Tom Goodyer explores why Mohamed Salah is the most powerful man in Egypt. And how his apolitical role holds power in a politically-fractured landscape of his nation.
Late afternoon; the sun, low and yolky yellow, throws shadows tall across deserted streets and thickens the air to a heavy haze. Ibis till the silt of the Nile for crabs, maybe a stolen kofta, the waste of an empty city. Washing is left, forgotten, to dry off high balconies. No shrieks, no sound of a football skidding off dust is there to break the comparative calm. Cairo and all its colours are hidden away.
Hidden, eyes focused on a projectile hundreds of miles away, slowly gaining momentum as it loops down onto the boot of Héctor Bellerín, only to be snatched away by Mohammed Salah, hurtling at the Spaniard like a grinning barracuda. Sentences trail off, breaths are drawn in, Egyptians and Scousers alike rise to their feet, Bellerín scrambles to recover, as Salah, floppy-haired and accelerating, bears down on the Kop End. One look over his shoulder: for support or to see the breathless Arsenal players in his wake. One touch to bring the ball to the penalty area, a handful more and he’s sizing up the Czech man in the crash helmet, a simple left-footed sweep and the ball ripples the net.
Everyone is up now. In Egyptian living rooms, in Liverpudlian pubs, in Anfield itself, watching the winger, tongue out, arms extended, revel in the moment. It is probably not Mohamed Salah’s best goal, not his most important, being the third in a 4-0 victory, but perhaps the one that best encapsulates what he offers to Klopp’s Liverpool. Namely, scorching pace, directness and goals. Lots of goals. He typifies the high-intensity play that Klopp relies upon and relishes, hardworking and hard pressing.
All of this obviously endears him to Egyptians too. Despite having dominated the AFCON in the 2000s, Egypt has never produced an exciting, top player in one of Europe’s biggest leagues. Mido almost managed it and a case could be made for Mohamed El Neny at Arsenal, but Salah is the first player set to truly break the mould. After all, it takes someone with Salah’s tenacity in the final third, his dynamic drifting betwixt and between the lines of mid-table defences and poacher’s eye to do so. He is even adored beyond what he actually does; just the idea of his attacking qualities are enough to win him the Champions League player of the week, despite only scoring a deflected goal, when Ronaldo, Cavani and even John Stones scored more.
The importance of Salah to Egyptians is such that he doesn’t even have to perform to the best of his ability for them to vote for him en masse. The cultishness of his following transcends the reality of his performance. Salah, the idea, is more important than Salah the man.
All of this is helped by the fact his performances for the national team are unerringly good. 30 goals in 55 games is an impressive return for a winger and he has always been ever-present for the Pharaohs, even during his disappointing time at Chelsea, willing to perform for the Red shirt not the blue.
Yet, Egyptian football is increasingly about more than the clatter and muscle, flecked mud and torn up turf of 22 men and 90 minutes. Since the 2011 Arab Spring that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the twenty-year incumbent of the Egyptian presidency, ideological divides have deepened, unrest and fissures intensified. This has bled into the football world, where the Port Said Stadium disaster, a clash between Al-Masry SC and Al-Ahly SC ultras, caused the cancellation of the Egyptian domestic league for two years, on 1 February 2012.
Al-Ahly ultras had been a part of the organised effort against the military regime that replaced Mubarak and reports of the government manufacturing the disaster to suppress dissenting voices have been rife. The police and security presence, as the crimson fug of flare and fire and drawn blood engulfed the Cairo night, was limited, leading to over 70 deaths, over 70 arrests and untold injuries. However, it was this disaster that arguably sparked Salah’s important and unusual move away from El Mokawloon SC to FC Basel.
Salah debuted for El Mokawloon at 18 and quickly became a permanent fixture of the Cairo team, lighting up the Arab Contractor’s Stadium with the same flair he would eventually bring to Liverpool, as FC Basel kept tabs on him. Not wanting to see the Egyptian’s talents wasted by the cancellation of the Egyptian league at the end of the 2011-12 season, Basel made their move by organising a friendly with the Under-23 Egypt team, with Salah coming off the bench to bag a brace, sealing both a 4-3 win and a permanent move to Switzerland. Thus, the brightest ember of Egyptian football ignited from the cinders of its darkest moment.
Perhaps more deeply though, the corruption and political volatility of these years mean that Egypt has suffered from a dearth of people whose ubiquity transcends the schismatic environment and sectarian divides that have torn the nation apart, a dearth of national treasures. As a concept, national heroes, by nature, must become more than what they actually are: the idea of them has to outgrow the actuality of them, just like Salah winning the Champions League player of the week. Indeed, with the full adoration for and of his country, Salah has become arguably the most unifying public figure in Egypt. Consolidating his unifying appeal, he has never played for Egypt’s two biggest clubs, – El-Ahly SC or Zamalek SC – therefore not alienating either of their substantial and fiercely tribalistic fan bases, while with Fiorentina, Salah commemorated the 74 Port Said dead with his shirt number, noble and uncontroversial.
Burning of the Israeli flag at the embassy in Cairo.
A strange, but common symptom of political instability is the development of unlikely heroes. Those indirectly involved in public life, the celebrities, the footballers, suddenly are afforded a credence that perhaps wouldn’t ordinarily be there. The British wartime government, for example, used the entertainment industry to reinforce the Romantic Nationalism of the so-called “blitz spirit.” Later, the words of Didier Drogba in 2005, upon dragging the Ivory Coast to the World Cup finals, a call to end the civil wars that ravaged the country for five years, were listened to more than the corrupt politicians responsible for them.
The nature of Mohamed Salah’s intense, Egyptian adoration, however, is different. It is much closer to the pure escapist entertainment football was designed for. Football has started wars, like the so-called ‘Football War’ between El Salvador and Honduras, and abated them, as in the First World War. Salah won’t stop or start wars, but he can stop defenders, he can start counter-attacks with the tentacled vitality of a Tesla coil, he can stop fans mid-sentence as he does so, he can start the elated cry of terraces, singing his name, and sometimes that is enough to offer respite to the riven state of Egypt. He says little about the political situation in his country and leaves it to that wand of a left foot to enchant all the fragments of Egyptian society, from the folded sands of the Sahara to the rubble of Alexandria’s lighthouse, cosseted by the salt-sea. He reminds us of the unspoken political power of the entertainer, the cultural role of cutting inside from the right flank and sending the ball past flailing arms into the tight netting.
In all likelihood, Salah will never be acknowledged as a political force of any kind – he will not be a Drogba – but how can someone whose appeal brings together a war-torn country not be inherently political? With neither Egypt’s political turmoil nor Mohamed Salah’s clinical ability in front of goal on the wane, the winger’s social role in his home country is set to be continually fascinating, continually illuminating the role of the apolitical entertainer in the political world. For as long, as the streets Cairo boom and drang with the silence of bated breath, turn and erupt on the turn and eruption of Salah tiger-ing about the 18-yard area, as long as they halt at his every touch, he will be an unsung feature of the testing Egyptian future.