x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Shikabala's story so far at Al Wasl is a rosy picture

Al Wasl's popular new 'artist' with a 'strong character' has settled in nicely at the club.

Shikabala, left, has made his presence felt already with an impressive show in the Etisalat Cup win against Kalba.
Shikabala, left, has made his presence felt already with an impressive show in the Etisalat Cup win against Kalba.

It is the night before his competitive debut for Al Wasl, yet Mahmoud Abdel Razek Fadlallah, best known as "Shikabala", seems unaffected by what lies ahead.

Training at the Zabeel Stadium is winding down; the squad led on a light jog by Mariano Donda, the influential Argentine.

Shikabala is alongside a teammate, five lethargic paces behind the pack.

A nearby ball shocks him from his reverie, forcing the Egyptian to produce an impromptu, and wholly improbable, back-flick.

It receives a loud cheer from the gathered Ultras, the club's diehard fans, as Shikabala raises an arm in salute before returning to his stroll.

He may not show it, but much is expected from the mercurial winger, who at 26 is in his prime, loaned by Zamalek to the Pro League for what promises to be a stirring season.

"Maybe we shouldn't talk about Shikabala because of the big fan base he has with the Egyptian population here, maybe it's better to hide him," says Bruno Metsu, the Wasl coach. "But he's a very strong, skilful player with great technical qualities.

"When he gets the ball the opposition defence is scared. He changes our play because when he takes the ball immediately something special happens. He is an artist."

There is little doubting Shikabala's ability. Making his debut for Zamalek at 16, his CV includes two league titles, an Egyptian Cup, an African Champions League and Super Cup success.

He was the division's joint top scorer in 2011, when his inventive play and eye for goal threatened to pierce the domestic domination of arch-rival Al Ahly. International recognition, too, has been achieved through Egypt's 2010 African Cup of Nations triumph.

Yet ill discipline has continued to dog his career. It reached a crescendo in May, when pitch-side cameras caught Shikabala, substituted on the hour of a Champions League encounter, telling coach Hassan Shehata: "I'm fed up with you. If you don't want me, let me go."

Zamalek suspended Shikabala, who was then excluded from the Egyptian national side which travelled to this summer's London Olympics.

"We have definite rules for calling players to the national team. Morals come first and then we look for fitness and performance," said Bob Bradley, the Egypt coach, last month.

Shikabala has since been recalled, although some fear his troublesome temperament might stunt Wasl's attempted renaissance, post-Diego Maradona.

"We have heard rumours about his character but, on the contrary, I feel he is a great person and a great player," says Metsu. "He has a strong character, there's no doubt about that, but that shouldn't be taken as a slight against him.

"For me, it is not a problem. I prefer a player with character than one without. We win games with players with big personalities."

In six weeks at Wasl, "Shika", as his new club have adopted him, has only enriched his reputation. Glimpses of his talent were given in friendly matches against Bahraini sides, where disorientated defenders struggled to contain his pace and trickery.

Goals were created for grateful teammates, while powerfully accurate shooting repeatedly stung the palms of goalkeepers. Shikabala promises to provide this season.

"He's a true playmaker, can keep the ball, covers distance quickly and has great vision," says Humaid Yousef, the Wasl team manager.

"Shika will be very important because we were missing that one player who brings the magic. He's a quality player and can make a difference in any game."

Yousef paints an encouraging image of Shikabala the person during Wasl's recent training camp in Germany. He describes him as a "good professional" with a "good attitude", "quiet but very funny", who "talks with the players as if they were brothers".

Yousef sees parallels between the arrival of Shikabala and the debut of a certain Wasl coach a year ago.

"His situation is the same as Diego when he came," he says. "Everybody said Diego would create problems, but we saw the complete opposite.

"That's what it is like with Shika. Everybody says he was a big problem in Egypt, but here he has shown another side to his personality. Everyone here knows him and the opposition will pay close attention. He will get some special treatment, but he has the ability to escape it.

"He is a quiet man outside the field. However, inside he is like a shark."

Shikabala scents blood. Having completed his US$1.25 million (Dh4.59m) loan move from Zamalek, the Aswan-born attacker has focused attentions on restoring Wasl to former glories.

Last season's disappointing Pro League campaign - Wasl finished eighth - has not dulled his ambitions. "I want to help the team achieve success and win trophies, and I believe the support of the fans and officials will help me in my objectives," he says. "I know my job will not be easy, but I will work hard to reach my best levels.

"Wasl are a top side and enjoy a great reputation. I know they are one of the most popular clubs in the UAE and have a rich history.

"Wasl are the Zamalek of the UAE and I feel at home here."

A starring role in Tuesday's Etisalat Cup win against Kalba - he provided an assist and constant headaches for the opposition - already suggests that.

"Shika" was right to appear so relaxed at the Zabeel Stadium the previous evening. Finally, his football seems set to do the talking.

jmcauley@thenational.ae