Zein: “From the first day, this was my game”

14 Apr. 2023

Zein: “From the first day, this was my game”

The ‘Dream Big’ series focuses on the stories of elite handball players, from childhood or their discovery of the sport through to now. The IHF recognises the important part athletes play as role models for children and young people who dream of becoming professional handball players — or pursuing any goal. With that in mind, this series aims to bridge the gap children and young people may perceive and show them the diverse paths to the top. 

The first instalment centres on Egypt and Dinamo Bucuresti left back Ali Zein, whose most notable international achievements include three African Championship titles, one EHF Champions League trophy and a historic top-four finish at the 2020 Olympic Games. 

Ali Zein may have been recognisable to many handball fans for some time considering his longevity in the Egypt national team, but his star has skyrocketed in recent years as he has played a key part in the rise of the African side to sit among the global leaders in men’s handball and also enjoyed considerable success on a club level. 

Before reaching the heights he has now, Zein had long been recognised in Africa, being named MVP of the 2018 continental championship and in the All-star Team at the two subsequent events, in 2020 and 2022. He also won numerous trophies on the club level within his own continent, where he got his start with the notable Egyptian club Al Ahly. 

“I started to play handball in 1996/97, in the Al Ahly club. This is my club — my forming club always when I played in Egypt,” says Zein, who was six when he picked up a handball for the first time. An expansive club, Al Ahly offers a diverse sports programme, including handball alongside numerous others. Before handball, Zein was participating in swimming, karate and judo. 

“My father was always supportive and he told me, ‘let’s go to try handball’. From the first day I went there, I was feeling like ‘this is my game’. I had easy control of the ball, and that is how I discovered it.

“Since day one really, when I began handball, I was like ‘only handball. This is closed. It’s my game’,” says Zein, recalling how handball felt like a natural fit immediately. Zein was too young for there to be a handball team of his age group at the club, so he joined one two years older than himself. He also played handball at school, where students were able to choose one sport to play during the week. 

“I always liked to play this game. Always, always it felt that it’s something easy for me to do and something that always made me happy.”

So Zein discovered his love for the game young, but when did he realise he could make it on the big stage and become an elite player? 

“I began to discover that I can do something big, I think in 2006 — when I began to join my national team, the youth national team,” says Zein, who was recruited to the side by coach Emad Ibrahim to replace an injured player. He put on a strong enough performance to become a steady member of the young-age category teams. 

“In Egypt, in 2007, we took second place in the Mediterranean Games — it was amazing — and I took the ‘best player’ in this competition. From this moment on, I saw that I can always do something better and I can be on the high level. This was something for me to begin to have a dream. Since this moment, I began to play more and more.”

Zein graduated to the junior national team and was part of the same generation as current Egypt stars Karim Hendawy, Mohamed Mamdouh and Mohammad Sanad. Another important experience at this time was the 2009 Junior World Championship played in Egypt, where the African team finished fourth, led by coach Assem El Sadeny. 

“This was really something important for my career, to play this World Championship. They were older than me by two years, and I almost played all and I played very well,” says Zein. “The coach [El Sadeny] was a very good coach and was trusting me from the first day and he took me, before this World Championship, like two years before. I was always training with them. When you have a World Championship in your country, they take care so much. They care so much about the team and it was like two years always playing matches outside and it was very important for me to have this experience.”

“It was becoming like my dream was coming true”

Next came the senior national team. “I began to play in the national team, the first team, in 2009. It was becoming like my dream was coming true,” says Zein. 

“They were like the ‘golden team’ and had a lot of big players in Egypt. For me, it was like a dream to play with them — to play with them and to play well and they support you and you support them. It was an amazing feeling.” 

2009 was a big year for Zein as it was also the year in which he signed his first professional contract with Al Ahly for four years. “From this moment, I saw the life, the sport life, is different. When you have a contract, you take money, you can do a lot of things to help yourself to improve in the sport. 

“I was lucky to have this club, to be in this club,” says Zein, who recalls certain valuable lessons alongside the on-court development during that period, such as “how to have discipline in the sport and outside the sport. It was so good for me to have that when I was young, to learn that, to have rules in your life to do it always, so it was very good for me, really. It was not easy to adapt yourself to that. 

“In the beginning, I was playing very well, and one time, I got injured and I was like, going up, going down, going up, going down, going up, going down. And after that, I think I got in the right way and I tried to have my rules, my discipline in the sport and outside the sport, and to know exactly what I am doing. From this moment on, I had a good time and enjoyed the handball more.” 

Since his first contract with Al Ahly, Zein has played for clubs in Asia, Africa and Europe. In 2022, he took Europe’s most coveted international club title: the EHF Champions League, playing for Barcelona. 

Zein’s story is one that encapsulates the importance of perseverance and the understanding that rewards will come on the back of hard work. Looking back to 2013, when Zein made his debut at the IHF Men’s World Championship, Egypt were consistently ranking in the ‘teens’, finishing between 13th and 17th at every edition from 2003 to 2017. Since 2019, they have placed in the top eight three consecutive times. 


Ali Zein


Avid handball watchers would have been aware of the Egypt team’s potential to return as more of a force in international handball beforehand, however, it was the World Championship on home ground in 2021 where the side left no choice but for everyone’s attention to be grabbed. 

Their 2019 World Championship campaign included some notable results as they returned to the top eight, such as close losses to then European vice-champions Sweden and eventual finalists Norway. By the time the 2021 edition on home ground had arrived, Egypt had returned to the top of the African championship podium. 

At the 2021 World Championship, they lost to Sweden by only one goal in a thrilling preliminary round clash; easily overthrew the likes of Russian Handball Federation and Belarus in the main round; drew with EHF EURO 2020 semi-finalists Slovenia in a match that booked Egypt’s quarter-final ticket; and delivered one of the most memorable games in history when they pushed now three-time world champions Denmark all the way through two periods of extra time to a penalty shoot-out before being eliminated from the trophy race. Zein was named player of the match for his performance in the quarter-final. 

It might have been a low point, given the high hopes prior to the event and what was quite a heart-breaking exit from the World Championship for Egypt, but Zein was soon to receive the call of his life — the one from Barcelona, which would lead to him joining the record Champions League title holders and indisputable club powerhouse for the 2021/22 season. Barcelona would go on to win the Champions League title that season, with Zein among the five shooters showing nerves of steel as he helped claim the trophy in the penalty shoot-out. 

“I played in different countries, but it was not the same level like Barcelona. I played in France, but also not the same level as Barcelona. I really was so proud of myself and proud of who was always supporting me, because I always was working really hard,” says Zein, recalling receiving the call that Barcelona were interested in him. 

“I don’t get enough only from training handball and I’m always going to training outside, to train some specific stuff to make me better, to make me always fit on the handball court. Before Barcelona, it was like five years I was doing that and when I had the call from them, I was really happy and I was very excited to see that.

“This team is totally different from any team. This team is like, you always feel you have family in this team. They are warriors and they are top players with top quality and also the quality of the mentality — they are so big for that. They are always thinking for the team. They have very good spirit. I learned a lot.


Ali Zein


“I saw them, when we lost some games, get stronger the next day. This is the difference between the top teams and good teams — when you are winning, everything is OK. But when you are losing, sometimes, it’s not OK. But no, they [Barcelona] are stronger every time — when we had some mistakes or some losses. So I really learned a lot from them and I had a very, very good experience.

“I saw how the club treat the players. They give you the confidence that you are a good player and you have a big quality and you deserve that. You see the players, how on the court they have big confidence, and this is not the case in every club. For me also, it was my dream to play the [EHF] FINAL4. 

“When I was at the FINAL4, I was like, ‘that really is just two days, two games, I will try to kill myself and I will try to be like 300% if I play or not play. But I would love to win that’. And after we won, it was amazing, really. It was amazing. When you are thinking alone, you see that you did all this work and you worked so hard for something. 

“Sometimes, the people, or the players, they are working, working, working and after like one, two years they think, ‘but we are working for nothing. Nothing is changing. I will never go to some big club or something. I will never win the Champions League. I will never be the best player in the world’. But no, it’s not like that. You work hard, you do what you have to do and afterwards you will have the result — for sure, you will have the result. This is what I learned from these years.”

Zein’s rise to greater prominence occurred when he was 30 — after more than a decade as a professional player. Some experience it earlier, others have to wait to be rewarded for their dedication. Alongside his joining of Barcelona and Egypt’s breakthrough performance at the World Championship, another big moment was coming: Egypt would reach the Olympic semi-finals for the very first time in August 2021, at the Tokyo Games. 

While the current generation had not achieved any first-time results at the World or African Championships, as the previous ‘golden generation’ had made it to the semi-finals at the World Championship in 2001 and before that placed among the top seven three straight times, the record at the Olympic Games was brand new. Prior to Tokyo 2020, the best result for Egypt was sixth, achieved in 1996. The fourth-place finish was not only a new achievement in men’s handball but in any team sport. 

Zein has undoubtedly been a critical part of the history-making for Egypt as part of the national team as well as on an individual level with his club record. And the standout keys to success we can draw from his story? Hard work, discipline and routine, patience, a strong support network and big dreams.