VANCOUVER, BC – As a young kid growing up in Egypt, soccer was in Aly Ghazal’s DNA.
His dad played. His uncle played. And some of his most vivid memories are playing soccer with friends on the streets of Cairo. He also remembers watching the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, and Patrick Vieira lead France to the 1998 World Cup when he was just six years old.
“I used to love the team from France,” Ghazal said. “Patrick Vieira is my idol in football.”
For Ghazal, a practicing Muslim who grew up in a household with his parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, family and religion came first.
Then, it was all about soccer.
“I always set a goal in my football career, when I was young even, I always wanted to play on the national team and play in Europe,” Ghazal said.
He did both by the age of 22.
After going through the youth ranks in his native Egypt, the defensive midfielder joined top-flight Portuguese club CD Nacional in 2013. It was a surprise move to many, since Ghazal had yet to even debut professionally in Egypt. But there he was, playing against the likes of James Rodriguez, Nemanja Matić, and João Moutinho in his first season in Portugal.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Especially in that first season.
“The football there is so different,” said Ghazal, who also earned his first call-up to the Egyptian men’s national team that year. “It’s quick. I had no clue about anything. I took time in that first half season. I was not performing that well. People started to say he’s an average player.”
Not for long.
Soon, Ghazal would establish himself as a regular starter for Nacional, who received and turned down a number of offers for the Egyptian’s services. Portuguese giants FC Porto, SL Benfica, and Sporting CP and UK-based sides Swansea City FC, West Bromwich Albion, Leeds United were among the teams linked to Ghazal during his time at Nacional.
“People started to talk, ‘Wow, this is a good player,’” said Ghazal, who became the first Egyptian to captain a top-level European side when was named permanent captain of Nacional in 2016. “Those people who were doubting me are the people that came after and said, ‘You are the best, come to Sporting, go to Benfica.’ It was fun for me to hear that.”
Ghazal went on to spend five seasons with Nacional, starting 102 of his 107 appearances in the Primeira Liga. He also started two matches in the UEFA Europa League and was a member of the Nacional side that reached the semifinal of the Taça de Portugal in 2015.
“Now people know who I am,” he added. “Just a boy who came from Egypt. I didn’t even play for the A team in Egypt. I came from a youth team to go play in Portugal. It was the biggest step in my career.”
Eventually, Nacional found themselves in a little bit of a financial crisis, which prompted Ghazal’s sale to Chinese Super League club Guizhou Zhicheng FC in January 2017 for a reported fee of more than $3 million, beating out a “sneaky bid” from Whitecaps FC head coach Carl Robinson.
However, due to the new Chinese Football Association player regulations, which decreased the number of foreign players permitted to play, Ghazal did not make an appearance with Guizhou Zhicheng and instead agreed to a mutual contract termination in July.
“I was watching Aly maybe a year or so ago,” Robinson told whitecapsfc.com. “He was at Nacional in Portugal and there were rumours of him moving. So I made inquiries to his representatives. The lure of the money in China made him go there.”
“From the moment he went there, I kept in contact with his agents. When the foreigner rule changed, three months had passed and he wasn’t playing. I made the inquiry and they were willing to do a deal. It was process of probably 14 or so months.”
Ghazal had other offers, some to go back to Portugal, but he was intrigued by the idea of Major League Soccer and Vancouver in particular.
“First of all, when I searched about the team, I saw the stadium, I saw the supporters, they had a new facility … for me, that’s a big club,” Ghazal said. “I didn’t have this experience before. In Portugal, it was a small club. The Chinese club was just promoted. I wanted to have that feeling to be in a big club with these good conditions. When I came here, I saw the facility, I saw how professional everyone was, I saw the supporters how they’re behind the team, it was good for me.”
The 25-year-old was forced into action a little sooner than anticipated after Matias Laba suffered a torn ACL in August. But he did not disappoint, leading the team with 21 tackles, 36 duels won, and 17 interceptions in seven regular season appearances after making his debut in September.
“I thought he played exceptionally well in certain games,” Robinson said. “I still think he played at 80 per cent because he wasn’t fit when he came in. There’s still more to come from Aly.”
“He’s got a big part to play in this team moving forward,” Robinson added. “He’s very athletic, tall, and strong. He back tracks very well. You look at modern day footballers especially in that position, they don’t stop running, they never give up, you need players to get back and make tackles. He certainly can do that. He has all the attributes, now it’s about piecing them all together and getting a good preseason under his belt because he hasn’t had a good preseason for a year or so.”
Ghazal, who also started all three of Vancouver’s matches in the MLS Cup Playoffs, said he was disappointed to bow out to defending MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders FC in the Western Conference Semifinals and he “will not accept” that happening again in 2018.
“Since I came here, I tried to do my best every game from the first game until the last,” he said. “I saw how hard the guys work here in training and in the games. We wanted to finish as far as we could. It was difficult, but that’s football.”
And it’s in his DNA.