If it weren’t for the outbreak of COVID-19, the summer of 2020 would have had everything in store for sports fans all over the world. In Europe, national football teams were expected to compete for the European title. In France, the yellow jersey was once again waiting at the end of the Champs-Élysée for the Tour de France winner. And last but not least, in the Japanese capital Tokyo everything was set after years of preparation to host athletes and fans from all over the world at the 2020 Summer Olympics. Instead of watching, let’s say, the men’s 100m breaststroke qualifiers, I decided to take a dive into the entangled history of Belgian-Egyptian relations myself from the perspective of sports.
An event which immediately caught the eye are the Antwerp Olympics of 1920. Both Belgium at large as well as the city itself were granted the organisation of the event by the international community to showcase its resilience after four long years of war. For the fifth time since the resurrection of the Olympic tradition, an association football competition was organised alongside traditional Olympic events such as wrestling, athletics and weightlifting. While this tournament is mostly remembered in Belgium because of the gold medal the national football team won, the competition also deserves to be commemorated for a whole other reason. Whereas the past football tournaments had been privileged for European teams, for the first time a non-European team took part. This remarkable honour went to the Egyptian football team, nowadays nicknamed 'The Pharaohs'.
In the era of the British ‘Veiled Protectorate’ over the country between 1882 and 1914, football had been introduced to the Egyptians by the British occupying force and quickly the sport gained ground. In 1907 the famous Cairo team al-Ahly Sporting Club was established within an atmosphere of anti-colonialist student culture. Four years later, the elitist Zamalek Sporting Club, al-Ahly’s nemesis until today, was founded by Belgian lawyer of Polish descent Georges Merzbach.
Another important moment in the early history of Egyptian football was marked when Hussein Hegazi, an Egyptian engineering student at London’s UCL, joined Dulwich Hamlet F.C in 1911. Hegazi immediately made a lasting impression. Even Fulham FC, playing in the second division of the Football League, asked him to join their ranks for the game against Stockport County. Hegazi did not disappoint and scored his first goal at Craven Cottage within 15 minutes. All was set for a successful career at Fulham, but Hegazi did not want to let down the club that allowed him to start his career. He returned to Dulwich Hamlet and remained at the club until the outbreak of the war. Hegazi was able to flee Europe just in time and the next years he went to play in the Egyptian league for Cairo’s al-Sikka al-Hadid Sporting Club.
Hossein Hegazi (back row, third to the right from centre) with the Dulwich Hamlet team in 1912. © The Forgotten Story of Hussein Hegazi: the Dulwich Hamlet FC Striker Who Became ‘The Father of Egyptian Football’, Southwark News, October 14, 2015
Despite the popularity of club football in Egypt and Hegazi’s success already before the First World War, an Egyptian national selection was only made at the occasion of the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. Since the Egyptian football association was only founded one year later in 1921, this team was a selection of Egypt’s best players rather than an official national team. When the Egyptian team, coached and captained by Hegazi, entered the Jules Ottenstadion in Ghent for their first game, their line-up nevertheless included all stars of Egyptian football. Egypt’s first international football game was however not a success. Egypt lost the match against Italy on August 28, 1920 in a 2-1 defeat which was the end of the official part of their Olympic football adventure.
The Egyptian team at the Antwerp Olympic Summer Games of 1920. © Twitter. @TeamWorldBlog
Standing (right to left): Hassan Ali Allouba - Syed Abaza - Zaki Othman - Muhammad Subhi al-Atribi - Ali al-Hasani - Ahmed Muhammad Hassanein - Hussein Hegazy - Riad Shawky - Jamil Othman - Mahmoud Mukhtar Saqr
Seated (right to left): Abd al-Salam Hamdi - Kamel Taha - Muhammad al-Sayed.
Notwithstanding the disappointing result, the Egyptian team left a lasting impression. Local Belgian newspaper De Standaard deemed the Egyptian team to have been technically superior over their Italian opponents. The match report stated that it was “because of their courage Italy had been able to defeat the Egyptian team.”. Apparently, luck had not been on the side of Egypt either. De Nieuwe Gazet mentioned for example that Italy had only been able to score the opening goal thanks to a strange coincidence. At the 23rd minute, a free kick attempt by Lovati reached Italy’s right winger Balonciere who faintly chipped the ball towards the Egyptian goal. Egypt’s goalkeeper Kamel Taha saved the attempt, but the ball deflected from the crossbar and with a strange effect the ball spun into the back of the net. Before the mid-time break, Ali al-Hasani (other reports mention Zaki Osman) was able to equalize with a rebound goal following an attempt of Sayed Abaza. Early in the second half Italy quickly scored their second goal. Despite a last-minute chance for Tewfik Abdullah which showcased the “scientific superiority” of the Egyptians, they failed to score another equalizer. Egypt’s fate was sealed in front of an audience of more than 6000 attendees.
While it may seem that Egypt’s participation at the Olympic football tournament was an overall disappointment, the Egyptian national football team did not leave Belgium without any success. On Monday August 30, 1920 they played a first friendly game against a selection of “Antwerp’s best”. Since Antwerp’s most talented players were in fact called up to play for the Belgian team, this ad-hoc assembled team mostly included players of the city’s Beerschot VAC and Antwerp FC. One of their most noteworthy players was Pierre Braine. The young striker would later become Belgium’s best football player of the interwar period. Overcoming an early goal by Braine in the first half, the Egyptian team secured its first ever abroad win against the Antwerp selection. Mostly thanks to a hattrick by their forward Sayed Abaza, Egypt ended the game 4-2 in their advantage.
Match report (in Dutch) of the Egypt-"Antwerp" game of August 30, 1920.
© De Schelde, September 1, 1920, p. 3.
While the match against the local Antwerp selection can hardly be seen as Egypt’s first true international game, a friendly face-off against the Yugoslav national team of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on September 3, 1920 did have an international character worthy of the name. Although Egypt’s 4-2 win over the Yugoslavs was not officially recognised as part of the Olympic tournament, it still deserves to be mentioned as Egypt’s first international victory. Especially Al Ahly's striker El-Sayed Fahmi Abaza showed his potential scoring two goals, but due to its unofficial character the match was quickly forgotten in Belgium.
From the perspective of the modern history of sport in Egypt, one must remember that the Egyptian football team at the Antwerp 1920 Summer Olympics did not simply lose their opening game against Italy and then returned back home. The Egyptian squad proved they had rightfully been allowed to participate as the first ever team of the African continent at the Olympic football tournament. Their skillful and technically gifted team amazed the audiences in the stands of the Ghent Jules Ottenstadium and the Olympic Stadium in Beerschot.
Some of the Egyptian players later continued their careers in Europe. Tewfik Abdullah for example joined English club Derby County, one of the original twelve founding members of the Football League in 1888. Alongside Hussein Hegazi, he was later regarded as one of the pioneers in the early history of Egyptian football. One could even say that the two of them set an example for other Egyptian players following in their footsteps, such as Liverpool striker and Egypt’s all time legend Mohammed Salah. Who would have thought this rich history of Egypt’s 'Pharaohs' started on some Belgian pitches in the summer of 1920?
Al Ahly and Egypt forward El-Sayed Fahmi Abaza
© Modern Egypt Database - Bib Alex
Gert Huskens - firstname.lastname@example.org
De Standaard, August 30, 1920, p. 2 (via https://uurl.kbr.be/1451251).
De Nieuwe Gazet, August 30, 1920, p. 4 (https://uurl.kbr.be/1579666).
Het Handelsblad, August 29, 1920, p. 4 (https://uurl.kbr.be/1111533).
De Schelde, September 1, 1920, p. 3 (https://uurl.kbr.be/1408890).
McInroy, Jack. Hussein Hegazi: Dulwich Hamlet’s Egyptian King. 2020.
Harris, Nick. The Foreign Revolution: How Overseas Footballers Changed the English Game. London: Aurum, 2006.