Before the first world war, Dulwich became home to a North African trailblazer.
The legend goes that Hussein Hegazi, born into an aristocratic Egyptian family in 1891, developed his footballing skills at great trouble and expense to those around him. Indulged by his father as a child, he would roam the streets of his childhood village in Egypt’s Sharqia province, sending footballs hurtling through the air toward earthenware vases borne on the heads of passing peasant women. His father would pick up the bill; his mother would smooth over the offence; and out of the shattered pottery and Egyptian imprecations emerged the first African footballer to play in England.
Hegazi was a natural athlete, winning a number of national middle-distance medals before moving to London in 1911 to study engineering at University College London. Though quick, he was physically slight, and at noticeably under six feet he presented a marked contrast to the typical English centre-forward of the time. His football was cerebral rather than physical; he was “wise as a serpent”, according to Al-Ahram Weekly, who ascribe his success to a “footballing intellect that put him one step ahead of many other players”. Others had little truck with such highfalutin talk, and simply labelled him a magician.
On his arrival in England, he filled the time between his studies by turning out in the famous pink-and-blue quarters of famous south London amateurs Dulwich Hamlet, one of the earliest members of the Isthmian league. Making his debut on 2 September 1911, Hegazi’s unconventional style immediately brought him goals, and he gained first notice, then plaudits, then a not-exactly-Egyptian-but-never-mind-that nickname “Nebuchadnezzar”. Such was his impact that just one month later, Hegazi was invited to represent Fulham against Stockport County in the embryonic Second Division of the Football League.
Given a warm welcome from the Fulham crowd, Hegazi quickly repaid the favour, scoring the opening goal on the quarter-hour. Despite tiring later in the game, he was praised by the local press for his touch, distribution, and vision, and his debut was declared a success. But when Fulham selected him for their next game – an away tie against Leeds City – he declined the invitation, electing to remain at Champion Hill and continue his amateur career with Dulwich.
Jack McInroy, Dulwich blogger and historian, has concluded that Hegazi’s decision was motivated by a simple respect for and loyalty to the mighty Hamlet; while he certainly wanted to play League football, continuing to appear for Fulham would mean he was ineligible for Dulwich, and he didn’t want to let his teammates down. Lorraine “Pa” Wilson, founder and owner of the Hamlet, pronounced Hegazi “As honourable a man as ever stepped onto a football field”, a compliment that presumably sounded less backhanded in 1911.
In all, Hegazi stayed with Dulwich for three seasons, and while he didn’t win any trophies he starred on a number of continental tours – including a famous 2-1 win over Ajax Amsterdam – and also found time to collect a Cambridge Blue and make two guest appearances for Millwall. Perhaps most pleasingly, however, he was immortalised in verse:
Egypt of course, has a magical history
Look at her Pyramids - likewise her Sphinx!
Think of her scarabs, wrapt simply in mystery -
Sort of a mystical beetle, methinks
Here’s where he bought (they’re enchanted) his boots
Hussein’s a terror whenever he shoots
His international career was, appropriately enough for a dedicated amateur, dominated by two Olympic tournaments. In 1920 he scored the second goal in a 4-2 defeat of Yugoslavia that secured 8th place for the Pharaohs. (The tournament was organised under the frankly baffling Bergvall system; if anyone can explain it, please get in touch.) And he scored again four years later as Egypt shocked Hungary 3-0 in the second round (this time, mercifully, a straight knock-out), before shipping an unanswered five in the quarter-final to the eventual bronze-medallists Sweden. A subsequent European tour was less than successful, a 10-0 crushing of Lithuania little consolation for a 3-1 loss to Hugo Meisl’s Austria, and another five-star tonking at the feet of the remorseless Swedes.
Hegazi had returned to Cairo some ten years earlier, a beat ahead of the impending war. After one season with Sekka – the oldest club in Egypt, formed by expatriate railway workers – he moved to Al-Ahly, Egypt’s first truly Egyptian club. Founded in 1907 by nationalist agitators and kitted out in the red of the pre-occupation flag, Al-Ahly were the club of the patriots and workers of Cairo; Hegazi, the returning superstar, was their captain. They weren’t yet the dominant force in domestic football, but they were fiercely proud in a city that still had British soldiers on the streets, and so found natural rivals in Zamalek, who emerged in 1911 from Cairo’s expatriate community and were strongly associated with the continued colonial presence.
There is some uncertainty over the dates, but what is not in question is that between 1915 and his retirement in 1931, Hegazi apparently tired of the loyalty that had characterised his days in England and defected from Al-Ahly to Zamalek, from Zamalek back to Al-Ahly, and then finally back to Zamalek again: two stints at each club; plenty of silverware along the way. While the rivalry was not then what it is now, it has been suggested that his shifting allegiances may have exacerbated the natural early antipathy and so contributed to the Cairo derby gaining a reputation as one of the most passionately violent and violently passionate in the world. Anecdotal evidence describes fans following Hegazi back and forth across the city, both clubs competing for his patronage.
Hegazi retired in 1931 and died 27 years later, having spent his career as a celebrity in Egypt and a modest trailblazer in England. However, he wasn’t quite finished with the people of Cairo: from 2007 onwards, Hussein Hegazy Street, home to the Egyptian Cabinet building, saw a number of increasingly acrimonious protests against the regime of President Mubarak. And in what might prove to be the first tentative steps toward a rapprochement between the two clubs that Hegazi helped divide, this year’s revolution saw Al-Ahly Ultras take to the streets alongside their Zamalek counterparts just a few streets north of Hegazi’s memorial, to depose a government, shoulder-to-shoulder in Tahrir Square.
Kudos and gratitude to Jack McInroy, the Hamlet Historian.