Over the last year, Mohamed Salah has not just been a successful footballer, but a much-loved missionary for his sport, country and community.
“Look at this!” My mom burst excitedly through my door as I was midway through a random episode of the Office, and she shoved her phone in my face. I sighed and took my earphones off, preparing myself mentally for yet another video on education or success.
Instead, I was greeted with the last few minutes of a World Cup qualifier game – Egypt vs Congo, albeit one with Arabic commentary that was accompanied by dramatic music and effects. I had seen this video just a few days back on Facebook, and I had seen that video probably every day since then.
Excitedly, my mom continues – “This is Salah, isn’t it? The player from your team? Look at the way he does sajda after scoring, this is why he is so successful. Learn something from him.”
Normally, I would argue that it is Mohamed Salah’s skill and perseverance that has made him who he is, but I could not find it in me to disagree at that moment. Salah cried out of frustration as Congo scored against his team, and two minutes later the commentator lost his mind when he started praising Allah as Egypt’s talisman scored a penalty to lead his team to their first World Cup in 28 years. All this was happening, and the happiness did not leave my mother’s eyes as she stared at her half-cracked 5-inch screen. She did not understand the circumstances, but she understood the emotions.
“The player from your team.”
I have seen hundreds of games in my house, and my loud shouts past midnight have often woken up my family. Yet, my mother cannot (or refuses to) remember the name of the team I support – Liverpool Football Club. But a few months of Mohamed Salah, and she knows his name as well as Steven Gerrard’s, the man I grew up admiring and due to whom I support the Reds in the first place.
Two weeks back my father sent me a link to a YouTube video which was a highlight of Salah’s debut season with Liverpool. Accompanying the link was a message. “If you were as dedicated in your prayers, you would also be as humble and as big.”
I do not think I would have been humble if I broke the Premier League record for most goals scored in a season. I would probably be reminding people every day through the form of Instagram stories and Facebook posts. But that is beside the point.
Mohamed Salah has simply been a phenomenon ever since his arrival in Merseyside. When he stepped on a football pitch last season, there was barely a move he made wrong. He played majestically, and he broke records that he had no right to break. After the end of a brilliant season that ended in tears due to an injury in the Champions League final, Salah has now signed a new long term contract with the club. In doing so, he has given Liverpool fans something that they needed the most post yet another final loss – hope.
Being a Red
The earliest memory I have of Liverpool Football Club is the Champions League semi-final second leg against Chelsea in 2005. I would be lying if I said that I remember any event from that match; I was after all only eight years old at the time. What I do remember was my uncle shouting in joy post the game and him wearing a Gerrard jersey, and the name of the club and the player stuck. So in 2010 when I did start to properly watch the games and follow the sport, I knew only Liverpool. And so began a journey of highs, and mostly lows.
Football wasn’t as big an addiction back then as it is now – I do not think 13 year old me would have recovered from the depressing train wreck that was Roy Hodgson’s managerial stint at Anfield. I would again be lying if I said that I did not curse my uncle during that season for inadvertently making me a Red.
Liverpool Football Club since 2006 has not had much to boast about – one League Cup victory which I missed because the TV was not working that day, and I had not yet learnt how to stream. Of course, football isn’t about just winning trophies, but shiny silverware is always welcome. During these times, we Liverpool fans have clung on to certain players, and certain moments. The victory at Anfield against Dortmund, the demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford, the magic of Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho. These players and moments gave hope that something better would arrive.
All of them were fleeting moments of joy because the end results were lacking. I saw Torres leave, the first player I loved since Gerrard. Suarez left, Raheem Sterling went from an unknown quantity to a player I loved, and then despised for leaving. Nothing hurt as much as Stevie G himself calling it a day; the memories of the slip and a tearful Gerrard as he lost his last game 6-1 will never leave my nightmares. Disappointment and frustration became a part and parcel of being a Liverpool fan this decade.
Help us, Jurgen. Help us, Mo Salah
Jurgen Klopp’s appointment brought hope and better football back at Anfield than we had seen in ages. New players were signed, two cup finals in his first season – even though the Reds came up short in both, there was a feeling of anticipation that had not existed at Anfield since 2008-09.
Last season, another player came to Anfield, heading the summer signings for a club undergoing yet another transformation. Haggard, unkept hair, patchy beard and a smile to rival that of Firmino’s, Mohamed Salah came back to the Premier League.
Writer and presenter Mina Rzouki infamously said this of Salah when he made the move to Liverpool – “He is a player who runs forward and looks second. I am not convinced of his footballing IQ, for me he is another Juan Cuadrado.”
Liverpool paid a then club record of £36.9 million for the forward, which baffled some supporters, including me. I do not follow Roma, and my only memory of Salah was his failed stint at Chelsea. Even the most optimistic and well-informed bunch on Twitter said that if the former Basel player can score 15-20 for the season, it will be a decent run, albeit a return that might be unlikely.
44 goals and several broken records later, you can almost imagine the Roma executives who agreed to the deal all sitting in their rooms, having a glass of whiskey and morosely thinking about the money that they could have made. Nobody has any doubts about the quality of the Egyptian, his left foot silencing all the critics that he ever had, with even the most hardened of rivals admiring his charm and his skill. As a Liverpool fan and a Muslim, I can tell you first hand that the sight of Salah scoring a goal is perhaps the closest I will ever come to getting high.
Salah’s exploits on the field have been well documented. A brace against his former club Roma at Anfield which he denied celebrating, a Premier League record-breaking goalscoring campaign, and of course, the famous penalty that sent his country into elation fueled delirium. What is most impressive about the Egyptian however, is not his goals or his dribbling which has left several defenders in the dust – it is his persona, his personality that has made Mohamed Salah a character unlike any other in football today.
The Pharaoh of Egypt, the King of Anfield
In the last decade, the Premier League has seen forwards like Suarez and Diego Costa, whose talent is unquestionable, but their antics on the field leave much to be desired – you would kill to have them on your team, but you want to kill them if they played against your team. Wayne Rooney did not dive or cheat, but his hate towards his rivals was evident whenever he played. All of these forwards were admired for their quality, but none universally loved or respected.
Salah is a rare breed, a prolific forward that has earned admiration from even the most ardent Manchester United fans. He is not English, so he does not hate any club with the passion that the English do. His dribbling, finishing and God-given speed make him a delight to watch as he runs past defenders with ease, turns, and shoots – finding the net more often than not. He does not aim to rile his opposition like Costa and Suarez, and it is a simple celebration that follows every time he scores; a passionate run towards the corner flag as his teammates trail him in awe, followed by a sajda (prostration, touching his head on the ground) that thanks the God whom he credits for his success. His magic on the field combined with his humble ways and friendly gaze are few of the reasons why Mo Salah is so likeable.
Hailing from Nagrig in Gharbia district, Salah was not born into the richest of families. He had to change five buses everyday to reach Cairo for training, and it is during these early life experiences that he learned the humbleness and humility which he exudes on the pitch. Nothing came easy for the forward who now seemingly has the world at his feet, and he has not forgotten his roots. Most recently, Salah donated £210,000 to Tahya Misr (“Long Live Egypt”), a fund established to support developmental efforts in Egypt. For his hometown, he supports and funds various projects including healthy sanitation facilities and schools. It is this nature that makes him a national hero, a messiah for the fans back home.
Salah is a hometown hero whose story gives hope to millions. There have been Muslim footballers in this game before (Zinedine Zidane, N’Golo Kante, and Paul Pogba amongst a few others) but none have become a role model at this level, for such a big community. Not that Salah shoves his religion in the face of anyone – no, it is the simplest of things about him that have made him the brand ambassador of the fact that Muslims can be more than just terrorists and refugees. His name Mohamed itself (the name of the prophet of Islam), the grateful celebration post a goal, the simple lifestyle, pictures of him reading the Quran, and naming his daughter Mecca (after the holiest Islamic city in the world). The youth of Middle East have significantly less opportunities and resources that their counterparts in the West do, but Salah is a shining example of a devout Muslim who stuck to his beliefs, kept his head down and is now a superstar. Not only does he unite people who have so often been discriminated against, but he inspires them every single day through his work.
In a recent TV interview, Salah’s message to Egyptian youth was simple:
“You can. Believe in your dream and follow it, no matter what.”
Vodafone Egypt last season introduced a scheme – every time Salah scores, users get 11 minutes free talktime (to go with his jersey number). Murals have been painted of Salah’s smiling face on walls across the country. During Ramadan, his face and name were plastered all over products such as pillows and lanterns to boost sales. Sure, Ronaldo has an airport named after him in his hometown, but the amount of fan following that Salah has back home is second to absolutely no one, in any sport. He managed to win multiple Champions League player of the week awards despite not being the best that week – his countrymen voted with a vigour that even Arsenal fans on Twitter cannot match.
“If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me, if he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too.”
After he netted his 30th goal of the season, Liverpool fans came up with this chant. In a sense it is a false promise, for Salah ended the season with 44 goals and yet no one has converted to Islam just yet, but that is again besides the point.
There is one similarity between Egyptians and Liverpool fans – Salah is someone they can get behind fully. There have been several debates as to whether his season was as good as Suarez’s in 13/14, but one thing is for certain; Mohamed Salah has been the lovable ambassador for Liverpool that Suarez never could be. He is a player that lifts the team spirit up, who is (by all indications), a cheerful presence in the dressing room, and most importantly, he is as deadly on the football ground as any Liverpool forward before him. There is no racial abuse drama, no love affair with a Spanish club that irks the fans. A pure, genuine human being who takes joy in the simplest of things; luckily for the fans watching at home, football is very simple for Salah.
Of course, new contracts mean nothing in a day and age where loyalty is as fickle as opinions on Twitter – Suarez and Coutinho left not a full year after agreeing to new deals. But it feels different this time around. Suarez left after giving it his all and failing to win the league in a season where Liverpool did nothing of importance in any other tournament. Coutinho left simply because it has been his dream to play for Barcelona, and Liverpool was the successful stepping stone he needed.
Salah is not a South American, and thus unlike most of them, Real Madrid and Barcelona have never been his ultimate destination. Moreover, having just reached the Champions League final and finishing in the top four in back to back seasons for the first time since Rafa Benitez’s era, Liverpool are in the strongest position that we have been in the last decade. Salah has been the focal point of this turnaround, and in penning a new contract, he gives the fans an indication that he is here to win trophies that have eluded this elite club for the longest time.
More than anything, Liverpool Football Club prides itself in being a club for the fans.
“The word ‘fantastic’ has been used many times, so I would have to invent another word to fully describe the Anfield spectators. It is more than fanaticism, it’s a religion. To the many thousands who come here to worship, Anfield isn’t a football ground, i’s a sort of shrine. These people are not simply fans, they’re more like members of one extended family.”
It was Bill Shankly who recognised the fanatic support that the Reds had back in the 50’s, when the club was as badly run as the United States government under Donald Trump. Klopp matches that ideology,
Liverpool is a family. The living embodiment of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the fans love football as much as anyone else on the planet. Salah and Liverpool are a perfect fit – if you perform for them, they will repay you in every way possible. If you don’t, there will obviously be some detractors, but the love and support never goes away. Chants, slogans, awards, and nicknames; the ‘Egyptian King’ has made Anfield his own home. He is the Pharaoh of Liverpool Football Club, and the fans pray to all the different gods they believe in, that Mohamed Salah stay at Anfield for as long as possible.
Mo Salah inspires me, and he inspires many like me across the world. He is a hero both on and off the field, and more than ever before now, the city of Liverpool is confident about the future of its football club. Salah has played a major role in that, and his part is not yet over. The best is yet to come.
The biggest impact that he has had on me? My family keeps asking me if Salah scored for Liverpool. At least, now they know the name of the team I support.