Monday, 17 August 2015

Amr Zaki - A Cautionary Tale

If you look hard enough, football will offer an insight into life - despite it looking and feeling like another reality altogether at times. This is a tale of why perhaps, we should be judging footballers as humans, not highly-greased machines here to do a job (okay, they ARE highly greased and here to do a job, but they aren’t machines). It’s a tale of why we shouldn’t perhaps treat them as heroes or saviours – we should treat them as you would any other ‘normal’ person.

On 22nd July 2008, Wigan Athletic confirmed the signing of Egyptian International Amr Zaki. At this time, Zaki (or technically, Zaky) was the highest-rated striker in the world by FIFA, due to his goals-to-games ratio and various other stats. At one point the deal looked in doubt, the saga went on for a couple of weeks before finally, Steve Bruce landed his man. Doubts amongst supporters still remained though, due in small part to the club shelling out a couple of million for fellow highly-rated-at-the-time African prospect Julius Aghahowa, who didn’t score a single goal. Would Zaki be another foreign player who wouldn’t offer much before leaving with his credit card fattened up? If so, he was only on loan – the only clause being a £1 million payment to his club if he scored 10 goals in the Premier League.

The doubts were quickly banished as his first-time volley from inside the area halved the deficit on the opening day at West Ham - he was magnificent. Truly magnificent. Technically superb, strong, good in the air, passionate and most of all – a goalscorer. He was an immediate hit with supporters, some of whom even took to wearing a fez in tribute and stooping as low as sauntering into the JJB five minutes after kick-off just so cameras could pick them up. Sports shops in the area even ran out of Z's for printing on the back of shirts, which Zaki himself thought was amusing. I will never forget his performance in a 2-1 win over Man City (who had just been taken over by the investors from the Middle East) as he lived up to his nickname (The Bulldozer) as he ran everywhere and constantly pressed and harried the City defence. He would slot a penalty past Joe Hart in that game, which turned out to be the winning goal and at the end of the match he continued to run around, applauding each stand as ‘ZAKI ZAKI ZAKI’ rang out and many a fez slipped off in pure excitement. He was loved by the supporters and importantly for us, he loved us back. That's everything you want to see from your star striker. That and the goals, of course.

His goal rush would continue – the undoubted highlight being his two goals at Anfield. The first, showing an opportunist streak that any decent striker needs, as he robbed a dawdling Daniel Agger of the ball and calmly slotted it past Pepe Reina. The second – forget Wayne Rooney’s goal against Man City – THIS bicycle kick was better. He had to stoop down low and twist his body before connecting first time with Luis Antonio Valencia’s cross. It’s a goal that would be constantly shown everywhere, if scored by a player playing for one of the bigger clubs, as it is, it’s only shown in Egypt and Wigan. Sadly, the referee would win the game 3-2 in favour of Liverpool, or else those goals would have further cemented themselves into Wigan Athletic folklore.

His goals continued – press speculation linked him with Real Madrid and Liverpool, Latics supporters were worried about his availability, before understanding that his loan was for the entirety of the season, so he couldn’t be plucked away mid-season. He reached those 10 goals on the 28th December as his penalty gave Latics the 3 points at Bolton. As it happened – that was his last goal for the club. It soon emerged that Zaki was constantly late back from international duty and that off the field, he wasn’t exactly professional. The club signed fellow Egyptian, Mido, on loan from Middlesbrough partly to help with goals (he would score 2 in total) but I reckon, mostly to get his fellow countryman back on the straight and narrow (and not to mention giving the stadium an opportunity to play an EXTREMELY embarrassing snippet of the Bangles hit ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ when he scored the first of those two goals, a penalty, against Liverpool). Mido’s walking into the club didn’t work though and Zaki’s last appearance on a teamsheet was as a substitute at West Brom in the 3-1 defeat on the 9th May. The club sent him away, meaning he wasn’t to play a part in the remaining three games and handed him a (further) fine with Steve Bruce describing him as 'the most unprofessional player I ever worked with' and that Zaki ‘had already been fined considerably more than the average person in Britain earns in a year and he will now face another heavy fine’. During this period, the form of the club dipped too – winning only 3 of the last 10 games, drawing 1 and obviously losing the others. In fact, Zaki failed to turn up on time after international duty on FOUR occasions, so it was no surprise to see Bruce take his frustrations out so publicly. Interestingly, during this fourth and final episode, Mido also played for Egypt and managed to return in time just fine. Maybe he should have locked Zaki in his suitcase? Bruce sounded so exasperated towards the end; Zaki's constant lateness, the speculation about his future as well as his drying up of goals, got to the manager and the club, who I believe did everything they could and more to try and help the situation. It just wasn't to be.

After (officially) leaving Latics at the end of the season, Zaki returned to Egypt before another loan spell in England 8 months after he left Latics, this time at Hull City where he scored 0 goals in 6 league appearances. His biggest contribution being helping to break up the Jimmy Bullard-Nick Barmby fight in sight of the Humber Bridge and experienced women from the local WI. His loan spell was terminated in April and he returned to Egypt.

In the 5 years since then, he has signed for no less 6 different clubs, making just 17 appearances with them all, scoring 2 goals. On the 16th August 2015, Amr Zaki announced his retirement from football at the age of 32.

What went wrong then, for a player that had made such an impact in the ‘biggest league in the world’
and, if you believe the press, was being courted by Real Madrid and Liverpool? It’s fair to say that the recent political and social problems – not to mention the football leagues being suspended – didn’t much help Amr kick-start his career back in his homeland. However, with spells in Turkey, Kuwait, Morocco and Lebanon, the sympathy cord must be snapped at some point and you’ve got to ask if he wanted it as much as his early appearances for Latics showed. I refuse to believe that the change in climate saw his performances dip in England – there isn’t enough temperature difference to affect his performance, not if he managed and trained himself properly, anyway. Whether his career went downhill because of injury or personal problems, only Amr truly knows. What I DO know, from a Wigan point of view of course, is exactly what I thought when his loan spell ended – it’s a sad end to such a promising start. Perhaps if he managed to return from international duty and kept in regular contact, the club may have gave him another chance the next season and he may have kicked on from there. We haven’t had a striker like Amr since and it’s a case of what might have been, for the pair of us.

As football supporters, we all would like to believe that we would give more effort than the majority of football players if we had their talent, it may not be true in some cases, but in this case, I can safely say that I wish that I had just half of Amr Zaki’s talent, because I’d at least score goals for Latics in League One - and turn up on time. Bus times permitting.