Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Mephisto Waltz

So that's what they mean by a salary cap. Your new striker takes it off his head when he gets to the tube station, and goes round collecting his salary in it, writes Chris McGrath in this morning's Independent. Mido being Mido, of course, there will be plenty who reckon his agent deserves a bonus for finding anyone prepared to pay him even a grand a week. West Ham, who signed him on loan on the final day of the transfer window, are the latest in a string of clubs to take a chance on the Egyptian over the past decade. His career has been full of fluctuations, not least in his waistline, but David Sullivan is nonetheless entitled to claim his signature – at £1,000 a week – as "one of the most amazing deals of all time". Mido says he is here to prove a point, notes McGrath, and it is not a decimal one. Officially still on the books at Middlesbrough, he was banished to Wigan last season and then back to his homeland, to El Zamalek. Now he has resolved to show a sceptical public that not all footballers are mercenaries.

Undeniably, it is difficult now to see Mido – fractious, disaffected, indolent – as some kind of exemplar. Until now he has always seemed a commuter on the gravy train, the man who put the roly-poly into role model. Turning 27 next month, he still appears to be a personality that can cause an argument in an empty room, such is his record for altercations with his previous managers. He is now onto his tenth club, and as yet, has failed to reach the 50 appearance milestone for any of them. But despite the number of times his passport has been stamped, and his perceived disruptive behavior, the 'King of Cairo' is a great talent - he is tall, strong, excellent in the air and can score goals with both feet.

Mido, the nickname that has stuck since boyhood to Ahmed Hossam, doesn't mind admitting it. When he was younger, Egypt's favourite son used to shout his mouth off. "I was like Jose Mourinho," he laughs. "Everything that came into my head I used to say out loud. When I see Mourinho on TV now I think of myself when I was 17." But there is a big difference. Mourinho, the Inter manager, in a position of power, usually gets away with speaking his mind. Mido didn't. Outbursts in the past led to all sorts of problems.

Yet rebelliousness helped get Mido where he is today. By his own admission as a youth Mido skipped school to play more football, with his father enticing him to play to win with 3 Egyptian pounds ($0.65) in reward money. That helped to complete the sting. "I bribed the postman (a friend of mine), who was supposed to bring letters from the school to my parents' house. Therefore, my parents never found out that I was never at school," Mido admitted in an interview posted on his own website. Contrary to popular belief, he is not from a privileged background. Hossam Sr is the general manager of a football club in Hurghada, a Red Sea port, and the family in which Mido grew up were comfortably off, but no more than that. "We had a good life, but we weren’t rich," the David Beckham of Egypt says.

Anxious to set the record straight about his upbringing, we start at the bottom of the pyramid — literally. He was born in Cairo, within sight of them. "I would say we were a normal family. My father was a professional footballer, and afterwards he went into business, as a travel agent. I started playing football in the garden with my father when I was five, and was at the academy of my local club Zamalek, from the age of eight. I developed quickly and was in the first team at 15." It did not take long to secure the break he needed. "An agent saw me playing for the Egyptian youth team against France. He said he could fix me up with a club in Belgium."

After just four matches, aged 16, Mido moved to K.A.A. Gent on a free trial. "I was very happy about it, but I found living alone in an hotel at that age hard," he recalls. "It made me grow up fast. I learnt a lot about myself, and other people, much quicker than I would have done otherwise. With no friends and family around me, I had to be positive at all times, thinking only about my football and how I had to prove myself. Fortunately, my first season was great. I scored some important goals, and we finished fourth, which was the highest Gent had ever been." Mido finished that season with 11 goals in 23 appearances, enough to scoop the Belgian Ebony Shoe award. He also made his national team debut for Egypt prior to his 18th birthday.

That flurry of goals in his first season in Europe alerted bigger clubs, and by the time he was 18, Mido was cleaning up with Ajax; a $4 million transfer and five-year $5 million contract. More than enough to pay for his first sports car. Mido loves Ferraris and went out to buy one immediately — within five minutes, according to some reports — after signing for the Amsterdam club. "You only live once and you want to make something nice of it," he said. "I had many other offers, but I only chose them because Ajax is the best academy," he explains. "They look after young players and teach them to play football properly. From there, they go on to bigger things. That’s what happened to Edgar (Davids), (Patrick) Kluivert, (Clarence) Seedorf, and to me."

In his first season, 2001-02, with Co Adriaanse as coach, Mido had to play second fiddle to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, newly arrived from Malmo. "They used me on the left wing at first," he says. "Ibrahimovic was the No 9 and Ajax always play with one striker and two wingers, so for my first six months I was out on the left." Ronald Koeman, who replaced Adriaanse in mid-season, then made a timely switch. "Zlatan wasn’t doing so well so they decided to put me in the middle and I scored a lot of goals (12 in 24 league games). We won the league, cup and super cup."

The first sign of any ill-discipline came during this spell. Mido would play just thirteen more times for the Eredivisie side, during which time he was given a 3 match ban for kicking an opposing player. He was often in trouble with his manager, who regularly criticised him for poor performances and subsequently left him out of the team on numerous occasions. Koeman was an excellent coach, but not so good at man-management, according to Mido. "We seemed to disagree about everything," says Mido with a shrug. "He had his own ideas about how to manage the team, I didn’t like his methods so I asked to leave. If we’re talking about the football, Koeman was a great manager. He knew all about different playing systems and the best players to sign, and he was good on tactics and training. It was off-the-field things I didn’t like, how he treated the younger players and how he spoke about his players to the media."

Mido’s career has been punctuated by a long list of such controversies — the most notorious of which came during his time at Ajax when he allegedly lost his temper and threw a pair of scissors at team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic after an argument. After a particularly heated clash with Koeman, who publicly questioned the player’s attitude and effort in training, Mido hit back by calling a press conference to say he wanted to leave before an uneasy truce was agreed. "It’s about respect. He treated me as a young lad who would never complain about what he was doing, but I always had something to say about that. My character had developed and I had become independent through living away from home. A big manager speaks to his players face to face, or maybe in front of the group, but not in the media first."

In one celebrated incident, Koeman took him off after 32 minutes of a Dutch league game. It prompted cries of outrage from Mido, threats to quit and reminders of all the big teams in England and Italy that were purportedly aching to recruit him. Koeman confessed to a certain exasperation with the young Egyptian. "He is a big national figure in his country and that makes things difficult for him. He thinks that scoring is enough and I fight with him because you must be more in football, you have to work for the team. He must learn." The signs of immaturity were there. One member of the Ajax coaching staff said that Mido sometimes behaves 'too young' for a 19-year-old.

After one too many little tête-à-têtes there was never any chance of a rapprochement, and it was next stop Spain for the African Young Player of the Year. "I went on loan to Celta Vigo for four months, scored four goals in eight games and we qualified for the Champions League — the first time the club had done that," Mido is keen to point out. "I was happy and the people were very nice, but I couldn’t stay because they didn’t have the money to buy me." Instead he joined Marseille, under Alain Perrin, in July 2003.

"Again it started well," Mido says — are we starting to see a trend here? "I was playing up front with (Didier) Drogba, and we were the best two strikers in the French league. But then I went to the African Cup of Nations and when I came back the manager had changed. The new man (Jose Anigo) decided to play with one striker, and put me on the left wing. I told him it was the wrong position for me. For one game, yes, but not for six months, which is what he had in mind." He played just 23 times for the French club, scoring 7 goals. He also got into trouble with the French authorities when he was caught speeding at an amazing 212 kilometres per hour on his way to a game. On one occasion, a French journalist revealed, Mido stormed out of the Stade Vélodrome only to find his car blocked in.

Again there was no shortage of alternative employment. "Marseille wanted me to stay, but Roma came for me and Rudi Völler (the new coach) persuaded me to go there. He said I would be their No 1 striker, but he resigned after I’d been there only two weeks. That was a bad time for me because he signed me and when he left it was difficult to get into the team with the strikers Roma had at the time: Vincenzo Montella, Antonio Cassano and Francesco Totti. I could see it wasn’t going to happen, so I didn’t stay long (five months)." A clearly unsettled Mido appeared for the Rome club just 8 times and failed to score. It was not long before he moved to Spurs on loan, a move that would change his fortunes, on the domestic front at least.

Unfortunately, Mido's troubles weren't just confined to club level. Despite amassing 49 caps and scoring 19 goals, Mido's career with his country has been dogged by controversy, having twice been banned by the national set-up. In fact, you could say he has he had more problems with the bosses in Egypt than anybody since Mark Anthony. The first row erupted with the Italian coach of Egypt Marco Tardelli who dropped Mido in September 2004 after the player claimed to be unavailable for the national team due to a groin injury. Twenty-four hours later Mido was caught playing in a friendly match for AS Roma. The relationship deteriorated to such an extent that Mido was "indefinitely" banned from playing for his country, despite 24 goals in 37 appearances. As soon as Tardelli left, the 'Young Pharoah' was recalled.

Mido wasted no time making an impact in English football when he scored two goals on his Premiership debut against Portsmouth. "I knew of Spurs as one of the biggest clubs in England," he says. "I knew big players had been here, like (Jürgen) Klinsmann and (Ossie) Ardiles, and after speaking to Martin Jol I decided to come. I had other offers, but liked what Martin had to say. We decided to make it an 18-month loan, because it’s difficult for a player to prove himself in his first six months. I needed time to get my form and fitness back because I’d hardly played for five months. I had a good debut there, but the rest of that season wasn’t right because I’d been out so long and needed to get my rhythm back. I started the following season much better."

The improvement was partly due to his trim physique — he lost 24lb during that summer — but in only the fourth match, with Tottenham disputing the league leadership with Chelsea, Mido was sent off after 25 minutes when the sides met at White Hart Lane, and his teammates subsided to a 2-0 defeat. He was banned for three games, none of which Spurs won. "It was very bad timing," he says. "The team was going well when it happened, and so was I. Before my red card (for elbowing Asier Del Horno), we were the better side and favourites to win. I felt I had let the other players down. I felt like a soldier who had deserted his comrades." As soon as Mido returned, Spurs started winning again, taking 11 points from their next five league matches, and he was now established as a key member of the team. He was scoring regularly — six in 10 games — when another enforced break interrupted his, and Tottenham’s progress.

The Egyptian had an excellent rapport with the White Hart Lane faithful during his initial 18 month loan spell, scoring regularly and becoming an instant hit. Martin Jol was delighted with his form and strived to make the player a permanent fixture at the club. In August 2006 Mido signed on the dotted line and immediately stated that he "couldn't wait to pull on a Tottenham shirt, play at the Lane, and score more goals". Unfortunately for him though, he was called "irresponsible and disrespectful" by his manager after making some comments about former Spurs player Sol Campbell. He eventually admitted that he had made a mistake by rejoining the club and he finished the 2006-07 season with just 5 goals from 23 appearances.

The previous year Mido had flown to Cairo to make a public apology for his past behaviour. It was an initially successful attempt to recast himself as a national hero rather than a runaway ego. It wasn't hard to gain forgiveness for the man routinely described in the Egyptian press as the best player ever to wear the colours of an Arab national team. Egypt adores Mido. He cannot visit parts of his native city because the public would overwhelm him. "Old Cairo is the old places with the mosque and it's impossible for me to go there," he says. "And it's impossible for any famous person to go there. It's very small streets and it's different." Mido was, after all, an established star in Europe at the ridiculously tender, and may be puerile, age of 17. Now 26, he's a millionaire many times over, instantly recognisable almost anywhere. He enjoys Hollywood looks and an oak tree frame that puts him in the hunk category and has long been the object of the Arab world's fascination. More than Beckham has been for the English (or even the Japanese), he is for Arabs in general - and Egyptians in particular - what Maradona was for the Argentines. Or maybe more. At his feet lie the dreams of a people whose passion for the game has not been matched by recognition in the higher international spheres.

"In Egypt," Ronald Koeman once remaked, "he is treated like a god. Everybody in Egypt knows his face." His compatriots were agog at reports of his relationship with Miss Belgium 2000, whom he dumped two weeks before announcing his engagement to an Egyptian girl-next-door called Yosra Wael. Mido married in 2002 in a ceremony that was filmed for Egyptian TV. The wedding that June was the most successful reality show in Egyptian TV history. How had Yosra settled into life as a nomadic footballer's wife? Is she happy? "Of course she is happy," replies Mido. "She is with me. How could she not be happy?" If there is one thing that comes through during an interview with Mido it is that he does not lack that indispensable quality in a striker, self-confidence.

He insists that he never feels pressure. "I saw people in Cairo living with real pressure," he says. "Pressure is if your son is sick and you don't have money to pay for the hospital. Pressure is if you have 10 children and you don't have food." That was never a concern during Mido's upbringing. He fondly recalls playing street football with friends. "We played with a small ball made of socks," he says. "You roll the socks up, then you put ropes around it and over it you put something like paint which holds it together and makes it a little bit heavier. You can pass this ball but it is so heavy that you cannot shoot, so it's all about technique."

Mido sees considerable untapped talent in Egypt and has set up an academy- all paid for out of his own pocket- to filter more players to Europe. He plans to sell them at 18 for a maximum of €50,000 [£34,000] and hopes the national team will benefit in time. "The clubs ask for €2m for a 15-year-old boy," he says. "They don't want the players to go to Europe. We are now going all around Egypt choosing the best players from 14 to 17 and they will stay in the academy. I will try every year to put three or four players into Europe. I'm expecting 280,000 children to take my academy exams this year," he says proudly. "By the end of it I will have the best 40 kids in Egypt aged 14 to 17. They will live in my academy and go to school down the road. Each year we will try to put five or six into European clubs. It costs a lot of money but it's a good investment as well because I can sell them to Europe. They are my players. I get my money back. It's a business, yes, but in a good way, a football way."

Mido cites bad pitches, the hot weather and poor standards in Egypt for why young footballers have no choice but to seek employment in Europe. It's an argument that has caused a great deal of resentment. Some think that nurturing the domestic game is a better way forward. Yet Mido's success has, in fact, changed the way football is regarded by children in this part of north Africa. It is now viewed as a serious career option, a chance to make something of their lives. His own career has taken him to Belgium, Holland, France, Spain, Italy and England. In his own words, he only ever wanted to "show people in Europe that Egypt is not a desert." His big mistake, he says, was falling out with his Ajax coach Ronald Koeman. "With all the other clubs it was different," he says. "At Celta Vigo I did well [on loan] and had no problems with anyone but they couldn't afford to buy me. With Marseille, I wanted to leave to go to Roma, which was a big club for me. And at Roma I didn't play so I came to Tottenham."

It was at White Hart Lane where the African Cup of Nations- a recurring bone of contention for European clubs and for Mido- was to rear its head again. In 2006 the tournament was staged in Egypt, and Mido was never going to miss it. "Of course I had to go, it was my duty to be there," he says. "The problem lies in the timing. Africa has to find a different time to play the competition. You can’t have such a massive international tournament in the middle of the European season."

Come the semi-finals, Mido must have wished he hadn’t gone. "What happened has been exaggerated by the media," he insists. "The thing got bigger and bigger with every story that appeared. It was said here in England that I insulted the manager, which is not true. In the heat of the moment I was angry and I asked him why he was taking me off, but the manager has said publicly, ‘Mido didn’t use any bad words to me’, and everything is fine between us now. I never want, or set out, to cause problems."

Still, Mido will find sympathy hard to come by because he has proved himself a bridge-burner par excellence during a career pockmarked by rows and rifts. After disputes with Ronald Koeman, Marco Tardelli and Alain Perrin, his previous managers for club and country, the self-styled "Big Man" was a pitiful figure when he vented his fury at Hassan Shehata in the wake of his substitution in that infamous semi-final against Senegal. "Why are you taking me off?" Mido asked amid hammy shrugs to a backbeat of 74,000 fans shouting "Mido Out!" When Shehata said that it was because he was the coach, Mido replied: "You are nothing but a donkey!" Stung by the reaction with the scores tied and 11 minutes left in the semi-final, Shehata countered: "No, it is you who is the donkey." The pair came close to blows.

As the donkey dispute festered, Amr Zaki, who had replaced Mido, headed the winner with his first touch, pushing Mido aside as the striker tried to join in the celebrations and running to the dugout, where he hugged Shehata. Mido calmed down sufficiently after the game to ring a football show on an Egyptian satellite channel to say sorry. "I apologise to the Egyptian people and to Hassan Shehata," he said. "We have to think about the final and not individuals." But the Egyptian FA wasted little time in banning Mido. Shehata said that Mido’s actions had been irresponsible and shocking, although it is hard to be too shocked, given that Mido’s status as Egypt’s first football superstar had long been tainted by irresponsibility. Mido was in exile for six months, and hasn't played regularly for his country since.

The next question is a follow-up that always follows Mido around: Doesn't he seem to play better for his clubs in Europe than for Egypt? Mido consistently and emphatically denies the charge. In 2004, he said he had turned down a massive bonus from Marseille to stay with the team and skip the Africa Cup of Nations, and rejected Tottenham's offer of £400,000 to skip the same competition. But some people remain sceptical; claiming he plays better in Europe because he makes tons more money overseas. Others say he's worried about injury while playing for Egypt. He doesn't gel with the national team players, it is often said, because he doesn't play with them that often. His Egyptian teammates are jealous of his fame and fortune, some believe, and as such, don't give him the ball as often as should be. He vehemently denies it all. "I always give 100 per cent whenever I play for Egypt." But does the 100 per cent always show? Is he satisfied with his performance with the national team? "I know I can play better but I do give all-out effort."

The man they call the 'Prince of the Nile' at home believes in his own propaganda. He seems comfortable in the role of national hero, and looks the part too. A head taller than most of his compatriots at 6ft 2in, lean and muscular, he would stand out in a Cairo crowd even if he were not the most famous Egyptian since Omar Sharif. And yet, in conversation, he is so utterly normal. He does talk a little about being a Muslim, about how apolitical he is and how he has good friends who are Christians or Jews - and even Americans. But what soon becomes apparent is that he differs little from any other professional player in the sense that he is almost completely without interest in the world beyond football. Born into a middle-class family in Cairo (his father was also a professional player who later owned a travel agency), he spent his childhood bunking classes and playing football for money on the streets. Were people just as bonkers about football in Egypt as they were everywhere else?

"They are like the English people, who are crazy about football,' he says in English far better than one would expect from someone who claims to have had little formal education. 'When I watch the Premier League I feel the fans are almost playing with the players on the pitch. It's the best football atmosphere in the world." Though he has played in several European countries, Mido has suffered abuse from fans in just one of them: Britain. From a small section of the Southampton and West Ham United crowds, and twice from Newcastle supporters, he was subjected to Islamophobic fan abuse. The Football Association said it was "disappointed" a Newcastle fan who subjected Mido to racist abuse had escaped a court banning order. Mido directed his anger at an FA investigation, believing that it would make no difference. "It's up to them [the FA]. But you have to know what that Newcastle fan was saying. It was terrible, but you know what? His punishment was a £260 fine. That's it. You know, one of the worst things is to have your religion abused like that, very degrading. And because the punishment was so mild, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if I suffer the same abuse again."

Mido is certainly entitled to be received in good faith, argues McGrath, by those West Ham fans who once required their manager at the time, Alan Pardew, to apologise to Mido for those xenophobic chanting, back in his Tottenham days. For here, on the face of it, is a bloke who just wants to play football – at any price. "It is important to have fun in football," Mido said. "Football is my hobby and I love playing but it is not only about scoring goals, it is also about enjoying yourself and being happy. It is a better life for playing football here and I now know how to live by the rules of the place. When I arrived in England I found it difficult when they were saying 'Mido is a bad boy and a troublemaker'. That is not true. I have already been in English football and hopefully people will see I am a normal guy who wants to do his best."

Which leaves the question: If he is not difficult to work with, how come he has had so many clubs? "It’s true that it’s time I settled somewhere," he admits, "but there are good reasons why I’ve had so many moves. I can think of a lot of players who have had a lot of clubs and who aren’t the sort to cause problems. It’s not only troublemakers who have to move on, sometimes it can just be the way your career goes. They have always been unfair on me whenever I arrive at a new club. People try to make fake stories about me."

Having married very young (albeit typically against the advice of his parents) Mido's perspective has been radically changed by the birth of his son, Ali. In recent interviews he has talked about putting his chequered past behind him and growing up. "I am now a father and want him to be proud of me," he said. "When you have a child it does change your life. I have more responsibility. Before I was living for myself and now I am living for my family."

By all accounts Mido is looking pretty trim at the moment. And to that extent, says McGrath, the Premier League could hardly have made a more vivid expression of its new, belt-tightening culture. For Mido's contract, like some smeared, improvised putty, sealed the transfer window that allowed an icy new draught into the game. For it is reckless wages, as much as transfer fees, that have opened the abyss for clubs like Portsmouth. Smaller clubs, of course, get far less slack than Manchester United or Liverpool. But it is the monstrous debts vested in the big "brands" that set the going rate for everyone, both in fees and wages.

This was the transfer window when clubs accepted they need to stop borrowing money, and start borrowing players instead. They must be kicking themselves at Pompey, to see relegation rivals paying a striker £52,000 p.a. But it is not as if the skewed economics of football are suddenly going to be corrected by Mido. After all, the house of cards is ultimately held together not by the players, or the clubs, but by you and me. Fans profess revulsion for "obscene" wages, but are prepared to fork out commensurate sums for replica shirts or satellite subscriptions. Moreover, thinks McGrath, we take unmistakable relish in our relationship with these undeserving millionaires. They do not "earn" their money in any way a nurse or teacher might comprehend. It helps, then, if Ashley Cole swerves off the road in disgust, yelping "55K!" It helps, come to that, if John Terry leaves his Bentley in a disabled parking zone, or indeed parks other things in places they don't belong.

Imagine if everybody were made to accept the reality that many elite footballers are pleasant, decent family men. Mido may not have made too many friends in the game, so far, but that makes him the ideal author of a heroic gesture like this, writes McGrath. For we have made a Mephistophelian pact with football. For all its moral imperfections, our infatuation is helpless. And that, it is only fair to recognise, must be no less true of Mido himself. If the African can finally shed his negative image at Upton Park and fulfil his undoubted potential, West Ham will have pulled off quite a coup. At the very least, with Mido as a role model, little Ali should be adept at ridding his pram of unwanted toys.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Amazing read mate, absolutely oustanding! I truly believe Mido will become a true hammers cult hero.

Ratz said...

Wow, just read every last word of that. Utterly brilliant. I think I now know more about Mido than I do about my own girlfriend. Scary.

Anonymous said...

Thanks!

Robin said...

words can't express how good some of your stuff is. You do know you will have to do something similar for Benni and Ilan now though ;)

Lenny said...

Mido is a bootlicker. He's going to be as selfish, lazy and shite for you as he has been for everybody else. Enjoy your relegation boys.

Anonymous said...

What's the betting Zola puts him out on the left wing :). That'll be the start of another grumpy period for Mido.

Good read though, thoroughly enjoyed it.

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