Tuesday, 3 May 2011
Hussein Hegazi - “Wrapt Simply in Mystery”
When a twenty year old Egyptian joined Dulwich Hamlet Football Club in September 1911, little was he to realise how much of a controversy he would kick up in the space of a couple of months. Jack McInroy takes a look at the pre-First World War Hamlet sensation, Hussein Hegazi.
The game of Association Football was pioneered around the globe, in the latter third of the nineteenth century, by Englishmen stationed abroad throughout the Commonwealth. The British Empire was generally printed in a red tint on the maps of the time, so the world was pink and blue even then! Round stitched leather balls conveyed in the luggage of soldiers, sailors, labourers, businessmen, civil servants, and the like, were thus transported to all manner of foreign climes, where the exponents of ‘soccer’ taught the natives how to play the beautiful game. One of the more exotic places where Britain had its vested interests was Cairo, the capital of Egypt, where the British Army held a strategic military base. The game increased in popularity in the early part of the twentieth century, and where grass was scarce, hardened sand was appreciated as an excellent substitute.
Hussein Hegazi was born into the family of a wealthy rural aristocrat in the little village of Kremlah in the Sharkeya Province of Egypt, east of the Nile Delta, on the 14th September 1891. His father, Mohamed Bey Hegazi, spoilt the youngster, who was given virtually everything he asked for. His leather football was probably acquired from one of the British soldiers stationed in Egypt in the mid 1890s. Hussein was rarely seen without his ball, and quickly cultivated skills and confidence.
Accuracy in shooting, chipping and passing the ball was developed in a very unusual, let alone costly, way. As the peasant women walked through the village the young Hussein would aim his shots at the large valuable jars they carried on their heads. The peasant women were used to the routine: the ball would fly over, the jar would come crashing to the ground, and the woman would go to Mrs Hegazi for apologies and compensation.
This early potential was soon spotted and Hussein was chosen to play for his primary school team. He later went on to represent the El Saideya High School for four years. But his athletic prowess was not just confined to football. A frequent sight in the village was Hussein Hegazi sprinting towards a water buffalo, owned by the villagers, and leaping over the creatures. One can imagine that this improved his high jump and hurdling skills no end. He particularly favoured track events, and competed in all the major athletic assemblies, where he enjoyed a very good time among the prizes. In fact, four years in succession his lightning pace enabled him to win the quarter-mile, and half-mile races in the Egyptian national championships. (Note: Equivalent to today’s 400 and 800 metres races.)
As a member of National Sporting Club - a club composed mainly of British exiles - Hussein spent his mid-teenage years competing against teams chiefly drawn from the British army bases, and Government Offices stationed in the Middle East. [Note: Hegazi’s football career, even as a schoolboy, remarkably echoes that of Edgar Kail, nine years his junior.] Indeed, it is highly likely that his close relationship with the Englishmen guaranteed he heard about the great English clubs and the top goalscorers of the day.
In his own beloved Egypt, Hussein favoured the centre forward role, and had no wish to play in any other position. Despite his moderate height and light build, he was a prolific marksman - one season he netted an incredible 57 goals! As an eighteen year old, he was part of a native born team that won a prestigious five-a-side competition, which included several excellent military teams.
Hussein Hegazi came to London in the summer of 1911 to study Engineering at the University College London. The course took in English; Mathematics; Mechanics; Sound, Light & Heat; Electricity; and Chemistry. Initially he stayed in college accommodation in Gower Street, until he later found private digs at 55 Devonshire Street, W1.
At some point around this time Hussein Hegazi came into contact with the Dulwich Hamlet Football Club. How and when we are not told. They certainly did not see him playing for the College, he didn't turn out for them until the following year. He either requested a trial with the South London club, or was seen by a scout during August practising his skills. Or maybe the reputation that preceded him was enough for the Hamlet to seek him out and be first for his signature.
Hegazi’s first game in Dulwich Hamlet colours was against the club’s old rivals, West Norwood. In a pre-season friendly at Champion Hill on the 2nd September 1911 - the curtain raiser to the 1911-12 season - Hegazi was summed up as “Quite a good player, with a lightning drive, but is liable to wander out of his position.” Despite this shortcoming the crowd warmed to the lithe youngster - of five feet nine and just under ten stone - and in a matter of games it was obvious that he was the most exciting thing they had seen for many a day. He could score too, virtually a goal a game on average.
As well as the fans - who quickly dubbed him ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ - the critics liked the look of the young Egyptian. And although inclined to wander about and indulge in too much individual effort, he was clearly in a class of his own. After the first league match, one local reporter confidently predicted that Hegazi “should make quite a name for himself in English amateur football.” Those prophetic words would come to pass sooner than anyone could imagine.
Hegazi put his stamp on the Isthmian league competition straight away. He lit up the matches he took part in [pun intended], and on more than one occasion he was picked out as “the shining light of the game.” The South London Press described his first Dulwich Hamlet v Nunhead derby on the 23rd September 1911 as, “One of the most peculiar, yet at the same time, one of the best games Champion Hill has known. The Egyptian gave a splendid exhibition, ...the way he makes openings for himself and his wing men shows much brain work.” It was that footballing intellect that put him one step ahead of many other players. As wise as a serpent, he was able, in a flash, to produce a quick swivel, followed by a quicksilver pace that left his opponent clutching at straws. Or, execute the perfect pass to a team-mate in an instant. Again, from the SLP, 13th October, the thinking man’s footballer “...simply conjured with the ball, balancing the wing men splendidly, and by judicious feeding kept them on the move.”
Scoring two goals in a 6-0 demolition of West Norwood, the Herne Hill side’s “back division seemed powerless to deal with the Egyptian Hegazi, who gave in the front line plenty of chances.” (SLP 27 Oct 1911.) And this from the following week, “Hegazi began to display his wonderful command of the ball almost from the outset. ...Hegazi [went on] one of his characteristic cork-screw runs and the final shot went home.” (SLP 3 Nov 1911.)
He literally ran the show: sprinter, playmaker, dribbler. So untypical of the classic centre forward - a big number nine goalhanger, knocking the ball in the net from six yards with any part of his body - Hegazi’s goals were sweet goals. A goalscoring machine, yes! but much more besides. His ball control was superb, his distribution second to none, and with the young George Shipway to his immediate right, and J.A. Cleland at inside left, he completed quite a formidable inside trio. As the season progressed it became evident to all and sundry, that Hegazi would be far better suited to a feeder position than his own favoured centre forward role. Indeed, the following season, Hegazi and Shipway moved to inside and outside right respectively, to make way for N.A. Carson to lead the attack.
The beautiful game has always been best-suited on grass, but most surfaces; clay, sand, grit or tarmac will do. In England during long spells of bad weather – it was played on a bog. Like most of us, Hussein Hegazi favoured the truer surfaces. He also liked to feel the ball, and rather than the cumbersome boots of the Englishman, he preferred to play in soft shoes. One gets the impression they were, what we would describe as ‘desert boots’; suede uppers with a crepe sole. Maybe he had them specially made, like the much later Stanley Matthews who employed the finest Italian cobblers with the finest Italian leather for his boots. The reports we have describe how Hegazi found it difficult to keep his footing in wet conditions, suggesting these soft shoes were without studs. However, one photograph of Hegazi clearly shows him wearing studded boots.
Fulham, in the 2nd Division of the Football League, also liked the look of Hegazi, and invited him to play in a league match with Stockport County at Craven Cottage on the 11th November 1911. Hegazi accepted the offer, and had the difficult task of superseding regular centre forward, Bert Pearce, on what was to be a day to remember. [He couldn't have arranged it better with the calendar people if he’d tried, it being mysteriously 11/11/11 !]
On his arrival in Fulham a considerable amount of curiosity was aroused regarding the personality and prowess of the young Egyptian. He was given a generous reception, and his impact on the game was immediate, despite his natural nervousness on such an occasion. Straight away he produced evidence of the ball control which had earned him so many plaudits, and after just 15 minutes he opened the scoring. Snapping up a centre from Smith’s corner, he “slipped round Graham, and neatly placed the ball into the net, wide of McIver. He was warmly congratulated by his new colleagues, and he merited it.” (Athletic News).
The promising youngster supplied his fellow strikers with further goalscoring opportunities as the game progressed. His first touch on receiving the ball, and his excellent distribution were also noted. Rain fell throughout the second half, and though “the Egyptian tired ... he had done enough to prove that the claims made on his behalf were not all exaggeration. Some of the passing movements in which he, Coleman and Brown indulged in in the first half were quite delightful.” English League football had been an enjoyable experience for him. “It was totally different from anything I have been used to.” said the youngster. He had proved a success, and was instantly selected for the Fulham team that would be travelling up to Leeds the following Saturday.
Suffice to say, Pa Wilson, who had seen his own side defeat locals Nunhead without his star striker, was none too pleased with the poaching practises of the West London Club. Later on that very same evening, following his Fulham debut and a meeting with a pressman, Hegazi returned to his lodgings in Gower Street, close to the British Museum. The inevitable audience with Pa Wilson came sooner than expected, and after hearty congratulations from his college friends, Hegazi found Pa standing in the doorway with his right hand man George Wheeler, at his side. Wilson, renown for his friendly persuasion, told the young Egyptian he was a fundamental part of the Hamlet team, and they desperately needed him if they were to mount a decent cup campaign after Christmas. If he continued in both camps he would become ineligible for certain cup competitions. “I was in a difficulty,” Hegazi said. “For I wanted to play very much in League football, and at the same time I did not want to leave Dulwich Hamlet who have been very good to me. So I have decided to play for the Hamlet. I am sorry if Fulham are disappointed.” [Note: Hegazi did actually become ineligible for the Hamlet’s Surrey Senior Cup matches, missing out on the cup final with Summerstown later in the season.]
He also informed the Dulwich ‘boss’ that he had not signed anything for Fulham, and did not intend to unless he had the permission of Mr Wheeler, the Dulwich Hamlet secretary. Wilson took Hegazi at his word, describing the youngster, “As honourable a man as ever stepped onto a football field.”
Fulham were not the only professional club after the services of the gifted Egyptian either. Hegazi showed Wilson and Wheeler a letter he had received from a North London club that also expressed an interest in him. Hegazi, though obviously flattered by the invitations, wished that the offers would stop.
A few days later he informed Fulham that he would not now be travelling to Yorkshire with the club to play against Leeds City. Instead, he pledged his future with Dulwich Hamlet for the remainder of the season by signing the F.A.’s Form L, restricting him to one club only. Fulham’s manager Phil Kelso thought that to be a regrettable decision, yet hoped that Hegazi, if opportunity allowed, would still train on the odd occasion with the Cottagers, and maybe even sign up the next season.
Pa Wilson’s respect for professionalism, however, was at vanishing point. He wrote a stinging letter to the press that week against the poaching tactics of professional football managers.
Because of this controversy it appears that the entire Hamlet playing staff signed a letter to the Football Association requesting protection under Rule 37, which said “...no club or person shall attempt to induce the player to leave his club during the season without at least 14 days notice in writing to the club, or clubs, to which he has notified he is a playing member.” This is also most likely the reason why Charles Tyson did not appear for Southampton that season either.
Two days after that solitary outing for Fulham, a report on the match, with a photo of Hegazi and a few biographical details appeared in a national weekly sports journal under the heading “An Egyptian Centre Forward.” The writer (for the Athletic News) enthused about the “... full blooded Egyptian, Hussein Hegazi, the young man who has been scoring some brilliant goals for Dulwich Hamlet this season.” The exotic pedigree of Hegazi aroused much romance, and the following week he became the theme of poets. This offering from the newspaper’s resident bard:-
Hussein Hegazi, by birth an Egyptian
Djinn of the leather and wizard of wiles,
Do not imagine, though, by this description
That he is fictive, and not in these isles.
No: he’s not from the ‘Arabian Nights’;
Himself in neat Dulwich jersey he dights.
Isis may help him, and maybe Osiris,
For he’s a marvellous magical toe;
Such is his speediness,oft it doth tire his
Flurried and fearful and fluctuant foe.
For our young friend, I may venture to hint,
Learned on the banks of the Nile how to sprint.
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.
Pharoah is dead - very dead, there’s no doubt of it -
So are the Ten Plagues of Egypt, I hope.
If they are not, then the folks who hop out of it
Wisdom display when they silently slope.
But we’ve imported, without any tax,
Hussein, you know, who’s a plague to most backs.
Fulham was proud of her player from Cairo -
Fulham was just like a dog with two tails -
Dulwich, you’ll find in a terrible ire-o,
If for high amateur honour she fails.
But at such prospect all Dulwichites smile,
Backing the luck of this lad from the Nile.
Debate continued for some weeks regarding the pain of Dulwich and the piracy of Fulham. The latter club finally retorting with “Let us not forget that if great clubs ‘live’ on lesser clubs, the lesser ‘live’ on the least.” A charge that Dulwich Hamlet were somewhat hypocritical - happy enough to pick off the best players from the local junior sides, but (by sweet words) willing to hold back a great talent, who would like to progress to a bigger club.
The controversy, however, served only to bring Hegazi into the public eye, and to the mind of the County selectors. He was chosen (along with his Hamlet colleagues Arthur Knight and George Shipway) to lead the attack for the London F.A. eleven, against Middlesex on the 7th December 1911. It was the first of five games he played for the County in the next fifteen months, gaining him a cap and badge.
He continued to play great football throughout the remainder of the season, and score some spectacular goals in the process. But from some quarters he was looked upon as slightly schizophrenic. This report after a January 1912 cup-tie with Metrogas, “Hegazi was a curious mixture of brilliance and ineptitude. His marvellous leap to get his head to a fine pass from Sills in order to score Hamlet’s goal was the most notable incident of the whole game, but his missing of a penalty where he sent the ball very wide indeed was almost ludicrous!” It is comforting to know that in the same game Metrogas also missed from a spotkick.
Dulwich won no trophies but reached two finals and a semi final in Hegazi's first season at the club. Undoubtedly everybody’s player of the year, the young teetotaller would have celebrated the season’s close with a lemonade or something, not that alcohol was ever allowed in the Hamlet boardroom in those days!
Two continental tours enjoyed the presence of Hussein Hegazi in the spring of 1912. He was becoming quite a globetrotter. As centre forward with the Hamlet, he took part in the club's three drawn games in Holland. But it was further afield to Prague in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) that he travelled with the University College London football team. Their first opponents were Slavia F.C., who in their time had already claimed the scalps of the likes of Middlesborough and Woolwich Arsenal.
A 6,000 crowd turned up to watch Hegazi and co. take on the Slavia side. [Presumably the same Slavia Prague as today, who later won the Czech League eleven times between 1929 and 1943.] A tall order for the Londoners, some of whom had not fully recovered after the thirty hours non stop journey that included a turbulent sea passage followed by twenty hours aboard a train, and without a shave to boot. They lost 5-0. A second game against Slavia also ended in defeat, this time 6-1. However, “Early in the second half, Hegazi, amidst tremendous cheering, scored our only goal.” (Union Magazine Vol.V No.5 June 1912.) The college students might have thought that their next game against the Bohemian Universities would be easier; until they discovered that seven of the Slavia side were assisting them! They did manage a 2-2 draw, however, and Hegazi got one of the goals. Leaving Prague, the team were determined to win their final game of the tour against Olympique Lillois A.F.C. when they stopped off in France. This team had won the French championship only the year before, and so when Hegazi completed his hat-trick to make the final score 3-0 to the tourists, they really must have felt that they had accomplished something.
The annual College Sportsday, held on Wednesday 20th March 1912, saw the Engineers win the two inter-faculty events. The June issue of the college rag stated, “Their victory in the relay race was largely due to the fine running of H. Hegazi.”
We’ll never know how Hegazi felt upon completing his first season in British football, but I’m sure, like most of us, he would have been pleased with some things and disappointed with others. He was a model professional, or amateur rather, and always conducted himself in the Hamlet spirit.
Before the start of the following season, 1912-13, Hussein Hegazi signed amateur forms for Southern League 2nd Division outfit Millwall Athletic making two appearances for them. There is some confusion to which Millwall side Hegazi actually turned out for, as records show that the reserves alone were involved in three separate league competitions – the London League Section A, the Kent League and the Southern Alliance League.
Hegazi made his debut at Croydon Common on Wednesday 11th September 1912. Millwall lost 3-1. This match actually preceded Dulwich Hamlet’s opening fixture by a few days. Hegazi did not play in the Hamlet game on the 14th. His first appearance that season was saved for the opening of the new Champion Hill ground on 21st September 1912.
On Thursday 3rd October Hegazi made his second and final appearance for Millwall in a Southern Alliance League match. For the home game versus Cardiff City, the South Londoners fielded only one regular player among the eleven - the goalkeeper, Spendiff. The average Lions fan coming through the turnstyle at the Den must have felt cheated at the large number of unfamiliar faces on display, and who was this strange foreigner at centre forward?
The London newspapers, championing the grievance of the home supporters, condemned Millwall’s action, and despite Cardiff’s 3-2 victory, the South Wales Echo echoed with, “Millwall flagrantly broke the Alliance rule which says that the club shall play at least seven of the players that took part in the previous Southern League match.” Whether this small storm of protest upset Hegazi we do not know, but every time he tried his luck with the professionals he seemed to court controversy. It wasn’t his fault, he just wanted to enjoy his football. He didn’t play for Millwall again - in fact, apart from County, University and representative games, he stuck it out with Dulwich Hamlet. However, Fortune had it that Hussein Hegazi’s tenuous link with Millwall saw him find a place in the team photograph of that year. Hegazi can be seen in the back row wearing a hat and suit.
It must have been a great joy for Pa Wilson and the selection committee, when Hussein Hegazi finally committed himself to the Hamlet for another year. [A fuller account of the following season, including a victory over Ajax of Amsterdam in a friendly, can be found in Dulwich Hamlet FC: The 1912-13 Season by this author.]
Hegazi’s final months with Dulwich Hamlet was the season prior to the First World War. By then of course, he had switched to the inside right position, and once again he was a major part in the Hamlet finishing amongst the top five Isthmian clubs. A typical account of how his great skill and perception could turn a match appears in the 17th October 1913 edition of the South London Press, “Hegazi opened the scoring in characteristic style. He received a pass from Davis, turned round instantly and shooting like a flash, the ball was in the net before Robertson was aware of it.”
It was around this time that he joined one of the world’s best known centres of learning, when he began his studies at Cambridge University. An entry in the admissions register of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, for October 1913 shows “Hussein Hegazi ...admitted Pensioner.” (i.e. a Cambridge University scholar who pays for his own commons.) He is recorded in the Michaelmas term registers (Sept to Dec) attending some lectures in Physics. Entries found in the tutorial accounts, show he kept only two terms. For some unknown reason Hegazi withdrew from his course before the first year was ended. But not before he won his Cambridge blue. That event took place on the 7th January 1914, when the Cambridge University soccer team beat their Oxford counterparts 2-1 at Queen’s Club, in the mud, in what was described as the best Varsity game for many a year. For the Summer Term of 1914, Hegazi was marked absent, and his caution money was returned in March of that year. He finished the season with the Hamlet and returned to Egypt. It is possible that he sensed the coming turbulence in Europe, in the summer of 1914, but it is more likely due to the unrest in Egypt - at a time when a new group of leaders were being ushered onto the political stage - which eventually brought about independence in 1922.
Hegazi’s departure was English football’s great loss. Had Hussein Hegazi remained on these shores for the duration of the war he would have qualified for a place in the great Corinthian side of the 1920s. Instead he headed home before the hostilities began.
Within weeks of Hegazi’s departure, Lord Kitchener, the Proconsul of Egypt, came to London to take up his role of Secretary of State for War. Later promoted to Field-marshal, Kitchener masterminded the recruitment drive that drafted the nation’s youth for war with Germany with his ‘This Country Needs You’ campaign. Virtually every one of Hegazi’s British male friends – both student and fellow footballer – were involved in the most terrible war the world had seen. Some of them even lost their lives, including several of his Dulwich Hamlet comrades who had warmed to the young Egyptian.
Amazingly Hussein Hegazi failed to pick up a single winners medal during his stay with Dulwich Hamlet Football Club. He was clearly a star, but perhaps a star born too early. When Tutankamun’s tomb was discovered in the early nineteen twenties the western world turned to Egypt for its fashions, designs, architecture and mythology. What a fitting time that would have been for the gifted youngster to be playing for Dulwich Hamlet. Of course, he would have been vying with the legendary Edgar Kail for the inside right position, though I’m sure the team selection committee would have found a place in the side for the pair of them. Instead, Hussein Hegazi was back up the River Nile continuing his sport with a team that he handpicked, called the 'Hussein Hegazi Eleven', then sometime after he had another spell with his old side Al Ahly in Port Said.
It was with Ahly (voted the African team of the twentieth century) that Hegazi went on to became one of the most popular players of his day. In 1919 he moved on to fierce rivals Zamalek unti 1922, when he joined Sekka Railways, the oldest club side in Egypt. A couple of years later he was back with Al Ahly where he remained until 1928. He then returned to Ahly for one season before finshing his career with Zamalek. His final match was a 1-1 draw between the two clubs.
Following the Great War, in the sixth and seventh modern Olympic Games of 1920 (Antwerp) and 1924 (Paris), Hegazi wore the Egyptian national jersey. In the latter competition’s football tournament he played in two matches in the second and third rounds - on the winning side against Hungary but losing to Sweden. In 1932, at the grand old age of forty, he decided to hang up his boots. The novelist Naguib Mahfouz, 1988 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, recalling the football stars of his childhood, said, “Hussein Hegazi, displayed exemplary sportsmanship on the pitch. Throughout his career, Hegazi never committed a foul.” This spoke volumes of Hegazi’s character as a player, and exactly echoed Pa Wilson’s description, when he stated a lifetime ago that the young Hegazi was, “As honourable a man as ever stepped on to a football field.”
Almost thirty years after Hegazi left London, he was still affectionately remembered at Champion Hill. The programme for the wartime match between Dulwich Hamlet and the Royal Navy & Marines on Saturday 28th March 1942, stated, “News from the Middle East of R.A. Jones. Reg said he just missed H. Hegazi in Cairo – pity, for we should have liked to have heard something about this wizard.”
The great fame Hegazi enjoyed, along with the large estate he inherited from his father allowed him to finance his two great interests in life. The first, of course, was football, and here his generosity knew no bounds, as he is known to have financially supported the travels of the teams he played for. The second was women. It turns out that Hussein Hegazi, despite being married with five children, was a bit of a womaniser! The celebrity lifestyle, socializing with other rich and famous personalities, including leading actresses and dancers, inevitably led to his frequent infidelity. So, off the field, Hussein Hegazi was not so honourable as he was on it.
A near kinsman of Hegazi’s said, “His last love was an Egyptian Greek lady of the name ‘Mary’. He used to spend weekdays at her flat and the weekends (Thursday – Friday) at his place. A few months before his death, he took her out to a classy restaurant followed by a night in the theatre. He took her back to her flat, kissed her good night and went home for the weekend. Two days later, as he walked through her front door, he found her dead on the entrance floor of her flat, still dressed up the way he left her.”
What Hegazi’s wife made of it all is a mystery. Having grown up in a rural environment, she found it very difficult to adapt to city life in Cairo, preferring to remain in the family mansion in Kremlah. Meanwhile, her husband and children (and their nanny) lived in an apartment block in the Garden City district of Egypt’s capital. That home is still standing today, and is even now inhabited by some of Hegazi’s grandchildren! It is situated on the corner of Kasr Elainy Street and Hussein Hegazi Street, named in honour of its once famous resident.
Hussein Hegazi died in his native country in 1960.
Original article from HH3 Winter 1998 (Revised 2003).
Copyright © Jack McInroy 2011
djinn - mythical being, ie. a genie
dights - finely dressed.
ire - anger
scarabs - species of beetle deified by the ancient Egyptians. The best known is the dung beetle, that collects and rolls up pieces of dung into a large ball. This it manoeuvres into underground egg chambers. The dung beetle was a symbol of the sun god, the Egyptians believing the sun was pushed round the sky in the same way the beetle rolls its ball of dung.
I am very grateful to Mr Eldeeb, General Secretary of the Egyptian F.A.; Professor J.H. Baker, Keeper of Muniments, St Catharine's College, Cambridge University; Ms Joanna Shacklock, Records Office, University College London; Hassanin Mubarak; Mr Dean Hegazi and a near kinsman; and Mr David Fowkes, Secretary of the London F.A. for their help in piecing together this article.