To call Mohamed Aboutrika an Al-Ahly legend is an understatement. Fans of the Cairo side refer to him as an "angel," an "icon." Even journalists call him a "man of peace." They talk about his character and ethics, his humility, how he once refused a high wage because he thought it unfair to the journeyman defender with whom he shared a dressing room.
There is something fanatical about the devotion to this attacking midfielder, born in Giza, who has been winning trophies with Egypt's most successful club for nearly ten years.
It must have come as a shock for those fans, then, when Aboutrika, five times named Egyptian player of the year, was left out of the starting line-up for their FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012 opener against Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
"I know my role and I respect the tactics of my coach," he said, doing his best to avoid the throngs of Egyptian journalists, his head hidden away under his sweatshirt hood, his voice low and somber. "Whether I start on the bench or on the pitch, the team is one. I am just one part. We respect the decisions of our coach."
When Hossam Ghaly, a talented central midfielder and Al-Ahly's captain, pulled up with a knee injury midway through the first half, coach Hossam El Badry knew the kind of weapon he had in reserve. "Aboutrika is a great player," said the coach, who has not always had a smooth relationship with his 34-year-old star. "He's getting older, but he's getting wiser as well."
Reluctant hero emerges
With the game tangled at 1-1, and with Hiroshima on the ascendancy, substitute Aboutrika's cool distribution and foraging runs forward made the difference. And there was an air of inevitability when he scored the winner. He ducked into a good position on the edge of the box and collected a chipped-in ball, bumping his defender out of the way cleverly with his hip.
"That goal was important only because it helped Al-Ahly win the game," he told FIFA.com. "We all play as one and we all succeed as one. It is not about Aboutrika," the player added, almost apologetic about his exploits.
"My best wishes go to the great Hossam Ghaly also," he said, a nod to his injured captain, who will be out for up to six months with torn knee ligaments.
Humility aside, the goal was not only important for putting Al-Ahly into the semi-finals, where they will meet Brazilian giants Corinthians. It was also Aboutrika's fourth goal at a FIFA Club World Cup, putting him at the top of the all-time scorers' list, right next to one Lionel Messi.
"Individual titles are not important," he said, playing the role of selfless club man and icon. "What is important is for the team to win titles, to win trophies. I am happy to equal Messi's mark, but I succeed when the team succeeds."
A smile for the fans
When talk turns to Al-Ahly's fans, Aboutrika's voice goes quieter still. He scored his winning goal directly in front a giant banner hanging below a noisy bank of supporters, reading "79, never forget." It was a stark reminder of the 79 fans who died in the February 2012 tragedy in Port Said, following an Egyptian top-flight game between Al-Ahly and Al Masry.
"Our goal, and really the most important goal, is to spread happiness for the people in Egypt, especially for the families of those fans who died in Port Said," said Aboutrika, looking down at the ground. "We just want to bring them some small amount of joy, any joy, a smile."
Aboutrika decided to retire from professional football when those fans tragically met their end in the port city. He has since changed his mind, and his perspective on football, and its place in the order of what's important in life, has evolved. "The result isn't always the main goal, winning and losing," said Aboutrika, who is closing in on 100 caps for Egypt's national team.
But while Aboutrika does his level best to adhere to the fans' idealistic notions of him, he is still a footballer, and a footballer wants to win games. Up next is a test against one of the favourites of the competition, Corinthians of Sao Paulo. "We are not required to beat Corinthians, who are a big name in world football, but we must do our best," he said, suddenly a look of determination rather than supplication and humility.
"They are a big team, but we will make our arrangements and do our all to beat them," he concluded, before shaking hands and wading into a tide of Egyptian journalists, cameras balanced on shoulders, notepads in hand, eager for a word with this humble man of the hour.