Mohamed Elneny’s main inspirations can be summed up fairly easily. The desire to win, and the memory of his late mother, who sacrificed so much to help him realise his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
In this exclusive interview with the matchday programme, the Egypt international midfielder tells us all about what inspires him on a daily basis, and how his early days shaped his winning mentality.
In El Mahalla El Kubra, northern Egypt, back in July 1992, Mohamed Elneny was born into a life in football. It was always going to be that way. Call it fate, destiny or just an incredible determination to succeed on behalf of himself and his parents, but Mo’s path into the sport was mapped out from his very first day of existence.
His father, Nasser Elneny, was a footballer and then coach himself, and had a similar vision for his son, from the very beginning.
“From the moment I was born, literally on that day, my dad told everyone I would become a footballer,” Mohamed begins. “That’s how it happened, my mum and dad decided that day what I would be. It’s funny, how did they know? Maybe they had a strong feeling, like it was a destiny for me.
"They wanted me to become a footballer from the first day, and as I grew up, I loved it. But how did they know? Because sometimes your parents might want you to become a doctor, but if you don’t feel it, you cannot do it. The same with football, if you don’t love it growing up, then you cannot become a footballer.
“They cannot make you do it. But I always loved it, I always felt it in me, and always wanted to do it.
“My dad was a footballer, and because of my dad my whole family would play football in the street,” he adds. “All of my family love football so much.
“When I was growing up – the one thing I saw every day was football. I saw my dad playing for his club, and I would go sometimes to watch, and when I wasn’t watching, he would take me to the fields to play. When I was growing up, everything in my life was football.”
It wasn’t long until young Mohamed’s passion for football started to manifest itself as a clear talent as well.
“I started playing when I was three years old,” the midfielder explains. “When I started kicking a ball, everyone – my dad, his friends – they all said I was different. Even when I was three I had a really strong shot, and usually at that age you can’t kick a ball that well. But I was playing with a real football, and people were saying back then that I would become a good footballer.
“Also I started off at a big club in Egypt, called Al Ahly, so that made me think that I always want to play at the top level. It changed my life really. Because I had started at a big club, I learnt to have a winning mentality from a very young age. That was what I knew from when I first started playing.
“I’m not joking, but at that first club, if we only won 7-0, I swear there would be a punishment for us, because they always demanded more from us, even in the youth teams. 7-0 was not enough!
“That environment created something in me. Even after a big win, they would say ‘you could have won by more, why didn’t you?’ This is when I was about six or seven years old, and that created a big mentality in me.”
That tough mentality, will to win and in fact compulsion to be playing for trophies and honours has stuck with him ever since.
After serving his apprenticeship in Egyptian football, Mo joined Swiss Super League side Basel in 2013, aged 20. He won the league title in each of his four seasons at the club, before moving to Arsenal in early 2016, winning the FA Cup in his first full season, and reaching cup finals in each of the next two campaigns. Being in the hunt for silverware, and competing at the top end of whatever league he happens to be playing in, is a major part of his daily motivation.
“I started out at a very big club in Egypt,” he says, “and 100 per cent I was proud to be at a big club like Al Ahly and it inspired me to do better. It still inspires me now.
“I play for one of the best clubs in the world, and sometimes when I see the badge, see my name on the shirt, it makes me stop and think. It makes me proud, it’s what I dreamed of when I was young and now I am here. Playing for one of the best clubs in the world is something that is incredible for me.
“It's funny because I have always told myself that I cannot play for a team that isn’t always fighting for trophies. Throughout my career, at whatever level I’ve played, I’ve always been at a team that can fight for the trophies. I need that to inspire me and motivate me.
"Some smaller clubs are just happy to stay in the league, or are not fighting for trophies. I cannot do that, I mean really I can’t do that, I need the motivation of playing for something, to win.
“Always it's been like that, whatever level I played at. When I played in Switzerland, I was at Basel and we won the league four times. My agent said to me at some points ‘this club is interested in you’ and I would say that no, I couldn’t go. Even if it’s a bigger club elsewhere, I need to be playing where we fight for trophies. I want to win, I need to win something. Just playing to stay in the league is not enough.
“It was the same when I went out on loan three years ago. I had lots of options from different clubs – some in England, some in Italy – but none of them were playing for anything. So when Besiktas came in, and I saw they are one of the best clubs in Turkey, always playing for the league and the cups, I said yes, I will go there. I need to have that motivation. I am inspired by winning. Even when I play games with my kids! I need that competition.”
Mo has two children, a son and a daughter, though he says it’s his son, Malik, who’s more likely to follow his father’s – and grandfather’s – footsteps into football. And when it comes to Malik’s competitive spirit, it’s not hard to see who he takes after.
“Last week I was playing a PlayStation game with my son,” Mo explains. “He’s still young, nine years old, so of course sometimes I let him have a chance, but this time he kept saying ‘dad this time I’m going to beat you, I’m going to beat you!’ I said ‘OK, are we playing seriously this time?’ He said ‘yes, I’m going to win’.
“So before, when I might have let him win, this time I beat him. Because he kept saying it was a serious game. He’s nine years old, but I don’t like to lose! If we are having fun, then OK, I let him win, but when he said it’s a serious game – no chance!
“But he has the same mentality as me. He plays football and I said to him you can never be happy if you come home after losing a game. It’s about winning, you can’t be happy to lose.
“He loves football too, he won the best player in the league last season. He plays on the left wing, I want him to be in midfield but he’s very good on the wing and he scores goals.”
Mo’s children, and his wider family, are now sources of inspiration for his everyday life. But one person dominates his thoughts whenever he needs extra motivation during the hard times.
“My mum,” he says. “She passed away 15 years ago. She always believed in me. When I was a kid we would travel from my home town to Cairo to go to training. That is a two-hour journey because unfortunately mine wasn’t a rich family, so we didn’t have the money to go by car, we had to use public transport.
"So we would wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning, walk in the dark for 30 minutes, then wait for the train. The train took two hours, then we would wait for the bus – and it was a specific bus we had to catch. If we missed that one we had no way of getting to training.
“Then I would go training, and do the same on the way home. We made this journey three times every week. This was when I was six years old, to get to training each time, my mum used to do that for me. And also my little sister had just been born, so my mum had a baby as well to take with her. Three times a week. Every single week. I couldn’t even do that in a private car!
“In Egypt that was very difficult, especially for a woman. Then after she took me training, she would come home, clean the house, cook for us, look after us. My mum was just incredible.”
It’s those memories of travelling down to Al Ahly’s Cairo training camp that spur on Mo still now – 24 years later.
“Now, whenever I drive to London Colney, and if I ever think it’s difficult for me for just one moment, I just remember what my mother had to do, and I realise how easy it is for me now.
“I am really grateful for what my family have done for me, I am really thankful for everything. I use her memory to inspire me now. My mum is not with me now, but I will always remember what she did for me and I want to become the best I can be, not just for me, but for my mum. She really believed in me, and one of the big reasons I’m where I am now is because of her.”
Mo was just 15 when his mother died, and it was a particularly tough year for the Elneny family as it came at the same time that his long-standing relationship with Al Ahly came to an end – just when the young midfielder was having thoughts of soon becoming professional.
“Yes my mum died at the same time that the club I was at kicked me out,” he recalls. “It was the same year. I had played 10 years there, I was the captain there and then one of my coaches said they don’t want me anymore. They decided I wasn’t good enough anymore, so that was a very hard year for me. For my dad as well of course. He had given everything for me to be a footballer, to be where I was.
"Everything was going well, we had built something amazing, then all of a sudden – in just one second - everything was on the floor. That’s what happened to my dad. When I told him what the club had said to me, I swear his world was smashed. I said to him, ‘dad I’m going to make you proud of me.’ Because I knew what he had given, what it meant to him as well. All the travelling and everything.
“I always kept believing and wanting to become a footballer, but when I went to a new club, the first year was very difficult. I only played about two games that year, when I was 16, and that year I said to my dad I want to go back home instead. That was Al Mokawloon, my dad said to wait, see how it goes, and the next year was the year that I played first-team football. It changed my life, because then soon I got the move to Europe when I signed for Basel.”
All of these life experiences have made Mo, who turned 30 last month, the man he is today, and shaped a career that has seen him win five major trophies, and earn nearly 100 caps for his country. Now he himself is inspiring the next generation, starting right at home, with his own son.
“Yes, but I keep telling him the importance of hard work,” Mo confirms. “His life is very different to how mine was when I was his age. I tell him that nothing comes easy – I tell him all the time that I had to wait for a train and a bus just to get to training. I tell him that he has to work hard.
"He was born in Switzerland but I have taken him to Egypt, shown him where I grew up, how it was for me and I tell him that nothing comes for free. You have to work hard and you have to be patient. That’s what gives you the winning mentality.”
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