Egypt's handball star Mohammad Sanad: "We are now the Dream Team"
As a young boy he was accustomed to shuttling between squash and basketball courts trying to find his rhythm in sport.
But when Egypt became the first non-European team to reach the world semi-finals in France, 10-year-old Sanad changed tack.
He was playing top-level club handball aged 15, waiting for his big break with the national team and dreaming of turning pro.
Now 29, Sanad is the best right-wing in the French League at USAM Nimes and was part of Egypt’s squad that shocked Sweden at Rio 2016.
He is also seen as one of his country's two leading lights in sport, the other being Liverpool footballer Mo Salah.
With a spot at Tokyo 2020 confirmed, Sanad is dreaming of a one-off double in 2021.
Speaking exclusively to Olympic Channel, he said, "My dream is to win an Olympic medal, and a World Championship medal. With the level of the players and the level of the coaching we have now, we can do it.
“We're capable of beating the Dream Team by getting the medal and then we can say, 'We are now the Dream Team.'" - Mohammad Sanad
Rio 2016: Egypt's shock group win
9 August 2016 will remain forever etched in the mind of Mohammad Sanad and that of his nation's handball fans.
On that day, Egypt stunned four-time Olympic silver medallists Sweden 26-25 at Rio 2016 shocked the handball world, but not the Egyptians at the Future Arena in Rio de Janeiro.
The 1.91m right-wing scored seven goals to help Egypt pull off one of its most important victories in over a decade, a win which rewarded their supporters for their faith in the team.
“It was a great experience, the whole tournament and the whole atmosphere,” he recalled of his debut Olympic Games.
“But my best moment was the day we beat Sweden, which was a huge thing for Egypt. We won against Sweden! This game was great. I played well. And that was like the moment for us.”
It was their only victory at their sixth Games appearance.
But close group games against Slovenia (26-27), Poland (25-33) and Germany (25-31), re-ignited the belief in a sport revered by the North Africans who claim its roots lie in Ancient Egypt.
Prehistoric Egyptian priests are believed to have practised some form of handball based on depictions on 5,000-year-old tombs.
The making of a handball star
Sanad established himself as a top player early in his career.
His dad, Hisham, convinced him to follow up on his explosive throws on the handball court.
The youngster was quickly picked up by Heliopolis, one of his country’s major sports clubs for junior teams.
“I played there since the year 2000. Eleven years of my career I spent there. I was playing with the young teams and then at the age of 15, the coach Mohamed El-Alfy, promoted me to play with the senior team,” he told Olympic Channel.
“This is where I really improved because when you play with the seniors, the level is different. The experience you get is higher."
His form caught the attention of Egyptian giants Zamalek, who acquired him initially on loan to play in the 2010 IHF Super Globe continental club champions competition in Qatar.
"I used to see these players on TV and then here I was playing with them at only 18 years old,” he said of his spell with Zamalek when the team won three Africa Champions Leagues, dominated the Africa Super Cup and played at three Super Globes.
Chasing pro dreams
His strong ambition was to play professionally in Europe although it was not easy for an Egyptian player to break into the paid ranks.
Like most players in Egypt, the economics graduate had to supplement his play and training with employment.
He explained, "I was working as a financial analyst at Orascom Construction Company and playing handball. By then, I was back to Heliopolis after some financial problems at Zamalek.
"But I was still doing everything I could to find a team in Europe that would take me. Then in March 2015, I got a contract from a small club in Hungary called Komlo Banyasz SK."
After a year in Hungary, Sanad moved to Spanish runners-up La Rioja where he played in the Champions League for the first time.
It was a time where he learned a great deal about handball, and one he will never forget.
“The Spanish system and the Spanish school of handball is I think the best in the world now. I saw handball in a different way. I saw tactics, different systems. I understood how to read the game, how to play and when, what to do in defence.
"This is where I really started to understand everything in handball, in all details. We had 45 minutes to one hour video sessions before every training session every day. It's amazing what I learned there."
'Be one of the best'
But with Champions League and Olympic dreams achieved, the towering wing was on the verge of returning to Zamalek in 2017 after La Rioja released a number of players, including Sanad, due to financial issues.
He said, "I didn't have anything else and I didn't want to go back to Egypt. But I couldn't find anything. I was angry that I couldn't find anything because I played well in the Champions League so I'm thinking, 'Someone must have seen me'.
"This was my lowest point in my career, without a doubt. I was like in depression. But I didn’t stop fighting. I was sending agents messages at two and three in the morning, being so pushy like, 'Guys, please just do everything'. I was even searching teams myself and proposing teams to the agents. I just kept grinding, kept pushing myself."
Eventually, Sanad received a call from an agent with an offer from USAM Nimes in the south of France.
He accepted immediately before telling anyone in his family.
When he joined, Nimes had just finished 10th in the French League.
They have improved each season since Sanad's arrival, finishing fifth in 2018-19 to qualify for the EHF Cup and secure Nimes' first appearance in European competition for 25 years.
He said, "Really from day one, I felt like this is where I want to be. Everything fit together perfectly. The system of play fit perfectly with my style of play. And they're like a family."
Sanad and his wife have a young daughter and are well settled in Nimes.
The club won its last major trophy in the 1990s, but that barren run could be about to end.
Nimes were third behind Paris Saint-Germain and Nantes when the 2019-20 season was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"My dream is to do something for Nimes. I want to be one of the guys who help Nimes to make history. To win a championship with my team would be something huge."
"I'm not thinking of playing for Barcelona or Paris Saint-German. If I go there, they are teams that are used to winning. If I win elsewhere, it's an amazing thing for me. But I wouldn't be the guy who helped the team to win."
Among PSG's plethora of stars is French striker Luc Abalo who Sanad cites as a role model along with Denmark's Lasse Svan Hansen.
"Luc Abalo is like the best striker in Europe, I think in history." - Mohammad Sanad
Whether it is for club or country, Sanad is determined to keep raising his level.
"I don't know if it's a good or a bad thing, but I always want to improve myself. My dream is to be one of the best in the world.
“Even in the national team, the guys are like, 'Oh, we might win a medal some time, maybe in the World Championship.' I know they will fight for it but sometimes they just say as a joke, 'We're never going to win.' Deep inside, it's making me angry.
"I say, 'I don't even want to joke about this now, guys. We want to win, we're going to win. We need to do something to win. We need to fight.'"
Egypt's resurgence in handball
Egypt is set to host the World Championship next January and home advantage, plus the nation's improving fortunes, gives Sanad confidence that they can again make the podium in a major global competition.
And he thinks a change in attitude has helped his compatriots when it comes to taking on the bigger teams.
"You need to change the way people think. Before when we were going to play against France, for sure we were going to lose by 10 goals. And this kind of mentality is something that takes you down, it doesn't take you up. But what I see now, we believe that we can win and we just go there and we do it.
"Of course, European teams are the best in the world and they are so strong and it's not easy to beat them. But we can do it.
"This is what we're building and what we're trying to prove to the world that we're coming. We're coming to do something big.”- Mohammad Sanad
Proof of that change in mentality was offered in 2019 as Egypt made history by becoming the first non-European nation to clinch the U19 world title.
Blending that youthful talent with the experience of the Rio 2016 Olympians makes Sanad believe that 2021 could be Egypt’s year.
“We are building a really strong generation, a good mix of generations. The future of handball in Egypt is good. The World Championship in my country and then we play at the Olympic Games. Hopefully, nothing less than a medal there.”
In January this year, Egypt beat old rivals Tunisia to secure their seventh African title and clinch their spot at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
With Tokyo now postponed until after the World Championship, Egypt has a chance to put down a huge marker on home soil before bidding for their first Olympic handball medal.
“The next season is going to be one of the biggest seasons in my career. To play at one Olympics is the biggest thing you can achieve in sports. To qualify for the second Olympic Games. It's something really huge for me and very emotional.”
Sanad supports women handballers' push for equality
As men’s handball in Egypt flourishes, the women’s game is at a low ebb.
While the Egyptian Handball Federation hosts next year's men's World Championships, there is currently no women's senior national team with players no longer able to represent their country once they turn 20.
A group of leading Egyptian female handball players - led by former national team captain Lama Elshawarby - is campaigning for the same rights, support and privileges as the men.
The players also want the sport’s administrators to oversee the formation of contracts for the players at their clubs.
It is an initiative that Sanad supports strongly.
He said, "I think what they're trying to do is a good push. To be honest, it's been very difficult. For five, six years, there hasn't been handball team in Egypt for the women's team, a national team. There was nothing.
“I think everyone should get the chance. There are lots of good players in the league so why not build the national team for them and take it step by step? You don't have to be the best in the beginning, but just have the base. Then they participate in the African Championships, they get the experience and then they improve from there."
Such issues affecting the sport in Egypt have persuaded him to pursue a course in Sports Management.
"After I have finished my career, I want to do something that changes the sports industry in Egypt. You know, 'What can I do to make like Egypt like all the top nations in the world?'”