Sina Stieding meets the former Egyptian National Team pro who hopes to keep the heyday of equestrian sports alive...
Mohamed Fahim is one of very few people in Egypt that have a hobby that includes riding horses and kicking a ball around at the same time. Polo is not a common sport in this country despite Egypt being home to some of the finest horses in the world. While the sport is traditionally reserved for the upper echelons of society - you do need to own a horse, after all - there are a few talented men and women who have created a sort of secret society of sports and have traveled far and wide to represent Egypt in global tournaments. Fahim is one such sportsman having played in Egypt's national team, as well as several local teams, and plans to keep playing well into his 60s. We head to Sakkara Country Club to find out more...
So how did you get into polo?
I used to go to the Police Academy and some of my colleagues were into equestrian games there but I got interested in polo specifically after I saw some of the elder people play it. I didn’t know how to play so I just got on a horse and started practicing to kick a ball. Eventually, me and a bunch of my colleagues of my age started a team. Later on, I became a professional and I’ve been playing for 16 years now.
Was it hard for you to pursue being a polo player in Egypt where the sport is virtually nonexistent?
Yes, definitely, it’s hard but we can manage since we have horses, a couple of fields, like here in Sakkara Country Club, and we know the community. There’s not that many people who can play but we don’t need many. We can even go abroad to play. If we want to play, we will play!
What was it like to play when you first started out?
It wasn’t easy as a child because the game costs a lot of money to get in to; the gear, the horses, and all the work. As soon as I got into the national team, however, I got sponsored. First I was part of the Police team, then I started playing by myself which is possible once you’ve reached a certain handicap.
Why is polo a big thing in Argentina but not in Egypt?
The game is only now starting to get bigger although it’s been around for over 2000 years. It became a real trend with the kings in the British Empire but essentially, only wealthy people played. Even today, it’s still called the “Game of Kings.” It’s not that easy to play for people who don’t have money because all the maintenance and equipment is expensive. In Egypt, there are few chances to make it as a polo player without financial suitability. Disadvantaged people can get lucky, but they need to get to professional level before they can make money from it. In Argentina that’s different, but we’re not in Argentina. You have to be a hard worker and a hard player.
What is it like to play a sport depending on an animal?
Playing polo is like golf: every player and every horse has a handicap which they can improve by playing throughout the years. The handicap is the level of the player, and with every game you play it can change. You can go abroad and improve your handicap there. However, horse and player have to work together.
So it allows you to improve your handicap individually and not just as part of your team?
Exactly. You can improve your level anywhere, with every game you play. That doesn’t have to be a game with your team. Merged with other teams, especially abroad, you learn a lot.
What other things make polo a sport worth playing in Egypt?
Polo has a very strong social side. Since there aren’t that many players in Egypt, most of us know each other so we’re almost like family. It’s also a very cosmopolitan game so you can go to England or Argentina tomorrow, work on your handicap there and find friends all over the world.
Since only wealthy people can play, doesn’t it make it a bit of an elitist game?
It is an elitist game by default because it’s just not possible to play it without pricey equipment and facilities. Players will have to have four horses that know how to play if they play professionally because you change horses four times a game. Especially in Egypt, these things are not easy to come by.
So is the success of the game more dependent on the player or the horse?
Both. If you are a pro player, you can’t play with a beginner’s horse. The horse has a handicap which has to suit the player. The horse just has to suit the game.
What was it like to be in the National Polo Team?
We traveled a lot and had a lot of fun sharing the same passion. There are not many polo players in the world so I always enjoyed meeting players in every country. It’s also very special to represent your country in places where you would not go as a tourist, like Argentina, India and Pakistan. I was in the national team for four years but I now focus on my businesses. Playing polo is a full time job so there was no time for it anymore. I still play professionally with my own horses and another team. We train on Fridays but it’s a private affair.
Where does Egypt stand internationally?
To be honest, Egypt is not that good at polo because our lifestyle doesn’t allow much progress. We have many good players and horses but since opportunities to train as a team are scarce, we have little experience in that. The under-35 team I used to play in did very well in international tournament. Many premium brands host polo tournaments too and we took part in many with great success.
Why do you think official teams in Egypt don’t work as well then?
Like any game in Egypt, we have a problem with facilities. We have to use our own horses, equipment and fields. The only game we’re good at in Egypt is squash because it needs close to nothing to be played. Polo is not a common game so you depend on yourself to get better. There is no funding to make the sport better here. We have to work on the basis of polo in the country; on the facilities and the awareness.
What exactly can be done to spread awareness of the sport in Egypt?
My good friend and former player Mohamed El Sewedy initiated a school for amateurs which is slowly becoming an actual establishment for young people interested in polo. Nobody will be interested in playing polo if they’ve never seen it, and since there are few fields in Egypt few people have ever actually seen it. In the next couple of years, we will hopefully have more fields.
And where would you like to see polo go in Egypt in the next few years?
I want the same every polo player wants: to see polo as an Olympic discipline. With that, the game would get even wider and more people would be interested in playing it, even in Egypt.
Can you imagine not playing polo?
I could never quit. You can’t quit the sport, it becomes part of your blood. A lot of players keep going until they are 50 or 60, just not as aggressively. It’s the only game you will play until you die. My dream is to grow old next to a polo field: just a nice house overlooking a polo field.
Shot on location at Sakkara Country Club by Mohamed Diaa.