His name may be little more than a footnote in Rangers’ 148 year history but the influence of African football pioneer Mohamed Latif on football’s global stage was far greater than many more famous figures.
He played just one competitive match for the Rangers first team, but the Egyptian blazed a trail that many others, including Mohamed Salah, have followed.
And when his playing career was over, he did much to promote the game in his homeland. Known as the “Sheikh of Commentators”, he was the Arab version of Archie McPherson, Arthur Montford or John Motson; the voice of football for a generation, credited with developing the country’s love of the game.
His influence didn’t end there. He was also instrumental in creating the African Football Confederation, the African equivalent of UEFA.
So what was this man’s link with Rangers?
Latif was born in the town of Beni Suef, around 70 miles south of Cairo, in October 1909. His football career started in the capital with El Mokhtalat SC and he first represented the national team in 1932.
The three goals he scored against Palestine in an 11-2 aggregate victory, helped Egypt become the first African team to qualify for the World Cup in 1934. The inside-forward then went on to play in the tournament in Italy. Egypt were eliminated by Hungary, but that appearance was something that his more illustrious Ibrox team-mates never got to achieve.
Latif was recommended to Rangers by Egypt’s Scottish coach James McRea, who himself had appeared for the Govan club as a guest during the First World War. Known as “Hammy”, Latif was in Glasgow to study physical education at Jordanhill College and spent much of the 1935-36 season in Scotland – apart from a short sojourn to Sweden for further study.
Like fellow Jordanhill PE student, the Welshman Clifford Hughes, Latif turned out as an amateur for Rangers reserves, playing 16 games in the Alliance League.
At just 5ft 6ins tall and weighing in at 10st, Latif was a tricky inside forward with an eye for goal, scoring seven goals in the Alliance league. However, it has been said that Latif and Hughes were not popular among the rest of the Rangers squad, who feared their amateur status could see them take the place of a professional player.
Nevertheless, Hammy showed enough in the reserves to get a call up to the first team from manager Bill Struth. His debut came against Hibs at Easter Road in September 1935, where he lined up alongside legendary forward Bob McPhail. The match ended 1-1 and Latif didn’t cover himself in glory, if reports from the time are to be believed. The Glasgow Herald saying, “Rangers never revealed anything like championship class, the rugged nature of the contest being all against studied action. Their attack was weakened by the inclusion of Latif, who was too impetuous, and McPhail was in listless mood.”
It was to be his only competitive appearance for Rangers. He played one more time for the first team in a benefit match against Falkirk, but in 1936 he returned to Egypt and signed for his old club. Later that year he represented Egypt again on the international stage – this time appearing in the football tournament at the controversial Olympic games in Berlin.
In 1945 he retired as a player, although made a brief comeback the following year, giving what was described as “an outstanding performance” for an Egyptian XI against a British Army select in Cairo. On his retirement, he became the El Mokhtalat coach and was closely involved on the administrative side when the club changed its name to Zamalek in 1952.
But if his footballing achievements were impressive, it was arguably what he did off the pitch as a football commentator and administrator that had the greatest impact in the long term. From the 1950s onwards Latif was a football commentator known throughout the Arab world. The “Sheikh of Commentators” became head of TV sports at Egyptian TV and was a regular at World Cups. In addition, in 1956 he was one of the creators of the African Football Confederation, crucial in developing the game on the continent.
Latif is still fondly remembered by Egyptian football fans. Zamalek supporter John Mounir told me, “Due to my young age I wasn’t there when Mohamed Latif was playing but what I know about him is that he is the reason for the popularity of football in Egypt. The story begins when TV appeared in the 1950s – he was the first football commentator in Egypt and he started to teach Egyptians the rules and regulations of the game until it became the most popular sport in Egypt and the Arab world. Mohammed Latif is said to be the best commentator in Egypt’s history.”
Hammy died in Cairo in 1990, aged 80. His grandson Khalid Latif followed in his footsteps both as a Zamalek player and as a commentator in Egyptian television, building on the foundations laid down by “Captain Mohamed Latif”.