Fans around Europe first noticed Ahmed Hassan when he cried. The Egyptian striker, nicknamed Koka, scored a magnificent goal for Sporting Braga against Marseille in a Europa League clash in late October, lobbing Steve Mandanda with a deft touch, and then bursting into tears.
The reason was quite remarkable. Koka’s father unexpectedly passed away 24 hours before the game, but the forward asked to be on the field nevertheless and dedicated the dramatic 3-2 win to his late dad.
“I am here because of my father. He was everything to me and helped me to become who I am. I didn’t want to give up. I tried to score a goal for him, and that’s how it was”, an emotional Koka said after the game.
Immediately afterwards, he flew out to Cairo to attend the funeral, and thus missed the big game at Porto in the Portuguese league. The Dragons were probably quite fortunate not to face him, and the fixture ended goalless.
On Sunday, Braga hosted a Porto side desperately needing a win in order to stay in the title race. Benfica had just beaten Sporting in the Lisbon derby, and three points would keep the northeners within touching distance of the summit.
This time, though, Koka was on the pitch, and it mattered. On 73 minutes, the Egyptian got a ball in the penalty area following a mistake by Spanish stopper Ivan Marcano, and expertly put it into the net past Iker Casillas. Braga eventually ran out 3-1 winners, putting an end to Porto’s dreams.
Needless to say, Benfica were delighted with the result. On the other hand, the Eagles might be kicking themselves when witnessing the prolific form of Koka. Ever since his father’s death, Hassan can’t stop scoring, with nine league goals for Braga to his name already.
Are the Lisbon giants, who very nearly signed him last summer, now sorry that they backtracked on the deal?
Everything seemed to be closed by May last year. Koka caught an eye by Portuguese standards after scoring 12 goals for modest Rio Ave, and both Lisbon rivals were keen on getting him.
Sporting saw their offer refused, then Benfica came in and were more successful. The pre-contract was signed before the season ended, and only a medical check stood between Hassan and the Estadio da Luz.
That’s when things became complicated. Benfica’s medical staff found a heart problem that required minor surgery. Upon its completion, the second medical check was supposed to take place, but it never happened.
The Eagles decided to keep away from the Egyptian, leaving him disappointed in the extreme. “I felt very distressed,” he said in an interview with FilGoal. Eventually, Rio Ave took him back, and the striker had a fruitful pr-eseason with them.
Veteran Portuguese coach Manuel Jose offered an explanation for such a turn of events. According to him, Benfica are still experiencing trauma following the tragic death of Hungarian star Miklos Feher, who collapsed on the pitch in January 2004. The 24-year-old suffered from cardiac arrythmia, but that was unknown to the club. “I think that those events crossed the Benfica officials’ minds. They didn’t want to take risks,” Jose said. It is quite hard to blame them.
Jose, who used to work at Benfica and Sporting in the past, knows Koka better than most. He was the coach of Al Ahly when the young striker was on the verge of joining the first team from the club’s academy in 2011, but wasn’t offered a contract.
“Hassan trained regularly with the first squad, and the only reason he didn’t play for us was that I had the best strikers in Egypt,” Jose explained.
What happened next is quite unclear, and Al Ahly fans still have hard feelings regarding the way in which the player left the club. There were rumours that Jose’s son was responsible for the move to Rio Ave. It turned out, however, that the move was for the best.
Hassan waited until late 2012 to make his debut for the Portuguese club, and scored seven goals in his debut season. 2013-14 was a bit less successful, even though Rio Ave reached the finals of both cup competitions, but last term Koka came of age and became one of the leaders. It was only natural that he wanted to take the next step.
After the move to Benfica collapsed, Braga somewhat belatedly stepped in. Hassan scored the winner for Rio Ave against them in late August, and a couple of days later he was already at his new club. “Had he arrived to us a week earlier, we wouldn’t have lost at the weekend,” Braga coach Paulo Fonseca joked, and the Egyptian was accepted very warmly.
“I want to be amongst the three top strikers in Portugal and progress as far as possible in Europa League,” Koka stated. His first two months were rather average, the only highlight being a winner against Groningen in early October.
But everything changed after that extremely emotional game against Marseille. Suddenly, Koka became unstoppable. He scored two braces in January, added goals against Estoril, Maritimo and Guimaraes in February, and against Porto finally managed to find the net against top opposition, two days after celebrating his 23rd birthday. Fonseca was more delighted than anyone – it was sweet revenge for the man whom Porto fired two years ago.
Egypt coach Hector Cuper is excited as well. The Argentinian believes in Hassan, and was rewarded with four goals in three games in the autumn, including a brace versus Chad in 2018 World Cup qualifiers. The Pharaohs have high hopes for the tournament with a crop of young talent.
Mohamed Salah is fast becoming a real Serie A superstar at Roma, Mohamed Elneny has joined Arsenal, and now Koka is developing into a very interesting striker. Tall, physically strong and sound technically, he is somewhat reminiscent of Mido, only with much better attitude.
Hassan is good friends with Salah and Elneny, frequently celebrating their achievements on social networks. He knows them well since they played at the Under-20 World Cup in 2011 together, and now they seem ready for glory on the big stage.
“My dream is to make my family and my country pround,” Koka states on Twitter, and he is on the right track to achieving just that.
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