The story of Hussein Hegazi is yet another incredible chapter in the legend of Corinthian FC. A club fabled for so many firsts - the first black player, the first club to tour, the first club to entirely represent England... It seems fitting that they also fielded Hussein Hegazi, the first African player to ever play in the English football league.
Hassan (aka Hussein) Hegazi was born on the Nile delta in September 1891, the son of a wealthy aristocrat. He loved football from childhood and played against the British soldiers as a teenager. When, at 20, he moved to London in 1911 to study engineering, he joined non-league Dulwich Hamlet FC as a forward.
Hegazi (stood third from right) with his Dulwich Hamlet side.
His approach to the game was revelatory. Central attacking players at the time were burly goal-hangers; finesse was an affliction and bundled conversions the norm. Hegazi was different; agile and quick. He was a sprinter, playmaker and dribbler. His ball control was superb, his passing second to none. He had an inclination, on occasion, to wander around and indulge himself. In modern parlance, he might be referred to as ‘a luxury player’.
Hegazi would appear to be doing nothing until a shimmy, a flick and a shot ended with a bulge in the net. For Dulwich, his goals were sweet, and plentiful. The South London Press wrote: “The way he makes openings for himself and his wing men shows much brain work. He should make quite a name for himself.”
Hussein Hegazi: "The Father of Egyptian Football"
The fans soon dubbed him ‘Nebuchadnezzar’, and it wasn’t long before Fulham - then in the Second Division - saw his potential. Their manager, Phil Kelso, asked him to play in a League match against Stockport County. The date could not have been more auspicious: 11-11-11. Hegazi opened the scoring in a 3–1 win - he had become the first African to ever play in the English league.
The authorities at Dulwich, not pleased at potentially losing their man, went to see Hegazi at his lodgings in Gower Street, Bloomsbury.
“I was in a difficult position,” Hegazi said. “For I very much wanted to play in League football, yet 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.”
Pa Wilson, the esteemed Dulwich manager, said Hegazi’s decision made him “as honourable a man as ever stepped onto a football field”. And with that his League career was over.
For a man who only played once for Fulham, he clearly made an impact. Just two days after his solitary outing, a report on the match, with a photograph of the player and a few biographical details appeared in the Athletic News under the headline ‘An Egyptian Centre Forward’. His goals were lauded as ‘brilliant’. By the following week, the Athletic News' resident bard had been moved to write a long poem in dedication. It began:
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…"
In 1913 Hegazi enrolled at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, where he won his Blue on the 7th January, 1914 as Oxford University were defeated at Queens, 2–1. Hegazi scored while his captain that day was none other than the Corinthian great, Max Woosnam.
A bond formed between the two and it was Woosnam who suggested Hegazi to the Corinthian selectors. With only weeks remaining to the 1913/14 season, Hegazi made his debut for Corinthian against the English Wanderers at Stamford Bridge on the 25th of March and again against West Ham in the West Ham Hospital Cup on the 27th.
The Corinthians and English Wanderers at Stamford Bridge, 1914. Hegazi, sat second from left. Max Woosnam, his former Cambridge captain, is sat to his right.
Tragically, the First World War would bring a premature end to his career with the club. Choosing to return home to Egypt in the summer of 1914, rather than join the Corinthians on their fated tour to Brazil, all of Hegazi’s Corinthian teammates were to be swept up into the cauldron of the Great War. The club lost a record number of men in the conflict but the war also brought his old friend and former Cambridge captain, Max Woosnam, to Egypt.
Woosnam was amongst the thousands of British troops stationed in Hegazi's home town of Cairo while fighting the disastrous Gallipoli campaign against the Ottoman Empire. Hegazi would offer the soldiers some relief in the form of friendly football matches, challenging the troops to exhibition games with a side which he created called Hegazi El Fan, literally meaning ‘Hegazi for Arts’.
After the War, Hegazi began a career that would see him referred to as the 'Father of Egyptian football'. Indeed, Hegazi's post-war career is credited with almost single handedly creating the fiercest rivalry on the continent.
Hegazi with his Al Alhy side, sitting second from left
In 1917 Hegazi took most of the side he'd formed and joined Cairo's Al Ahly, a working-class club from the heart of the city. With Egypt’s greatest player on board, Al Ahly won the league each year until 1919 when he switched to crosstown rivals Zamalek. Four years later, he switched again... Wherever he went became the best team in Egypt, local journalists would say that ‘the clock had turned’ each time. It was a period which saw the establishment of the fiercest rivalry in African football and it was solely down to Hegazi’s regular transfers between the two clubs. Al Alhy and Zamalek remain today the two greatest clubs in Egyptian football.
The Egyptian national side in 1920 ahead of Hegazi's and Egypt's first Olympic games in Antwerp.
Remembered as a national hero today, Hegazi helped break new ground for Egypt and they became the first non-european country to play at the Olympic Games of 1920. He also represented Egypt at the 1924 games - becoming the eldest player to ever score at the Olympics (in a 3-0 victory over Hungary), a record which stood for 88 years until Ryan Giggs broke it in 2012. He was an unused squad member in 1928 when Egypt won the bronze medal and finally, in 1932 at the age of 40, he hung up his boots - his reputation as on of Africa's sporting greats beyond doubt.
In his latter years, despite being married with five children, he developed a new reputation as a bit of a socialite and ladies’ man, proving that you can take the maverick out of football, but you can’t take the maverick out of the man. Hegazi died in Egypt in 1958 and has a street named after him, Sharia Hassan Hegazi, in the Garden City area of Cairo.
His time with the Corinthians may have been brief, prematurely halted by the outbreak of War, but his story remains yet another great chapter in the Corinthian annals.