The Rise and Fall of Mido, the Man Who Out-Gunned Zlatan
Fifteen years ago, Ajax were blessed with two brilliant young talents. In a 20-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they had a tantalising prospect; in Ahmed Hossam Hussein Abdelhami – Mido for short – they had an even better one.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
A lot can happen in football in 15 years. Back in 2001, Peter Ridsdale's Leeds United were stuffing their gluttonous chops at England's top table, Newcastle were sailing towards the Champions League places, and Kevin Phillips was the proud owner of the European Golden Boot.
Over in the Netherlands, meanwhile, a young Ajax striker named Zlatan Ibrahimovic was busy making a name for himself at the high end of European football. But he wasn't the Dutch side's only combustible young centre-forward of whom great things were expected. The other guy, in fact, was two years younger than Zlatan and banging in the goals at twice the rate. In a 20-year-old Zlatan, Ajax had a tantalising prospect; in Ahmed Hossam Hussein Abdelhami – Mido for short – they had an even better one.
A child prodigy, Mido left home for Belgium when he was 16. Within three years he was the most famous Egyptian on the planet. In true superstar tradition, he was not shy of nurturing his showbiz status: during his time at Gent, his relationship with Miss Belgium provided enough Posh-and-Becks-type fodder for two countries' tabloids; aged 20, his wedding was broadcast live on Egyptian TV, drawing in some of the year's biggest viewing figures.
"In Egypt he is treated like a God," said Ronald Koeman, then manager of Ajax, about a 19-year-old Mido after his side played a friendly in Cairo. Their striker was mobbed wherever he went – and for a time Mido's status was matched by his promise. "Everyone is impressed with him. The scouts, the technical staff, everyone who has seen him play thinks he is a great talent," said the club's technical director, Leo Beenhakker.
Both Mido and Ibrahimovic were playing their debut campaigns for Ajax in 2001/02 and both won the first major trophies of their career with that season's league and cup double – but their contributions were rather different. Ibrahimovic may have since made a habit of pulling his sides to league wins by their bootstraps, but that year his form fell away badly and he managed just one goal after mid-December. Mido, on the other hand, timed his purple patch to perfection, putting away 10 goals in the season's final nine games to keep Ibrahimovic confined to the bench and to see his club crowned champions with a game to spare. It earned him the moniker of the 'King of Cairo' among the Ajax faithful.
Back in Egypt, adulation levels were cranked up to 11. "Mido is what the Arab street is thinking about. Mido is the word on Arab men's and women's lips. He is for Egyptians what Maradona was for the Argentines – maybe more," read a 2003 profile in the Guardian.
Along with the mercurial winger Andy van der Meyde, Mido and Ibrahimovic formed a roguish friendship group: a trio of prodigious rebels with the world at their feet. The Dutchman tells tales of the three going out drag racing on the outskirts of Amsterdam ("Zlatan had a Mercedes, Mido alternated between a Ferrari and a BMW Z"), and the two centre-forwards seemed fully intent on enjoying all the frills their profession had to offer.
Most of the time, they got on like a house on fire. When they didn't it wasn't pretty: in the dressing room after one game Mido threw a pair of scissors at his strike partner, a crime for which he was banished to the reserves. "I went over and gave him a smack, but 10 minutes later we left with our arms around each other," Ibrahimovic wrote in his autobiography. "Much later I discovered our team manager had kept those scissors as a souvenir, to show his kids."
As well as a knack for the disorderly, the two shared a happy fondness for their own mythology, ever willing to feed the pressmen a knowing soundbite. Mido's retort to being asked how his wife was settling in Holland – "Of course she is happy. She is with me. How could she not be happy?" – was more than a touch Zlatanesque. The egos had landed alright, and they were doing donuts on the runway.
But as similar as the two were in persona, all boisterousness and bravura, their backgrounds could hardly have been more different. Mido was born into a hugely wealthy Cairo family, his business executive father funding his way through private sports college. Ibrahimovic's route to the top started in the Malmo ghetto of Rosengard. "Beer tins, Yugo music, empty fridges and the Balkan war, that's what we had at home," he later wrote.
One rich kid, one poor kid, both uber-talented anti-authoritarians – and for a short time it looked like the two would go on to dominate European football for years to come.
But while one striker has since managed exactly that, channelling his unruly streak and glorious self-regard into a glittering career, the other has let the same qualities lead him down a rather different path. Ibrahimovic's post-Ajax career has encompassed 330 goals, six more European superclubs and 16 major trophies; Mido's decade comprised 49 goals, one loan spell at Barnsley and a misfiring strike partnership with Carlton Cole. The former is currently making a stellar start to life in the most high-profile league in the world; the latter already three years into retirement.
Mido lasted two seasons at Ajax, his scissor-bearing tantrum the final straw for an increasingly exasperated Koeman. There followed fleeting spells at Celta Vigo, Marseille (where he formed another short-lived partnership with another modern great on the rise in Didier Drogba) and Roma, before two and a half seasons at Spurs, where under the paternal presence of Martin Jol he came as close to settling down as he ever did. After that he embarked on half a decade of solid journeymanship around England's less glamourous leagues, as well as two loan stints back in Egypt, before retiring, bloated and injury-ravaged, aged only 30.
His latter-years CV – Middlesbrough, West Ham, Wigan, Barnsley – reads as a whistle-stop tour of ever-more windswept and sparsely attended grounds, more Kevin Kyle than King of Cairo, and after leaving Spurs he never managed more than four goals in a season. Fitness issues and whispers of a rotten attitude pursued him wherever he went, and his international career especially was marked by an ongoing cycle of fall-outs, semi-redemptive comebacks and further fallouts.
Ibrahimovic is of course no stranger to lashing out at authority, but while his medals from his Ajax days are now buried at the bottom of an ever taller pile, Mido's own collection was only ever added to twice in the years since – and both times in bittersweet circumstances.
In 2006, his Egypt side reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, holding their nerve against the Ivory Coast in the shoot-out to win their first tournament in a decade, and on home soil. It should have been the high point of Mido's career – perhaps it was – but he was watching from the stands as punishment for squaring up to his coach, Hassan Shehata, on the touchline after being subbed off in the semi-final. "If I had stayed on I would have scored. I am sorry for the fans but I am not sorry for Shehata," were his immediate thoughts on the matter. A slightly more heartfelt apology the day before the final was enough to salvage him a spot in the stadium, but not on the pitch.
In 2010 came another odd sort of triumph. With his time at Middlesbrough having turned sour and none of his various loan employees willing to take him on permanently, his old Spurs coach Jol, in a faintly remarkable show of faith, took him back to Ajax on a season-long deal. After weeks of injury problems, two goals in five appearances off the bench eventually earned Mido his first start – and he promptly scored to give his side the lead, but the eventual result, a 1-1 draw against Nijmegen, was enough to force Jol to resign. Mido's dressing-room ally was history, Frank de Boer took over until the end of the season, and the striker was out of the club within a fortnight.
In the event, De Boer turned the season around rather spectacularly and Ajax went on to win the league by two points: a margin that Mido's two league goals had helped enable. But he was long gone by the time the open-top bus tours came around, mired in another doomed loan spell back in Egypt.
Three years later, as Mido bit the bullet of retirement, his old buddy Ibrahimovic was just getting going in France, his 30 goals having fired PSG to their first title in two decades. Another three years on, he might just repeat the trick in England. Mido, meanwhile, was last spotted shaving his head on Egyptian TV having lost a wager on Leicester's league win.
On the face of it, it's tempting to read the pair as two sides of the same coin: two talented mavericks, each story proof, in its own way, of the importance of drive, dedication and reform. And yet to see the two as a sliding-doors version of the other's career would be a wild simplification.
For Ibrahimovic, popularity has been a by-product of success – and a fairly belated one at that. He has long been his country's finest ever footballer but it wasn't until well into his career that the child of Balkan immigrants won the Jerring Prize, the award for the country's most popular sportsperson. "I understood it as a sign that I was truly accepted, not just as a footballer, but as a person," he wrote. For Mido, fame was foisted upon him in his teens – essentially in exchange for potential rather than achievement – and he was a national hero before he'd hit escaped adolescence; acceptance and identity were never an issue.
So perhaps it's not so odd that one spent his career proving an emphatic point to the world, while the other saw his craving for success sated rather earlier. While Ibrahimovic has maintained his warrior-like frame and unquenchable thirst for trophies, Mido waved goodbye to his sportsman's physique long ago and now, at 33, looks set for a career as a TV personality.
Their lives may have spun out a tad differently, but the pair's friendship has endured. "Ibrahimovic is great," said Mido when asked about his old pal in 2014. "Not moody at all, the nicest person you'll ever meet in your life. I spoke to him last week."
And as easy as it is to read Mido's tale of as one of self-destructive fractiousness and squandered potential, being Egypt's first globally famous footballer was in itself no mean feat. His own career may not have burnt brightly for long but his cultural influence is still searing away. "He has changed the mentality of families here," said Mahmoud Gouhary, one of his first coaches, back in 2005. "Previously, education was always above football. Now parents say, 'I want my kid to be like Mido'".