The A-Z of forgotten football heroes: Z - Amr Zaki

The A-Z of forgotten football heroes: Z - Amr Zaki

As far as short-lived success stories in the Premier League go, few players can claim to have seen their stock rise so high and then fall so low like former Wigan Athletic and Hull City striker Amr Zaki.

charlie-malam
Charlie Malam

"A striker who plays for Wigan Athletic in the English Premier League. He bangs in at least one goal per game," reads the top Urban Dictionary entry, posted in August 2008, under Amr Zaki's name. 

A somewhat fitting synopsis for a freakishly successful - and anomalous - one-year spell of the Egyptian striker's tumultuous career spent in the north west of England a decade ago.

Despite his exploits for Egypt, playing a huge role in his country’s 2008 African Cup of Nations triumph after also having scored the winning goal in the Egyptian Cup final for Al Zamalek at club level before that, Zaki arrived an unknown in the summer of 2008. But he rapidly became a cult hero to the pie-eating population of Wigan.

So much so, shirt-printing shops in the town once ran out of the letter 'Z', meaning the striker had to settle for printing 'Amr' on replica shirts that he took back to friends in Egypt on one particular international break. 

That was a humorous but apt summary of Zaki's surge. He took very little time at all to become one of the most in-form forwards in the country and was soon - albeit frivolously - linked with Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and even unbelievably, Real Madrid.

It appeared Wigan would be made to rue the decision only to sign Zaki on loan, rather than on a permanent basis, come the following summer as Zaki’s attraction soared.

The Latics had a £7.25 million fee agreed with Zamalek in the summer of 2008 but manager Steve Bruce had thought it too much of a risk to sign the striker permanently for a fee that would have been a club-record price tag - eclipsing the £5.5 million paid for Emile Heskey two years earlier. That, 10 years ago, was a far more significant sum than it is now, especially for a club of Wigan’s modest resources.

Bruce decided against a gamble but was still confident enough to pay £1.5 million to sign the player on a season-long loan, citing Zaki's phenomenal international goalscoring record - then at an excellent 29 goals in 48 games, which put him at the top of FIFA's player rankings in the striking department - as a measure of his quality.

“I am convinced, having seen him personally on several occasions, that this boy can do the business,” Bruce said upon Zaki’s arrival. “I think our supporters will love him because he's a passionate boy who plays with his heart on his sleeve. He is all-action; physically powerful, great in the air, with two great feet and a good turn of pace.”

His blend of athleticism and technical quality took the Premier League by storm and the previously little-known Egyptian was billed as the signing of the summer as early as the end of September, having become a clinical top-flight marksman.

To this day, not many players –Zaki’s compatriot Mohamed Salah’s ongoing first year at Liverpool one of few exceptions - have enjoyed quite as blistering a start as Zaki in the English first division. 'The Bulldozer', as he was known for his power and size, plundered seven goals in his first eight games as a Premier League player. 

Smashing his way on to the scene

Carrying on his form from the previous year at Zamalek - where he netted 22 goals - Zaki netted twice in pre-season friendlies against Sheffield Wednesday and Hibernian before marking his competitive debut – against West Ham United on the opening day of their league campaign – in some style.

Heskey rose to flick a long throw from Maynor Figueroa into the box where Zaki, back turned to goal and 12 yards out, spun and lashed a left-footed volley on the turn high past a helpless Robert Green.

A Dean Ashton brace ultimately condemned the Latics to defeat at Upton Park with Zaki actually guilty of wasting several opportunities to earn a draw, but his impact was most certainly felt – and so it would continue to be, rippling right across the country in the months that followed.

Zaki was back on the score-sheet again when Wigan thrashed Notts County in the League Cup third round later in September but it was a clash with his future employers Hull City when Zaki truly began to turn heads, netting a brace in an emphatic away win.

Controlling with his left foot, the frontman held off two defenders to drive a low right-footed strike into the bottom corner before scoring his second, and Wigan’s fifth, with an unstoppable strike from the edge of the area that cannoned off the underside of the bar and in. Attention and intrigue in the front-man steadily grew.

His fifth goal in as many games and first at the then-JJB Stadium – a late equaliser against Sunderland – even prompted the club’s outspoken chairman, Dave Whelan, to liken him to the Premier League’s all-time top goalscorer on 260 goals.

“When you look at this lad and his build, he is the same height, weight, everything about him, he is like Alan Shearer,” Whelan boldly declared, mere weeks after having publicly questioned his arrival. 

“He has the same confidence when he gets the ball, he knows where the goal is, he doesn't need to look up, he has this instinct. Certain people have it and Shearer was one who had it in abundance, and this lad is exactly the same.”

His manager, Bruce, was just as effusive in his praise less than a fortnight later, coming after Zaki netted a match-winning penalty at home to a Manchester City side that included over £50 million worth of Brazilian striking talent in Robinho and .

“If he keeps playing like that he is going to have a real future in the Premier League,” the Wigan boss said, backing him to become “a real fans’ favourite” due to his tireless work ethic and an attitude he claimed was unquestionable.

Bruce further vowed that the club would “do everything in our power” to negotiate with Zamalek to sign Zaki permanently.

The rise...

But Zaki’s best was still yet to come on an unforgettable day on Merseyside away at title hopefuls Liverpool on October 18.

With half-an-hour gone inside Anfield, Zaki stormed in to press Daniel Agger on the edge of the box after he had received a short pass from Pepe Reina at a goal kick. An accomplished defender, the Dane panicked under the pressure of the burly Zaki, coughing up possession for the Egyptian to slot low beneath Reina in front of the Kop.

The hosts equalised eight minutes later, but Zaki struck again with an instance of sheer brilliance and a goal that will forever remain the signature moment of his turbulent career.

On the cusp of half-time, Antonio Valencia made space past Agger and Andrea Dossena at the by-line to loop a cross towards the opposite corner of the box. The initial ball was at least five yards behind Zaki’s starting position, but he adjusted and with his back towards goal, sprang up off his left leg to deliver a gorgeous right-footed bicycle kick that looped back across goal, over Reina and into the far bottom corner.

“You’ll have to go a long way to see a better goal than that this side of Christmas,” hailed Match of the Day commentator Jonathan Pearce. Anfield has only seen a few goals of comparable quality, particularly from an opposition player, in the 10 years since.

This was Amr Zaki at the very peak of his powers, confidence emanating from every pore and leaving a defence as good as that of Rafael Benítez’s Liverpool – they conceded 27 goals in 38 games that season, bettered only by champions Manchester United with 24 – absolutely powerless.

Liverpool went on to win the game, Dirk Kuyt scoring a bicycle kick of his own – though one not as pure and precise as Zaki’s - with five minutes to spare to win the Reds the game.

But even Benítez post-match noted that “everybody will be checking his situation now.” The Spaniard himself was rumoured to be interested in signing Zaki as competition to Fernando Torres.

Yet no-one could predict that his astounding goal was the peak of Zaki, who enjoyed a very short zenith. Rather than inspire a career-changing move, his acrobatic volley would precede a barrel roll off of a precipice. It was his last ever goal from open play for Wigan and in England altogether.

And the fall

Zaki went on to net three penalties, taking his overall total to 10 Premier League goals, but none of those came beyond December 28. His final 13 appearances saw Zaki endure a barren run virtually unthinkable pre-Christmas.

Zaki - dubbed a potential Golden Boot winner back in autumn - fell way short come May. Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka claimed the gong with 19 goals, edging competition from Cristiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard. Zaki’s 10 was a wholly respectable total in his first campaign on English shores, particularly for a mid-table team, but his form declined massively.

Sadly, his time with Wigan ended in controversy. Manager Bruce revealed that the player returned late from international duty four times during that season.

Bruce said: "I can honestly say that in all my time in football, I have never worked with someone as unprofessional." The Englishman also acknowledged how “personally and professionally” let down he felt, insisting at the beginning of April: “I really am at the end of my tether with him.”

This was a far-cry from the same manager that had hailed his work ethic and attitude irrefutable a few months earlier. It was therefore little surprise that Wigan decided against making Zaki’s loan deal permanent – albeit this just months after he had reportedly attracted double-figure bids from some of the Latics’ Premier League rivals.

With any idea of a full-time move to Lancashire scrapped, Zaki rejected the chance to sign for Portsmouth due to a reported reluctance to play under an Israeli manager and alongside an Algerian team-mate, and instead returned to his homeland.

Back at Zamalek, he quickly rekindled the free-scoring form that saw his stock raised so considerably in England.

But off-field issues plagued him once again and Zamalek eventually put him up for sale having grown fed up of his unprofessionalism and lack of punctuality, the player reportedly missing multiple training sessions among other incidents.

In January 2010 he would return to the Premier League via Hull City.

“I want to thank both Phil Brown and [chairman] Adam Pearson for the faith they showed in me and my target is to repay this faith on the field by helping my team-mates to do the best for the club and for the fans,” he said after signing for the Humberside outfit.

He arrived with Hull languishing in 18th and hopes high that he could fire them away from the relegation mire.

Those hopes fast faded, as did any hope of Zaki ever cementing a permanent switch to the English top-flight. Six appearances yielded zero goals.

"Hopefully, we might be getting a player who is looking to prove a point,” Brown said to a local newspaper after securing Zaki’s signature.

But while mentally he may have wanted to demonstrate his obvious potential, physically he could not. The striker was failed by his body as a knee injury ended his season early, and Hull went on to be relegated.

The nomadic tour of Africa

Zaki never really recovered – psychologically or physically – from his short-lived stay at Hull as his career petered out into insignificance.

A knee injury threatened an early retirement and though he recovered, subsequent injuries in his final years prevented him from a consistent run of game time at any of the final clubs of his career.

A broken foot and ankle ligament damage meant he never played a competitive game for Moroccan club Raja Casablanca, while he lasted just a month at Lebanese side Al Ahed before his contract was mutually terminated.

Five months later, he joined Egyptian Premier League team Arab Contractors, a team unsubtly owned by a construction and engineering contracting company, whom both Mohamed Elneny and the aforementioned Salah once played for.

El Mokawloon El Arab, as the club are better known locally, were managed by ex-Egypt boss Hassan Shehata – under whom Zaki enjoyed tremendous success for the national team. But their reunion was not to be as productive as they would have hoped. 

Zaki made his long-awaited return from injury after a year-and-a-half on the sidelines in the Egypt Cup in January 2015, but that proved his last ever game as a professional footballer, a 21-minute cameo capping off several years of underwhelming short stays at different clubs.

His injury record meant that retirement was a necessity, Zaki announcing the end of his playing days on Twitter in August the same year.

The replies reflected the joy which Zaki – at Zamalek and Wigan and for Egypt – at his best brought.

But while the forward no doubt enjoyed some heady highs at both club and international level, they will not detract from the disappointment of failing to sustain his form in England.

For a while, Zaki looked like the next big thing. A gem unearthed by Wigan to make them a sizeable profit and catapult the player towards the next level.

But that never happened, and Zaki forever remains cast – perhaps unfairly – as a one-season wonder.

His 30 goals for Egypt, and the titles he helped them win, suggest he was a bit more than that and Zaki can arguably point to untimely and unfortunate injuries for curtailing his career beyond his time at Wigan.

But his biggest disappointment will be how his time with the Latics deteriorated towards the end and ultimately ended any hopes of furthering his career, with a move to a team challenging for Europe more than ascertainable at one point in 2008-09.

Sadly, the Bulldozer’s tracks just weren’t quite built for an ascent that, for a while, seemed inevitable.

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This is the final piece of a regular feature series, 'The A-Z of Forgotten Football Heroes'. Check out the previous 25 entries here.

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