(This feature was first published in August 2017)
For years, his was the voice of Egyptian football. His commentary over the years become an intrinsic part of all those unforgettable derby clashes between Al Ahly and Al Zamalek. He even became a television and film star, his fame transcending football.
But before that, Mohammed Latif was a brilliant footballer. And not just any brilliant footballer. He was, in 1934, part of the first Egyptian, Arab or African team to ever play in the World Cup finals.
The rest of the squad that represented Egypt at football’s greatest stage in Italy deserve to be remembered as much as the popular Latif.
The 1930 World Cup in Uruguay had been an invitation-only affair and did not include any teams from outside Europe or South America. Four years later, Fifa invited 32 teams to take part in the qualifying campaign.
Egypt were drawn with Palestine, playing under the banner of the British Mandate, and Turkey in Group 12. After the latter’s withdrawal, the Pharaohs were left with a two-legged, winner takes all tie with Palestine.
In 1934, Latif, 24 at the time, was one of the rising star of Egyptian football at Al Mokhtalat, the club that would eventually become Zamalek. Among his new colleagues was a young goalkeeper from fierce rivals Al Ahly, Mustafa Kamal Mansour, who had yet to make his senior international debut.
Egypt’s Scottish coach James McCrae had decided on a policy of alternating his goalkeepers, and Mansour was about to get the biggest break of his life.
“I joined the squad at the start of 1934 and I was the youngest member of the squad, not even 20 yet, and still preoccupied with my studies at the college of agriculture,” Mansour said in an interview with Al Hayat newspaper in 1998. “My friend and colleague at Al Ahly, Aziz Fahmi, was the first choice goalkeeper for the national team, and even he was keen that I got as many run outs as possible.”
On March 16, 1934 Egypt met Palestine at Al Ahly stadium in Cairo and McCrae decided to give Mansour his Egypt debut.
“It was my first ever start for Egypt and I didn’t grasp the importance of that historic event,” Mansour added. “It was also the first ever match for Egypt or any other Arab team in the World Cup qualifiers.”
The Palestine team was made almost entirely of British players and though Mansour recalls encountering two Arab players in their squad, no records support that claim.
The two legs proved a walk in the park for Egypt. They won the first 7-1, with captain Mahmoud ‘El Tetch’ Mokhtar scoring a hat-trick, and Mostafa Taha and Latif scoring two each. For the second leg, Fahmi was restored to the side, and Egypt ran out comfortable 4-1 winners, with Latif scoring again.
Egypt were on their way to the World Cup for the first time in their history.
The preparations were far from ideal for McCrae and his squad. There had been an understanding that the squad would gather at least a month before the start of the World Cup. This period would also include the three-day journey by sea to Genoa and a one-week training camp in Italy.
It is an indication of the World Cup’s relatively minor standing at the time that the Egyptian Football Association had other ideas. With Egypt scheduled to make their World Cup bow on May 27 against Hungary in a straight knock-out clash, the domestic season was allowed to run its course fully rather than, as expected, be postponed until the squad’s return from Italy.
This meant that that the final of the King Farouk Cup (now Egyptian Cup) between Al Mokhtalat (now Zamalek) and Al Olympi Alexandria took place on May 12, preventing total of nine players from joining up early with the rest of Egypt squad.
Meanwhile Al Masry beat Bur Fouad in the Sultanate Cup final on May 11, which affected several other players too.
When Egypt set off for Italy, 17 of the squad of 20 players were fully fit.
World Cup 1934: Egypt v Hungary
On the day of the match, the Georgio Ascarelli Stadium in Napoli was packed with between 10,000 to 13,000 fans according to varying reports, and as expected most were local Italian residents.
In years to come Latif, Mansour and co would be seen as trailblazers for African and Arab football, yet at the time the sheer sporting and cultural impact the World Cup would go on to have was only just beginning to be felt.
“I had the honour of playing in that historic match, but at the time we didn’t realise how important it was, we treated it like any other match,” Mansour said. “The World Cup did not then have the importance it would get later, even in the Italian press at the time.”
The team that made history that day was; Mansour in goal. Ali El Kaf, Ibrahim Abdel Hamidu Sharli and Hassan El Far in defence. Ismail Rafaat and Hassan Raghab in midfield. In attack there was Mohamed Latif, Mostafa Taha, Abdelrahman Fawzi, Mahmoud “El Tetch” Mokhtar and Mohammed Hassan.
The 3-2-5 set up, or the WM formation made famous by Herbert Chapman’s great Arsenal team of the 1930s, is a relic from an era when emphasis was on attacking first. Defensive tactics would arrive in the coming decades.
Hungary fielded a strong team mostly made up of players from the country’s leading clubs: Ferncevaros, Upjest, Debreceni and Hungaria of Budapest.
“The Hungarian players were far more experienced than us, most of them were professionals,” said Mansour. “In contrast only Mahmoud ‘El Tetch’ Mokhtar, our captain and top scorer, had played at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.”
Mokhtar, a short, stocky player, had been given that nickname by his adoring fans for his agility and capacity to challenge for headers.
It was the Hungarians, however, who quickly established their dominance over Egypt, racing into a ninth-minute lead through Pal Teleki.
“We poured forward looking for a an equaliser, recalling that the last meeting between the two teams had ended in a 3-0 friendly win for Egypt in 1931,” Mansour said. “But our reckless attacks cost us a second goal in the 27th minute from [Geza] Toldi.”
Egypt were far from beaten. Abdelrahman Fawzi halved the deficit from a direct free-kick two minutes later, and on 35 minutes, he confirmed his hero status with an equaliser. Egypt were 45 minutes from progressing to the last eight.
The second half followed a similar pattern to the first, with Egypt attacking and Hungary hitting on the break. On 53 minutes, Fawzi had a goal disallowed for an offside call on Latif, who the Egyptians insisted was not interfering with play.
As Egypt’s players complained, Hungary restarted the match and within seconds Jeno Vincze was one on one with Mansour. He made no mistake, scoring the third and, what turned out to be, winning goal.
Despite the setback, Egypt continued to attack before an unfortunate incident in the 61st minute put an end to any thoughts of a heroic comeback .
“I collected a high ball in my area only for Toldi to charge towards me with his knee,” Mansour remembers. “He made contact with my nose, and I felt incredible pain. I fell to the floor and saw the ball in the back of the net and the referee awarding the fourth goal, despite complaints from my teammates.”
The young goalkeeper was tended to for a prolonged period, and eventually played out the match, which ended 4-2 in favour of the Europeans. The Egyptian squad stayed in Italy for the rest of the tournament, which ended on June 10th with Italy beating Czechoslovakia 2-1 in the final.
“I was admitted to hospital with a broken nose,” said Mansour. “The scars from that remain to this day.”
For Mansour and his teammates, in particular Latif, the World Cup would prove a turning point in their football careers.
Despite being denied a hat-trick against Hungary, left winger Fawzi had displayed enough skill to be included in the 1934 World Cup team of the tournament.
Thanks to McCrae’s influence, Latif and Mansour would go on to play for Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers and Queens Park respectively as they continued their studies in the UK.
Records show that Latif made his debut against Hibernian in the 1935-36 season, while the goalkeeper spent three years at Hampden Park while enrolled at Jordan Hill College in Glasgow.
Both of these players, along with ‘El Tetch’ and the rest of the squad that went to Italy, finished their careers at home.
No African team would make it to the World Cup again until Morocco in 1970. Surprisingly, Egypt themselves have since only qualified for one tournamnet, in 1990, when the competition was also held in Italy.
In March 1990 Latif passed away at the age of 80, a few months shy of seeing his country at the World Cup again. Mansour, the last surviving member of the 1934 squad, followed in 2002, at the age of 87.
Egypt’s 1990 World Cup team, which drew with the Netherlands and Ireland, and lost to England, may be far more familiar to Egyptian supporters today, as is the Mohamed Aboutrika-inspired African champions of the last decade. But there is little doubt that it is the pioneers of 1934 that blazed a trail for future African and Arab generations.