His head is shaved these days as he struggles to conceal the effects of the advancing years. But for Hossam Hassan, there is no concealing his status as the world’s most capped player.
In January, 34-year-old Hassan overtook Lothar MatthausOs mark of 150 caps when he made his 151st appearance for Egypt in a 3-1 friendly victory over Zambia in Cairo. He has since taken his tally to 155 following appearances against Libya, China, North Korea and Morocco, the latter a vital World Cup qualifier.
“It’s a great achievement,” Hassan said after his team-mates had carried him around Cairo’s International stadium on their shoulders. “I’m happy because it was set by an Egyptian and Arab player rather than by Hossam Hassan.”
Hassan admitted he knew nothing of his record-breaking effort until just a few months ago, when stories about its likelihood began appearing in the media. Certainly the Egyptian press had no idea either, with scant record-keeping and little regard for the statistics of the game.
“I never thought about it or even cared to count my matches,” said Hassan. “I used to concentrate on training and playing, and that’s it. But I’m thrilled. It’s great to break the world record and become one of the world’s celebrities.”
It is 15 years since Hassan made his international debut in a 3-0 defeat by Norway in a friendly in Oslo in September 1985. He played for his country at the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy, when Egypt – nicknamed the Pharaohs – failed to progress beyond the first round, and has appeared in five African Nations Cups.
His greatest triumph came in 1998, when Egypt took the trophy in Burkina Faso and Hassan was widely acknowledged as the player of the tournament. It was therefore a huge blow when he was not named as 1998 African Footballer of the Year, the award instead going to Morocco’s Mustapha Hadji.
“I was sure it was going to be me or one of my team-mates,” he told African Soccer. “To my utter surprise it went to Mustapha Hadji for the onlyreason that he scored one acrobatic goal in the competition (1998 World Cup finals) in which he was neither impressive nor decisive with his team.”
That Hassan has spent the bulk of his career in his native country surely counted against him.
He did spend time in Europe in the early 1990s, with PAOK in Greece and in Switzerland at Neuchatel Xamax, where he hit the headlines by scoring four times against Rangers in a ChampionsLeague match. But he returned to Al Ahly with his identical twin Ibrahim when the Cairo club requested their return.
His commitment to his brother has often been held up as the reason he did not move to a bigger European club. “Yes, I refuse to go anywhere without him and I don’t consider him a burden at all,” he said. “We are one soul and we are inseparable.”
Last year the brothers ended a 21-year association with Al Ahly by making the hugely controversial switch to Cairo rivals Zamalek. It was the equivalent of Luis Figo’s move from Barcelona to Real Madrid.
Despite the controversy, Hassan found immediate success with his new team, winning the African Cup-winners Cup and earning a place in this summer’s World Club Championship in Spain. Despite this success and the world record, Hassan’s relations with the press have often been strained, not least because of his fiery temper. “As much as I tried, I never succeeded in getting into their good books,” he said. “Yet I do not think I am a difficult person to deal with. I respect people and crave respect in return.”
Hassan now has another record in his sights: Ferenc Puskas’s mark of 83 international goals. Hassan has 78, but, ironically, the veteran striker has experienced acrisis in confidence in front of goal in recent games, having failed to score in six internationals.
Unless he scores soon, young pretenders like Reda Seeka, Mohamed Barakat and Germany-based Ahmed Salah Hosni might be preferred for Egypt’s crowded schedule of matches between now and July.
In addition, Mexican defender Claudio Suarez is already closing in on the caps record. Suarez won his 151st cap in Mexico’s friendly defeat by Colombia in Los Angeles on January 31, thus also overtaking Matthaus.
“This has put pressureon me,” Hassan admitted. “I feel a great responsibility now but I won’t let my country nor my fans down.
“I want to continue playing, winning as many caps as I can and scoring as many goals as I can.”
Born August 10, 1966
Previous clubs Al Ahly, PAOK (Gre), Neuchatel Xamax (Swi), Al Ahly, Al Ain (UAE)
International debut September 1985, v Norway
International caps 155 (78 goals)
Honours African Nations Cup 1986, 1998; All-Africa Games gold medallist 1987; Arab Cup 1992; 5 African Cup-winners Cups; 1 African Supercup; 1 Arab Champions League; 1 Arab Cup-winners Cup; 2 Arab Supercups; 1 Afro-Asian Cup; 12 Egyptian League titles; 7 Egyptian Cups; 1 UAE League title