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Apr 25, 2014

Al-Ahly sign Said as Aboutrika replacement

While Egyptian football was sent into turmoil against the backdrop of the country's revolution, Al-Ahly played as though nothing traumatic was going on at all. They racked up leagues titles -- extending their run to seven in succession -- and registered back-to-back triumphs in the CAF Champions League. Nothing could stop them, or so it seemed.

This season, that changed. For the first time since trouble hit Egypt, its champion club had issues of their own. Al-Ahly suffered a shock exit from the CAF Champions League at the hands of namesakes Al-Ahly Benghazi. They have since made it their mission to become the first Egyptian club to win the secondary continental competition, the CAF Confederation Cup.

Al-Ahly currently lie third in their group in the Egyptian Premier League, and need to finish in the top two to have a shot at winning the competition, which will culminate with a mini-league of four teams (the top two from each group). They have an advantage because they have games in hand over their rivals so becoming title-holders again is still within Al-Ahly's grasp, but the journey this time has had its fair share of speed bumps, and the retirement of their talismanic striker Mohamad Aboutrika has left an obvious gap.

For next season, Al-Ahly have a plan to plug that hole. They have acquired the services of Ethiopia's marquee man, Saladin Said, who was also sought after by their Cairo-rivals Zamalek and South African club Kaizer Chiefs. Said is currently plying his trade at another Egyptian club -- Wadi Degla -- for whom he has netted seven times this season.

Al-Ahly are rumoured to have spent US$500,000 for Said, which is more than double what he received when he moved from Ethiopian club Saint George to Wadi. Then, the US$240,000 was the highest sum ever paid for an Ethiopian footballer. Now, Said has entered new territory, firmly establishing himself as the most acclaimed player from his country and, given the reputation of the team he will be playing for, a superstar at the age of just 25.

If you ask the people from his hometown of Assosa, in the west of Ethiopia, they will say they always knew he was destined for something special. "He was so devoted to football," his brother Ahmed told The Reporter in Ethiopia last March. "He never thought about other things except the games; he would make it to the field every day."

Said is one of seven siblings and one of four who play football. His father inspired them to take up the game and two of his brothers played at junior levels in Ethiopia with a third playing professionally in Yemen. Said was just 19 years old when he was signed by the highest-profile club in Ethiopia, Saint George. That season, 2007-08, he was the leading scorer in the Premier League with 21 goals from 17 matches. The following season was a repeat of that feat, although he was even more successful and scored 24 times. He was named the league's best player.

Despite Said's obvious promise, a stint in Serbia proved a damp squib when the side he was on trial with, Partizan, did not see reason to take him on board. Instead, he made his name in Egypt, for Wadi and eventually got to Europe when he was sent on loan to Belgian side Lierse, who are owned by the same people who are in charge at Wadi. His goal for Lierse against KVK Tienan, in which he beat three defenders and netted from an acute angle, is still talked about as the stuff of legend and has over 7,500 views on Youtube.

Said's quick-footedness and sharp eye earned the praise of former Zambian great Herve Renard, who earmarked him as a potential threat at the 2013 African Nations' Cup. At that tournament, Ethiopia drew their opener against Zambia, although Said was not the goal scorer, they impressed with their energetic, creative style of play.

If not for fielding an ineligible player during 2014 World Cup qualification, Ethiopia were strong contenders to make it to Brazil and Said was their top scorer. He will almost certainly have another chance to take them to a global showpiece in future. And before that, he will have Africa's biggest stage to shine on as he turns out for Al-Ahly.

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