Thursday 16 February 2017, 09:52

The day it all started for Ad-Diba and the Pharaohs

Egypt can feel proud of their efforts at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Gabon 2017. In reaching the final of the tournament after seven luckless years, they exceeded expectations, even if the 2-1 final defeat to Cameroon left their fans with a bitter taste in the mouth. In taking the lead through Mohamed Elneny’s 22nd-minute strike, and holding on to it until the hour mark, the Pharaohs came close to an unlikely eighth triumph in the continent’s most prestigious tournament, some 60 years after their first, at the inaugural Africa Cup of Nations

That maiden title came on 16 February 1957, a date writ large in the history of the Pharaohs, who have won more silverware than any other national team on the continent. It was also a day on which the legend of Mohamed Diab Al Attar, better known by his nickname 'Ad-Diba', was forged. Four of the five goals he scored at that first Africa Cup of Nations came in the 4-0 defeat of Ethiopia in the final, a feat that made him an icon of African football. He would cement that status in becoming a top-level referee, one who would go on to officiate the 1968 Africa Cup of Nations final between Ghana and Congo-Kinshasa (now Congo DR).

Born in 1927 in Alexandria, Ad-Diba learned to play football at school, under the tutelage of the Houda brothers, Sayed and Mahmoud, former coaches with Al Ittihad, the club the youngster would join in the early 1940s. A centre-forward, Ad-Diba played a big part in the Alexandria side’s third Egyptian Cup win in 1948, alongside Kamal Sabbagh and Mohamed Shata, and earned his first call-up to the national team that same year. The highlight of his ten-year international career came when he helped Egypt win the Africa crown in 1957, a year before he retired from the game.

Ad-Diba bids adieu “Those matches at the 1957 Africa Cup of Nations were unforgettable,” said the Egyptian legend nearly 50 years later, recalling that tournament, which came in the days when only four sides took part in that finals. Egypt’s opponents on that occasion were Sudan, Ethiopia, and South Africa - though South Africa was disqualified because of their government's apartheid policy. “There’s no question that it was the success of that competition and the excitement it generated in Sudan, the host country, that encouraged the African Confederation to stage the competition every two years and in different countries.”

The tournament has been staged 30 times since then, with Egypt taking their tally of continental titles to seven and no player having bettered his achievement of scoring four goals in a final. Nor has any player gone on to become a highly respected referee, so revered that he took charge of a continental final ten years later. “Captain Ad-Diba doesn’t need any more recognition,” said Al Ittihad president Mahmoud Mashaly, paying recent homage to the Egyptian, who played for the Alexandria club throughout his career. “He is a pioneer and a legendary figure in the history of the game. His career was a long and glorious one and he has achieved things no one else has.”

Mashaly uttered that glowing tribute following the death of the Pharaoh idol on 30 December 2016, just a few weeks before Egypt’s unfortunate reverse at the hands of Cameroon, and before the 60th anniversary of one of the nation’s most momentous victories.