The Ballon D’or is handed out annually to recognise the sporting achievements and breathtaking play of male and female footballers during the previous calendar year. Footballers with cabinets laden with silverware, scoring titles and an abundance of international caps.
But for fleeting moments since its inception in 1992, the Premier League has seen a swathe of assorted jobbers suddenly transform from nobodies to world-beaters, and back again.
The Amr Zaki Memorial Award is an alternative accolade dedicated to players who ever so briefly seemed to be the best in the land before quickly reverting to type. It recognises those shooting stars that shone brightly but burnt out all too quickly. Relative unknowns who snatched their fifteen minutes of fame with a purple patch of blistering form before leaving as quietly or demurely as they arrived.
Where else could we begin?
Emerging as if from nowhere, Amr Zaki’s year-long loan signing at Wigan from Egyptian top-tier outfit Zamalek would have struggled to make the yellow breaking news ticker most days on Sky Sports News. A reputation as a reasonably reliable goalscorer in his formative years at Egyptian second-tier side ENPII fuelled rumours of a move to Newcastle, Nantes and Southampton in 2006 before the Egyptian hitman opted for a (brief) spell at Lokomotiv Moscow.
Struggling to adjust to the climate and Russian way of life, Zaki returned home to Zamalek without an appearance for the Moscow side to his name and began to rebuild his reputation – the forward made an instant impact upon his return home with eight goals in his first nine games for the side from Giza.
His performances for the national team earned him the nickname the “bulldozer” and eventually attracted then-Wigan manager Steve Bruce. Upon his arrival at the DW Stadium, Zaki bagged goals in all three of his pre-season appearances during the summer of 2008. Eight in his first 11 games proved he was able to hit the ground running, including two second-half goals to help Wigan on their way to their first points of the season in a 5-0 demolition away at Hull. A notable brace away at Anfield – the second, a ferocious scissor kick – followed shortly after.
Early performances in the blue and white stripes of Wigan had the top brass back in Zamalek licking their lips. “We have the right to sell Amr to anybody we choose” was the sentiment in Giza as rumours circulated of a move to West London, Merseyside, Manchester or even Madrid with January looming.
Sports outlets in Wigan town centre reported a shortage of Zs as they struggled to keep up with the demand for the printing of Zaki’s name on the backs of new home strips. As if appearing from thin air, Amr Zaki tore Premier League defences to shreds in the early months of the 08/09 season and he led the goalscoring charts heading into October.
After Zaki had run the Liverpool backline ragged on that Saturday afternoon in October, even Rafa Benitez was forced to admit “everyone will be checking his status now”. Zaki was a hot property.
But just as quickly as his rise to prominence developed, Zaki fell to the ground with an almighty thud. Rumblings of dissent emerged on the back pages and reports of Zaki returning to training late after an international break, during which he didn’t even take the field, posed questions over his dedication to life at the DW.
His delightfully adept scissor kick at Anfield would prove to be Zaki’s last from open play in English football. Zaki would net a further three penalties – the first away to Portsmouth, a second during a 2-1 home win against Newcastle and a further first-half winner from the spot away at the Reebok Stadium in Bolton – but his intimidating of opposition defenders would cease as the sound of Christmas carols began to fill the air.
After the new year celebrations had come to a close – the empty glasses collected, the bunting taken down, empty party poppers swept from the dining room floor – Zaki’s form continued to nose dive. Zaki would fail to find the scoresheet at all after Christmas, instead, Wigan would rely on his countryman Mido, Hugo Rodallega, and Henri Camara to find the goals so desperately needed for survival.
Despite a reported bid of £14 million from Aston Villa for Zaki’s services, Zamalek refused offers left, right, and centre, with Wigan themselves, rebuffed in their £8 million attempts to make the loan permanent. Zamalek instead gambling on the Bulldozer of Mansoura regaining his early-season form and cashing in big-time during the summer window.
Mido’s arrival allegedly sparked a rift between the two; Ramadan drove a wedge between Zaki and Steve Bruce as their opinions of fasting differed wildly; four weeks on the treatment table and a vicious wage dispute – life at Wigan showed no signs of improving.
After 13 games without scoring, Bruce grew tired of dealing with Zaki. The striker failed to report to training on time for a fourth time that season – his excuses mounting up – he was in need of a rest; he was injured; he was celebrating his 26th birthday. Zaki was labelled “unprofessional”, “difficult”, and “a nightmare to deal with”.
The sizzling form he’d shown through late summer has deserted him completely and any move to a top-four side – or Real Madrid for that matter – had all but dissipated. By this point, Zaki had picked up almost as many fines for tardiness and unprofessionalism as he had league goals. Zaki left Wigan in the summer of 2009 under a cloud of animosity and regret. He returned to Zamalek with no incoming offer of Champions League football on the horizon.
Zaki made an ephemeral return to the Premier League in 2010 to bolster the strike force at Hull City that already included Daniel Cousin, Kamel Ghilas, Jozy Altidore and Jan Venegoor of Hesselink as part of their desperate bid to avoid the drop. Zaki took to the field six times without a single goal for his efforts. Fitness concerns and a serious knee injury-marred further spells at ENPII, Raja Casablanca, and a brief stint in Kuwait with Al-Salmiya before he finally pulled the curtain down on his career in 2015.
The main criticism levelled at Amr Zaki during his time in the Premier League was his fleeting interest in the game – his ability to apply himself and perform on the biggest stage in English football only materialised when it suited him. We as football fans are assured by content aggregators on social media that “the streets won’t forget” a player like Amr Zaki, which is comforting.
When it comes to players like Amr Zaki, their potent form lasts for such a short, sweet period of time it’s more akin to a sugar rush than a hearty meal. A forward with the ability to turn on the afterburners when it suits them, but without the necessary aptitude for training, fitness, or dedication to sustain themselves for a fifteen-year career should be celebrated nevertheless. Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.