June 14, 2018
Salah’s stunning form for Liverpool, key role in Egypt’s qualification for the World Cup and charitable, humble nature have turned the boy from Nagrig into an icon for a nation
How Mohamed Salah managed the impossible: to unite Egypt
Mamdouh Abbas wants to set the record straight. A wealthy businessman who has built a vast real estate and petroleum empire is these days better known in Egypt as the man who refused to sign Mohamed Salah in 2011, when chairman of Zamalek – one of the country’s leading teams. “Salah needs much more work,” he said in a televised interview that year. But contrary to what his successor at the club (and apparent arch nemesis) says, a separate committee took the decision at the time. “I am not responsible,” insists Abbas.
Speaking the day after Salah became the first Egyptian to be named Professional Footballers’ Association player of the year, it is not surprising that Abbas feels sensitive over the claim that he missed Salah’s potential. It must feel as if he is defending himself not only to ardent football fans but also to an entire nation that dotes on their “Egyptian King”.
Egypt’s reaction to the shoulder injury Salah sustained in last month’s Champions League final following a challenge from Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, and which in the immediate aftermath made him a doubt for the World Cup, showed how he is revered in the country. It was summed up by a headline in the al-Masry al-Youm newspaper the next day: “The night Egyptians cried: Ramos the butcher dislocated Abu Salah’s shoulder.”
Egyptians cursed Ramos on social media and the Arabic hashtags “Ramos the Dog” and “Son of a Whore” were soon trending on Egyptian Twitter after Salah left the pitch in tears at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium. An Egyptian lawyer has filed a lawsuit against Ramos, equivalent to £874m, for causing Egyptians “physical and psychological harm”.
How Mohamed Salah managed the impossible: to unite Egypt
For his fellow countrymen, Salah’s magic has transcended the pitch. He represents a rare figure behind whom all Egyptians, regardless of class or politics, can unite, an astonishing feat given the years of political and economic turmoil that have followed the uprising of 2011 that toppled the longtime president Hosni Mubarak.
“Mohamed Salah is really important because he is a symbol … like Tutankhamun, like the pyramids,” said Mohamed Farag Amer, head of Egypt’s parliamentary youth and sports committee. On the 25-year-old being compared to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the Cairo-based sports journalist Hatem Maher says: “This is unprecedented for any Egyptian football player at any point in history.”
Egypt kick off their first World Cup for 28 years against Uruguay on Friday and Salah seems certain to start even though doubts remain over whether he has fully recovered. It will be a huge shame if he has not, and not only because of the forward’s talents. It was Salah who sent Egypt to Russia by scoring twice in their dramatic 2-1 victory over Congo in October. Egyptians poured on to Tahrir Square in central Cairo – the centre of the popular protests against Mubarak – after the match to celebrate, waving flags and blowing horns. Some observers noted that the rapturous scenes on the square were reminiscent of the heady days of the revolution.
“I think our qualification for the World Cup was the only moment all Egyptians were happy since the uprising … [it] was a moment people craved for so long,” said Maher.
The fall of Mubarak in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, gave momentary hope to a nation that had been in the grip of his dictatorship for almost 30 years. But the transition to democracy proved turbulent and collapsed when the country’s polarising first democratically elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown by the military with popular support in 2013. Egypt has since been under the iron fist of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the former head of the armed forces, who has ushered in the most severe clampdown on dissent in the country’s contemporary history.
How Mohamed Salah managed the impossible: to unite Egypt
Egyptian football has too often been caught up in the divisive politics of these past years and Salah’s popularity is partially down to the fact that he has steered clear of it. “He’s very clever. He’s a footballer first and foremost,” said Khaled Dawoud, the former leader of the liberal Dostour party and a prominent government critic. In January, for instance, the Egyptian Football Association announced its support for Sisi before the presidential elections in March, which critics called a sham after genuine opponents were prevented from running against him. Salah never commented on the issue.
How Mohamed Salah managed the impossible: to unite Egypt
He also stands in contrast to another towering sporting figure for Arabs, Mohamed Aboutrika. The former Egypt forward, with whom Salah is close, led Egypt’s national team for a decade until his retirement in December 2013. But his career was overshadowed by accusations of sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood. Aboutrika was placed on a terror list last year for alleged ties to the group, which was outlawed after its fall from power in 2013. The 39-year-old denies the charges.
Like Aboutrika, however, Salah has captured hearts across the spectrum of Egyptian society with his modesty and kindness. “He’s important because of his personality and how humble he is,” said Hany Mohamed, a 34-year-old waiter at a downtown Cairo street cafe where a large mural of Salah attracts visitors seeking selfies. “He’s a very nice person and this makes everyone like him.”
Tarnim Mannaa, a 42-year-old engineer, said: “He never forgot his roots. I’m proud that he’s an Egyptian.”
The way Salah prostrates as if he is praying whenever he celebrates scoring a goal, the way he talks about his love for Egypt’s carb-heavy national dish of koshary, the way he gives back to his local village, Nagrig, and does not brag about it, have helped make him a role model for the country’s youth. To many, he is projecting a positive and powerful image of Egyptians abroad. And Salah’s stunning rise from a small farming village in the Nile Delta is providing hope and inspiration to young people. The message is clear – through hard work and focus anything is possible, a point the player stresses himself.
How Mohamed Salah managed the impossible: to unite Egypt
At a time when many Egyptians are exhausted by a prolonged economic downturn following the revolution and soaring prices and subsidy cuts after the government implemented painful economic reforms in return for a $12bn IMF loan, Salah is the rags to riches story the country needs. And nowhere is he more loved than in Nagrig.
A small community of about 15,000 people located 80 miles north of Cairo, the village is surrounded by fields of jasmine, and chickens and cows roam the dusty, unpaved streets. Many front doors are left open, a sign of the closeness between neighbours.
Salah usually returns to Nagrig at some point after the end of the season but, according to Maher Shetia, the mayor of Nagrig, he is highly unlikely to do so this year because of the World Cup. Chatting in the sitting room of his home on the elaborate gold Louis XIV-style seating that is so popular in Egypt, the jovial Shetia recounts how Salah sat on the sofa opposite last June, during Ramadan. Shetia had been in an accident and Liverpool’s No 11, a Roma player at the time, dropped in to check up on him.
“Mohamed is a very quiet person, he doesn’t talk much,” Shetia says. “He’s very simple … at that time he said there might be something with Liverpool.” No one in the village could have predicted the shy local boy would reach such heights, scoring 44 times in 51 games in his debut season at Anfield. Now that he has, this tight-knit community is proud. “He worked hard to get there,” says Shetia.
How Mohamed Salah managed the impossible: to unite Egypt
The tale of how a teenage Salah would travel for nine hours every day, five days a week, from his home to train with the Arab Contractors team in Cairo has become the stuff of legend in his homeland. Nagrig’s wonderboy has not forgotten where he is from in the face of stardom, using his wealth to give back to the community. Salah has paid for the construction of a religious school, a charity food market and an ambulance station in the village. “He didn’t change, he didn’t become conceited,” says Mohamed El Bahnasy, the director of the Mohamed Salah Charity, which provides financial support to people in need every month.
Bahnasy, whose office walls are festooned with photos of Salah, will not say how many people the charity helps, but the number is in the hundreds and they share the equivalent of more than £2,000 a month that the player gives to the charity. Reports about Salah’s charitable deeds often go viral in Egypt but many are fake.
How Mohamed Salah managed the impossible: to unite Egypt
He did not, for instance, pay for couples to get married in Nagrig, nor did he purchase land there for a water-cleaning factory. But what the stories reflect is how keen Egyptians are for saintly stories regarding their national hero.
During an after-school kickabout at Nagrig’s local youth club, which has been renamed after the village’s most famous native, nine-year old Zaid Jummah sums up the mood of a nation. When asked which football team he supports, he replies: “Mohamed Salah.”
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