaged. It was a bittersweet diagnosis.
The good news; Zidan was right about his injury. The bad news? Well, he was right about his injury.
Dr Peter Ueblacker and Dr Hans-Wilhelm Wohlfahrt, of Bayern Munich's medical staff, recommended cartilage surgery.
Not that the vindication brought any pleasure to Zidan. It had been three months since his injury, and with fellow Egyptian Mohamed Aboutrika signing on as a replacement, Zidan lost his place in the Baniyas first-team squad and was demoted to the reserves.
He continued to attend, if not participate, in every training session. There was even talk of terminating his contract, if club and player could agree on an amicable outcome.
Finally, on April 16, four months after the injury, Zidan underwent knee surgery at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi.
"I was always going to have an operation," he says, adding that three other reports from Abu Dhabi hospitals had confirmed the tear.
"I had an injury which proves I was never faking or exaggerating, I would never cheat the club and I deserved to get proper treatment."
With the surgery now done, the former Werder Bremen and Hamburg forward hopes that his relationship with Baniyas can be rectified.
"My legs are my only assets, unlike a lawyer or an employee, so if I lose that, I lose my livelihood, and more than that the future of my child," he says.
"I play football, that is all I do, and what I love to do. Why would I ever lie about something that would keep me from doing the thing I love most in the world?"
However, last week vice-chairman Mubarak bin Mahroum said Baniyas remain unconvinced by the player's injury claims.
"Our relationship with him remains good but there is still the issue of whether he was injured or not," the Baniyas official told Arabic language newspaper Al Khaleej.
"From his side, the player claims he is but medical reports, both here and outside the country, says he isn't.
"There needs to be a third party referee between the club and Zidan, and that referee is Fifa."
"Our primary concern is to do what's right for the club, and whatever happens we will accept Fifa's decision."
Now Zidan is keen to put the episode behind him and get back to playing football. He is a popular figure among his teammates, but whether he is still part of the club's long-term plans remains to be seen.
"My relationship with the players is excellent," Zidan says. "The reserve players all called me and showed real concern, and those first-team players who could, came to see me in hospital, and most of them called to check up on my progress."
Icing his knee while we chat at the terrace of his rented home at Raha Beach Hotel in Abu Dhabi, Zidan takes time out to play with his bouncing, two-year-old son Adam, who, not surprisingly, wants his father to join him for a kick about with a ball. Zidan resists.
"I'm going through rehabilitation now for the next three weeks, and after that I will move on to gym work to build up the knee's strength again," he says optimistically.
"I am hoping to be back on the pitch in about six weeks."
Next season is a make or break one for Zidan. Baniyas lie in third position in the Pro League. A place in the top three could mean Asian Champions League football next season, although the UAE's allocation of Champions League berths for 2013/14 is yet to be decided.
Zidan is keen to be part of that campaign.
"I have a contract that I want to honour, and hopefully if the club conclude that I acted in good faith all along, I hope to return to the first team and prove myself to everyone here," he said.
The thought of playing in the Champions League alongside his former Egypt teammate Aboutrika has given Zidan a target for next season.
"If the team finishes in the Champions League places, it will be an excellent achievement and hopefully I will be at the club to play in that competition," he says.
"And I will do my utmost to have a good season and hopefully avoid any more injuries."
Indeed, a fit Zidan could yet turn out to be a major asset for Baniyas. His has had a unique career among Middle East and North African players, and is an example of what can be achieved through sheer desire to succeed.
And, of course, raw talent.
In 1999, at only 17, he left Egypt and his hometown club Al Masry for Denmark, hoping to land a contract as professional footballer. Though initially alone in a foreign city with a whole new culture to adapt to, it did not take long for him to achieve his goal.
"I was literally knocking on doors of clubs hoping they'd give me trials, and thankfully Akademisk Boldklub offered me trial for two weeks and immediately after that a contract," the 31 year old says.
"I signed a contract for the second team, and one year later I was promoted to the first team."
Zidan, unlike the few Arab footballers who have tried their luck in northern Europe, settled quickly in Denmark. He met his future wife, Stina, whom he now has little Adam with.
In 2003, he moved to FC Midtjylland where, over the next two seasons, he became a cult figure among the club's supporters.
"We finished second in the league and I was the division's top scorer, I played around 50 matches and scored 35 goals," he says.
"I also won player of the year in Denmark."
His heroics bought him the adoration of Midtjylland fans, and their new SAS Stadium briefly became known as "Zidan Arena" thanks to an early glut of goals.
After that he embarked on a German odyssey that saw him play for Werder Bremen, Mainz twice and Hamburg. Most notably he twice won the Bundesliga title with Borussia Dortmund (2011, 2012) under European football's man of the moment Jurgen Klopp, his former coach at Mainz. He retains a fondness for the club, its fans, the players and his former manager.
"I am delighted for the manager and by the team's performances, Klopp is someone I owe so much to. He is not just a coach, he is a manager, a friend, a brother, a spiritual guardian," says Zidan.
"I have an excellent relationship with him, we are always in touch and he often phones me to check up on my progress. He is concerned about my situation."
Zidan maintains a close bond with his former Dortmund teammates, in particular future Bayern Munich player Mario Gotze, captain Sebastian Kehl, Marco Reus, Croatian international Neven Subotic and Madrid's conqueror Robert Lewandowski.
"I keep in touch with most of the players, Nuri Sahin is one of my closest friends and he is now living in my old apartment in Dortmund," he says of the Turkey international, who is on loan from Liverpool. "He knew my penthouse well and liked it a lot so when he returned he asked me if he can live there, and of course I said yes."
Apart from the recovering knee Zidan remains, physically, in good shape and his self-confidence is unshakeable, which is no surprise considering the company he kept in Germany,
"Gotze is one of the best players I've ever played with, then there was [Brazil international] Diego at Werder Bremen and Rafael van der Vaart at Hamburg," he says naming his top three teammates.
"There are many others, Miroslav Klose and Mesut Ozil at Werder, and of course Lewandowski is no doubt one of the world's best strikers now."
At the Bernabeu on Tuesday, Dortmund will hope to rubber stamp their passage to the Champions League final at Wembley Stadium next month. In Abu Dhabi, Zidan will be cheering them on. But he has his own obstacles to overcome.
And he has a message for everyone connected with Baniyas, and UAE football fans.
"I am convinced that I am at a club, and in a country, that safeguards everyone's rights, were everyone is treated with respect," he says. "I have no issue with the club at all, I am a professional who has a family and commitments, and I am under a contract which I will continue to honour."
He takes a pause, before adding: "I just want to play football again."
The next few months will reveal whether redemption at Baniyas is possible. Otherwise, there is always that phone call from Klopp to look forward to.
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