INTERVIEW: Whitecaps’ Aly Ghazal shares his full story ahead of MLS season
In 2013, Aly Ghazal booked his ticket to Europe by emailing scouts his footage at Wadi Degla, and only a few years later he became the first Egyptian player to captain a top-level European football team before completing his move to Major League Soccer.
From the streets of Cairo all the way to MLS, Ghazal spoke to KingFut’s Ramez Nathan about his full story.
He still has not featured for a full season in MLS, but according to WhoScored.com, Ghazal has averaged 3.1 interceptions per game – no player with 10+ appearances has a better record than the 26-year-old Egyptian midfielder.
“I didn’t know that,” said Ghazal with a huge smile. “You know that deconstructing opponents’ attempts is my first and most important task on the field. I try my best to do it and I try to improve all the other aspects of my game to help Vancouver Whitecaps reach their goals.
“This is the first time I ever play for a team with such a huge fan base. In China there were a lot of fans but it is different here. MLS has its own unique spark and I’m proud I am playing for a team like Whitecaps Vancouver, I am vastly improving on a tactical and physical level.”
Born and raised in Cairo, Ghazal’s only place for football as a kid was the street, yet he was always determined to make it to the big stage.
“As a child I used to play football on the streets and people kept telling me that I had to be a professional footballer. So I grew up with two dreams, playing abroad and representing the national team.
“One day my nephews had a trial at El Sekka El Hadid, they asked me to join them, I went and I got accepted.”
Ghazal played for El Sekka El Hadid SC and represented another team that was composed of best young players in Cairo where he participated in a number of local tournaments and at such a young age his displays captured the eyes of Egypt’s giants Al Ahly and Zamalek.
“First, I was very close to joining Al Ahly but Sekka El-Hadid requested a massive fee, then Zamalek coach at that time Mohamed Abbas wanted me to join his squad, I went there and trained with the team for like a month but they too could not pay my club.
“However, Abbas was really keen on signing me, and as soon as he left Zamalek and took charge of Wadi Degla, I followed him to his new club.”
The former Zamalek coach was not the only one who believed in Ghazal. Degla club owner Maged Samy, who also owned Belgian side Lierse S.K., thought very highly of the midfielder and made sure the player would get a trial there.
“Mr. Maged Samy is like a big brother to me, one of those who really believed in me from the very start, he made sure I trained well and even got me a personal English tutor to improve my language, till I was 18 and ready to go to Belgium.
“Unfortunately I spent only one month in Belgium and failed to make the cut for Lierse, but there is always something good in every bad situation, I got to meet my future wife there.”
Failure in Belgium didn’t get the best of Ghazal as he had set his eyes on a move abroad and held enough will and determination to make it work.
“I had a video showing footage of how I played for the youth team of Wadi Degla, luckily I met someone on the internet who was scouting players, I emailed him the video, he added me on Facebook, we talked for a while then he showed the video to the people in charge at Nacional and they liked me.”
The Portuguese side sent an offer to sign Ghazal from Wadi Degla and as these events took place at the same time of the football ban in Egypt following the tragic Port Said incident, the move was easier.
“I was 21, this was my shot. I wasn’t going to replicate the Lierse scenario, I had to give it everything that I had.”
Although the Pharaoh suffered a long transitional period, trying to adapt to the new style of play in the Primeira Liga. On his second season he hit the ground running, synthesising his sprinkling talent with his physical strength and led his side to fifth place in the league, beating Porto and grabbing points from both ties with Sporting Lisbon.
“Coach Manuel Machado had enough patience and belief in me. I tried to repay him and thank God we clinched a Europa League spot that year. Again Machado is one of the major reasons I am where I am today.”
Ghazal had multiple offers to join Serie A and Ligue 1 after his brilliant displays for Nacional, yet the club owner was not willing to sell unless a big cheque came along, forcing the player to stay, until problems arose at Nacional between the board of directors and as they were demoted to the second division, they accepted the first offer from China.
“I thought it was a good opportunity. I mean I never dreamt of going to China, but I thought it was a good chance.”
Things got only worse for the long-legged midfielder, as a rule change has reduced the number of foreigners allowed for each team to three players in matchday, as Ghazal ended only featuring in a cup tie, with no appearances in the league for Guizhou Hengfeng.
“I had higher hopes. The problem was all the good Chinese players were midfielders.
“In terms of football, I cannot say I improved, I just tried to stay fit, but in general I can say I learned valuable lessons from my time in China.”
Whitecaps’ Welsh Coach Carl Robinson has been fan of Ghazal for a long time and when he found the opportunity to sign the Pharaoh he grabbed it with both hands.
“Robinson personally called me when I was in China, he is one of the biggest reasons why I joined here and he introduced me to his ideas and he let me know what he expected from me, then I couldn’t wait to make the move.”
MLS season is about to start and Ghazal isn’t the only Egyptian in the Western Conference, as he will face LAFC’s Omar Gaber in the seventh round.
“Four years ago, I was asked if there is one Egyptian player I hoped to face in the Primeira Liga and I chose Gaber.
“Gaber is a great player, he really is, things might have not worked out perfectly for him at Basel, but I believe he will soon find out how MLS is much better than the Swiss Super League, especially that he knows Bob Bradley on a personal level. Gaber will flourish here.”
March is going to be a decisive month in the midfielder’s career, with MLS kicking off and what might be his last chance for a call up to the national team ahead of Egypt’s friendlies.
The 26-year-old was part of Egypt’s national team under Shawky Gharib, where the player was scapegoated as the reason behind the side’s failure to qualify to the African Cup of Nations in 2015, although he was playing out of position due to the number of injuries in the squad.
Ghazal has fixed his sight on three goals ahead of his new advneture: “Last season we were knocked-out of the semi-final of the Western Conference against Seattle, which was the best result in Whitecaps’ history, our goal this season is to achieve something better.
“Personally I am targeting a spot in MLS all-stars team and the most important thing for me is to get a chance with the national team, I really hope I will join them. In the next camp they are calling new players, someone advised Cuper to watch me, I hope he will.”
Ghazal has always reached his goals, roads might have been long and unpaved, yet he eventually found his way. March is a new challenge, will he prove his worth at MLS and get his name back on the list of the national team?
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