by Abdellatif El-Menawy
The people of Egypt have returned to gathering around satellite TV screens to watch football games. They have turned back to their old hobby to get away from their country’s harsh social and economic conditions. They have returned to what helps them relieve their stress: Shouting during every attack by their favorite team. Now, however, the crowd is not supporting a local side, but rather an English team named Liverpool — and the reason is Mohamed Salah.
Salah, who on Sunday night won the prestigious English Premier League Players’ Player of the Year award, has proved to his fellow Egyptians that he is their savior and perpetual happiness giver. The goals he scores for the Egyptian team, which has qualified for this summer’s World Cup in Russia after an absence of 28 years, have always been the focus of their attention. But now the goals he is scoring with Liverpool — an incredible 41 so far in his first season with the Merseyside club — are the source of their happiness and smiles.
“What is the first thing you do when you wake up?” an English reporter asked him. “I smile, and stay still for a few minutes meditating and smiling.”
The smile has now been transmitted from Salah to his fans. Not only that, but also his desire to hit greater heights, both domestically and internationally, seems to have traveled from Britain to the homes of Egyptians who are longing for joy.
Salah’s Egyptian fans do not accept those who criticize him, either by belittling his achievements or demanding that his beard and hair be tidied up. The Egyptians love him just the way he is, for his footballing genius, his humility and his genuine smile. They love him because they see in him the individual hero who has the ability to use his talents and make them happy.
The Egyptian national football team has become Salah’s team. His picture is hung in all homes. Graffiti artists are drawing him on walls and streets throughout Egypt. Salah has become a popular phenomenon everyone is racing to reach, including companies and major institutions, because he has become a promotional face, both for private publicity and awareness campaigns.
But the thing I admire most about this young Egyptian is the talent that most people lack. This young man, who a few years ago was watching world football’s biggest stars on a small television screen at a cafe in the village of Najrij in the Nile Delta, has become a big name himself thanks to his performances in the world’s major stadiums. Fans chant his name at Anfield stadium in Liverpool as he scores one goal after another, boosting his record in a frenzied race for the title of top scorer in the world’s most important football league.
This young man has been keen since his first day in Europe to be the most important and best player. Language, a key barrier to succeeding abroad, became his main focus in every country he went to — Switzerland, England, Italy, and now back in England. Salah is fluent three languages, and who knows where his next destination, language and challenge is going to be? Salah keeps on learning and seeking knowledge. He relies on psychologists to save him from diseases that have affected others — diseases of fame, abuse from rival fans, and the vagaries of the media, which uses absurd words to vilify or praise.
He is an Egyptian king, as the Liverpool fans sing. But how could a young man, still just 25 years old, who lived nearly 20 years in a Third World country, achieve so much in Europe, not only in the world of football but in many other fields as well?
A large part of Salah’s appeal lies in the fact that he never forgets where he came from. Throughout Egypt, Salah is the model for the average Egyptian. He is the teenager who managed to reach the highest levels of international football but has not turned his back on his roots. He is a role model for millions, as an individual, a player, and an Egyptian citizen.
“Salah has become a popular phenomenon everyone is racing to reach, including companies and major institutions, because he has become a promotional face, both for private publicity and awareness campaigns.”
His popularity transcends football. He has become an icon for all Egyptians, a dealer of happiness in their difficult days and an example to be followed, especially after demonstrating his humanitarian —as well as footballing — talents.
Next to the cafe in Najrij is the football ground where Salah played and, now, under white lights, barefoot teenagers run back and forth, all hoping to follow in his footsteps. Nearby is Salah’s childhood home, an old three-storey building that lies empty now that he and his family have moved to Europe — but Salah has not severed his links with the village.
The people of Najrij say he was a simple young man and a strong part of the village community. He returned from his home in London a few years ago, when he was playing for Chelsea, to marry a local girl. The wedding was attended only by villagers and his close friends. Salah has also donated a lot to the community of about 15,000 people; to his old school, the children and the poor.
Egypt has many professional players in the most important leagues in Europe and the Arab world. But Salah remains the captivating fantasy, the real dealer of Egyptians happiness, and the source of Egyptians’ cheers when he scores yet another goal, giving joy not only to the fans of his team, but to all Egyptians as well.