Mo Salah: Leading Egypt to the Biggest Stage
Cairo-based journalist Abdel-Rahman Hussein looks back at a remarkable season for the Egyptian national hero and Liverpool star, and explains how events have made Salah the focus for an expectant nation heading to its first World Cup for 28 years.
It is the fourth minute of added time. The 90,000 supporters in the stadium hold their collective breath, as does an entire nation. The pressure is unbearable. Up steps Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s best player, who is midway through a breakthrough season with his new club Liverpool. He has already scored once in this game, a decisive World Cup qualifier against Congo, only to see the score levelled in the 87th minute.
When Congo equalise, Salah falls to the ground upfield, face-first on the grass. He gets up and after a few steps he bellows a scream of utter anguish, his hands covering his face. Despondently he attempts to rally the crowd before another scream seemingly convulses his entire body.
Congo continue to repel wave after wave of attack. Full-time comes and goes. Then, six minutes after that Congo goal, a hopeful ball is punted into the opposition area. Two bodies fall to the ground, and a penalty is given. The Egyptian players and staff are already celebrating before it is taken. Salah picks up the ball, stares at it intently and brings it to his forehead before placing it on the penalty spot. The referee whistles and Salah looks away before his run-up, then swiftly turns his head, coolly jogs up and slots it in the left corner. It is pandemonium.
Throughout Egypt people take to the streets for a night of wild celebration. For that kick has sent the national team to a World Cup for the first time in 28 years.
When Liverpool purchased Salah, now 26, from AS Roma last summer for around £35 million, there were mutterings about the size of the fee. This was right before the market went haywire when Paris Saint-Germain deposited £200 million in Barcelona’s coffers to trigger the release clause for Neymar.
In the summer of 2017, Salah was known as a tricky winger who had not quite made the grade in the English Premier League during an earlier stint at Chelsea. An initial loan to Serie A with Fiorentina had later morphed into a permanent move to the Italian capital and the Giallorossi. Though appreciated for his skill and given credit for his part in Edin Džeko becoming Capocannoniere in Italy for 2016-17, a Champions League game against Real Madrid highlighted a glaring deficiency in Salah’s game. Time and time again he found himself in good positions to score but was unable to put chances away. Like many a nippy winger, Salah seemed to lack that killer instinct in front of goal.
It is against this backdrop that Salah’s debut season with Liverpool must be viewed. A combination of his incredible desire to prove he could succeed in the Premier League and the way Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool were set up led to a campaign for the record books. The end-product was there, and once he got started there was no stopping the diminutive Egyptian. Breaking the Premier League scoring record for a 38-game season with 32 goals, Salah completed a clean sweep of all the individual accolades the English game has to offer: PFA Player of the Year, Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year and, quelle surprise, Liverpool’s Player of the Season.
All this was being met back in Egypt with ever-increasing levels of gut-bursting pride. Egypt – like many other countries – is a football-mad nation. The Cairo derby between Al-Ahly and Zamalek often features in write-ups of the world’s most raucous derbies. For an Egyptian to become a global icon of the game that so many love meant that Salah instantly became a national treasure, meaningful even to those with only a passing interest in the game. The more he had the world at his gilded feet, the more Egyptians took him to heart.
And it transcends football. The meteoric rise of Salah is a feel-good success story. From a small village and impoverished background, facing challenges that seem almost apocryphal at the umpteenth time of telling, to the highest echelons of the world game, his profile happily coexisting in the rarefied air of legends. Messi, Ronaldo… Salah. His story holds deep meaning to many in Egypt, a hagiography of a young man who gained global recognition through talent, sheer will and determination.
To some represents a hope that it is possible to overcome one’s surroundings. His story holds particular resonance for Egyptians because like many of them, he has had to contend with economic disenfranchisement and a lack of opportunity.
Such is the depth of feeling for Salah in Egypt that the fallout of this year’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid reached epic proportions of worry and hysteria. 30 minutes in, a collision with Sergio Ramos had Salah on the ground clutching his shoulder. He gamely tried to carry on, but only a few minutes later he realised he would not be able to continue. His tears flowed freely as he left the field.
Back home, there was outrage that the first Egyptian to contend a Champions League final (as the star draw for one of the teams no less) had his appearance cut so cruelly short. Worse, his participation in the World Cup was now at risk.
As replays of the incident with Ramos came under greater scrutiny, a conviction formed that Ramos had cynically injured him. The furore over the tackle went beyond what we have come to expect from even the most rabid football fans. Ramos’s official social media feeds were inundated with irate Egyptians cursing him to the high heavens, using the fruitiest of expressions. A petition was created on change.org calling for Ramos to be punished, and it quickly garnered over 300,000 signatures.
If that was not enough, an Egyptian lawyer claimed to have filed a lawsuit against Ramos, demanding one billion Euros in compensation for the physical and psychological damage he had caused Mohamed Salah and the Egyptian people.
As overwrought as the reaction may have been, it speaks to the place that Salah inhabits amongst Egyptians. The global icon is a national treasure. There are a number of reasons for this, most notably his international stature and how well-liked he appears to be amongst football fans the world over. But there is also an element of timing.
Egypt have reached the World Cup twice in their history: once in 1934 and again at Italia ‘90, sandwiched in a group with the Netherlands of van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard, the Republic of Ireland and England. Gamely battling to draws in the first two games playing the most dour, defensive football imaginable, Egypt were knocked out by the only goal of Mark Wright’s England career. It is widely believed that Egypt’s performance (amongst others) in Italy contributed to the introduction of the back-pass rule two years later, prohibiting goalkeepers from handling the ball when passed to by a teammate.
By the mid-noughties Egyptian football was resurgent. The national team, spear-headed by the Zidane-lite playmaker Mohamed Abu Trika (more on him later), won three consecutive African Cup of Nations titles between 2006 and 2010. It was felt that this generation was the one that would return Egypt to the World Cup. Yet qualification eluded them time and time again.
When the uprising that saw the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak after three decades of authoritarian rule took place in 2011, football receded to the background as engagement with political life usurped the opiate of the masses for a short while. Also, many of the protesters against the regime hailed from the ultras, the football supporter groups of local clubs who were no strangers to confrontations with security forces.
What local football could not recover from, however, was the tragic Port Said stadium disaster in 2012. A match between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry ended in pandemonium after the final whistle, when supporters rushed the pitch and the opposition stands. 74 Al-Ahly supporters lost their lives in the ensuing stampede.
The Egyptian FA suspended the league, and it would later return to empty stadiums as supporters were not allowed back into the stands. Football was in decline. This was further exacerbated by another disaster in 2015, when security forces opened fire on Zamalek supporters before another local game, killing 22.
Out of the ashes of a seemingly interminable downturn a new generation of players emerged, led by Salah but also including Arsenal’s Mohamed El-Neny and Stoke’s Ramadan Sobhi. And now they were managed by Héctor Cúper, the Argentinian who led Valencia to consecutive Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001.
Under his stewardship Egypt reached the final of the 2017 African Cup of Nations, only to fall at the final hurdle against Cameroon. But after a stint in the football wilderness, Egypt was back challenging for top honours, and finally back at a World Cup after 28 years. At the centre of this resurgence is Salah.
Yet the relationship between Salah and his homeland has not been without its complications, especially in dealings with the Egyptian football association, and frequently with the Egyptian state. In April this year a dispute with the FA over image rights caused a great amount of chatter in the country.
A major sponsor of the Egyptian national team is a company called WE, a rebranded version of the state telecom operator Telecom Egypt, whose marketing is handled by a media company with alleged ties to the Egyptian intelligence service. When it customised the aeroplane that would be transporting the national team to Russia with a prominent picture of Salah next to its corporate logo, nothing seemed amiss; he is Egypt’s biggest star after all.
Except that Salah has a sponsorship deal with Vodafone, a major player in the Egyptian telecoms market, and this image was in direct contravention of the terms of his contract with them. What happened next caused consternation amongst football fans and became a major talking point across the nation, delineating the fault-lines that exist within Egyptian society.
Salah and his agent made a number of public utterances about the issue, urging the FA to resolve the matter. The FA remained silent, in no hurry to respond. Things dragged on and it was only the public clamour that forced the FA into action. It was abundantly clear which side of the issue the majority of people were on, with solidarity campaigns for Salah sprouting far and wide.
The type of commentary surrounding this affair was indicative of how Egyptians viewed Salah. They felt that a genuine success story was being appropriated and exploited by the state. Ignoring the potential damage to Salah, the FA wanted to take advantage of the big star at all costs. The terms of the debate revolved around the idea that even if an Egyptian was able to achieve success all on his own, it was not enough to escape from the clutches of exploiters back home.
And this type of political and monetary appropriation is not uncommon. The political climate demands obeisance from all public figures, and especially one as popular as Salah. So popular in fact that he appears to have garnered enough votes to come second in Egypt’s 2018 presidential election.
Following the ouster of Mubarak, Egypt entered a period of interim military rule until elections saw Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood come to power. He lasted a year before being ousted in a coup by the Defence Minister he had appointed, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
It was not a year before El-Sisi became president, and since then he has overseen a period marked by a steep erosion of rights, liberties and freedoms. He has cracked down exceedingly hard on all forms of dissent from across the political spectrum. At the same time, he has instituted austerity measures and a lifting of subsidies that has caused inflation and price hikes, part of a set of economic measures mandated by an IMF loan.
Salah need not look far to see what happens when one falls afoul of the government, national treasure or not. Mohamed Abu Trika is a case in point. Possibly just as beloved as Salah, Abu Trika was an avid supporter of Morsi during the 2012 election. When Morsi was overthrown, Abu Trika was caught in the crossfire. Designated by a state court as a member of a “terrorist group,” Abu Trika’s assets were declared forfeit and seized by the government. He has had to live in exile ever since.
Despite this, Abu Trika remains hugely popular across Egypt; no mean feat, considering that he was a star player for Al-Ahly – Salah, on the other hand, never played for either Al-Ahly or Zamalek, so it has been easier for him to overcome partisan fandom. However, Abu Trika is hugely respected by fans of Zamalek and other rival clubs for his talent, humility and decency.
The case of Abu Trika sets an example and Salah has taken heed, donating some £200,000 to the Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt) fund, a private fund set up by El-Sisi himself to draw from whenever he saw fit. Against this backdrop the success of Salah seems all the more improbable, and yet here it is in all its glory.
What does Egypt want from its superstars; does Salah and his success represent Egypt or are his accomplishments his alone? Has Salah succeeded because of Egypt, or in spite of it? Whatever the answers may be, we can be sure that eyes will be riveted upon this special player come the World Cup.