ONE name among all of the possible arrivals in the East End of Glasgow particularly caught my eye last week.
And no, it wasn’t Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher, the rumoured target of a £6 million bid, even if it would bring yet another formerly bright young thing from Easter Road to Celtic Park.
Instead, the name that made me pause for thought was Mahmoud Hassan of Cairo club Al-Ahly. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the name, he’s the 19-year-old Egyptian known to his countrymen as “Trezeguet” for his physical resemblance to the French legend. He’s also noteworthy in that he’s a player who is happy to be up front about his desire to move to Celtic. Where Fletcher et al wisely flash “no comments” and avoid Twitter for a few weeks, Hassan has been telling anyone who will listen that it would be “a dream” to join Celtic and be in a position to feature in next season’s Champions League. “I am confident I could be a success there,” he said. “To play in the Champions League is a dream – but a dream I’d like to make a reality.”
Celtic are reported to have had a £420,000 offer turned down, but Hassan has handed in a transfer request to try to force his club’s hand. Given what Hassan has witnessed since the beginning of the Arab Spring – a suspension of domestic football and no pay being the least of troubles for Egypt’s footballers – it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s so keen to leave. He may also be surprisingly well-suited to life in the goldfish bowl that is Glasgow football. And, make no mistake, if Celtic’s interest is consummated and the lanky striker ends up in Scotland, they will have made an investment in promise rather than buying a finished article.
The Egyptian may currently be at the club ranked as the best in Africa, but he has only played for them seven times and has so far failed to score a goal, although he did his reputation no harm at last year’s under-20 World Championships when his superb solo goal opened the scoring as Egypt beat England 2-0.
Yet more even than the fact that his superb close control and relentless workrate will appeal to many fans (even if his spindly frame doesn’t) his story is one that will make him an instant light for the moths of the Green Brigade and Celtic’s ultras. In football terms there are some uncanny similarities between Cairo and Glasgow although, while the Egyptian capital’s fanatical football allegiances are split along political rather than ethnic or religious lines, its history of communal strife has created a culture that would be instantly recognisable to any Glaswegian.
In fact, according to Simon Kuper, the rivalry between the two behemoths of Egyptian football – Hassan’s club Al-Ahly and their bitter rivals Zamalek, the first and second biggest clubs in Africa by every measure – eclipses that of the Old Firm by some measure. Indeed, when Kuper, the author of Football Against the Enemy, the groundbreaking first book to chart how society influenced football and vice versa, compared the two while studying the most highly-charged derbies in world football, he concluded that the “faux-sectarian huffing and puffing” of Glasgow’s now-postponed bunfights paled into insignificance when compared to the genuine political and social significance of the Cairo derby.
It’s true that there are many striking superficial similarities. For a start, Al-Ahly’s arch-rivals Zamalek were monarchists known as “the King’s club” for their British sympathies during the period before and after independence. Al-Ahly, by contrast, still styles itself as “the people’s club”, founded in 1907 by poor students opposed to British rule who then staged the 1919 revolution which gained independence. Nationalist to the core, Al-Ahly’s presidents have included that great pan-Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser. With a following of 50 million across the Arab world, Al-Ahly is seen as a beacon of anti-colonialism.
For more than 100 years, the rivalry between the red-clad supporters of Al-Ahly and white-festooned Zamalek fans has been the political crucible of Cairo and therefore Egypt. Nor does that show any sign of changing. The street rebellion that ousted Hosni Mubarak, for instance, was started and led by Al-Ahly Ultras, while the club was symbolically targeted for a vicious backlash from Mubarak supporters, who dressed as Al-Masry fans for the visit of the Cairo club to Port Said and then, with the floodlights suddenly switched off and the gates locked, stabbed and hacked 74 Al-Ahly fans to death on the terraces.
While the Cairo derby retains a political significance which seems to now elude Tricolour-wearing and Union flag-waving Old Firm fans in referendum year, there are also differences on the park. Al-Ahly and Zamalek, for instance, have not just been utterly unstoppable domestically, they have also dominated the CAF Champions League competitions – the African equivalent of the European original – Al-Ahly winning five of the last nine finals, with Zamalek the second most successful CAF Champions League team.
Nevertheless, if the Egyptian Trezeguet does get his way and force a move to Parkhead, he will at least recognise the passion when the two halves of the Old Firm start colliding once again. After all, the official capacity for Al-Ahly’s all-seated Cairo International Stadium is 75,000 but, for the seething, raucous city derbies against Zamalek, the crowd has often exceeded 100,000 and it was in one such match that Hassan made his league debut. If a wee boy of 17 can survive and then thrive in such circumstances, there’s little chance of him being fazed by the small matter of the Parkhead roar and the eventual resumption of hostilities with the old foe.
• I BOW to no man when it comes to my admiration for John Jeffrey, but why did the great man feel the need to make himself a hostage to fortune by announcing that anything less than a top-three finish in the forthcoming Six Nations would be unacceptable?
Just as the high heid yins at Murrayfield were misguided to announce in 2012 that Scotland would win the 2015 World Cup and would top the Six Nations by 2016, so the constant setting of meaningless targets (or should that be “aspirations”?) in Scottish rugby over the past ten years is beginning to wear thin, especially when sacking the coach following a poor Six Nations is not an option.
Instead, why don’t we just see if we can try and win every game and let the dice fall where they will?