As the world gets increasingly hostile towards Muslims, one Egyptian football star is making waves both on and off the field – rekindling hope in Egypt and across the world.
This past weekend Liverpool made its first trip to the UEFA Champions League finals in 11 years – in large part, thanks to Mohamed Salah.
In the lead up to the final, Salah proved to himself to (arguably) be the best player in Europe this season. He broke records left, right and centre, helping Liverpool finish fourth with his 32 goals (one point worse than the previous season). Just three weeks ago, Salah set the record for most goals scored in a Premier League season.
Having been away from the finals for over a decade, Liverpool looked out of place this year. But something was different this season. Winning the Champions League against Real Madrid, would have been a fitting end, an ideal ‘happily ever after’ for Salah and Liverpool.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
Just 28 minutes into the match, the world looked on in dismay as Salah left the pitch in tears. After Real Madrid stalwart, Sergio Ramos, brought him down, Salah tried to soldier on but succumbed to his injured shoulder. Liverpool went on to lose the match 3-1, thanks to the actions of two ponytails. While Gareth Bale (the first of the ponies) scored two goals, with one truly fit for the occasion, the goalkeeper Loris Karius (the other pony) had a forgettable night.
It must be noted that the Champions League final was a different story altogether. Salah’s heroics have secured Egypt a spot at the FIFA world cup, which will be the country’s third appearance at the tournament in its entire history, and its first since 1990. Salah’s injury may hold him back from the world cup, but that will not taint his legacy. In addition to his performance on the field, his influence has transcended the pitch.
In March this year, over a million Egyptians scribbled Salah’s name onto the ballot papers while voting in the presidential elections. He proved to be so popular, he finished as a runner-up to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Moves like these are seen as ‘safe’ ways of protesting the government, which has presided over a crackdown on political dissent and jailed several protestors and journalists in recent times.
With the promises made during the Arab Spring still far from being realised, Salah has raised a new, unusual hopefulness in Egyptians. After he became the face of Egypt’s anti-drugs campaign, there was a reported 400% increase in calls to the drug rehab hotline. He recently donated $450,000 for the construction of a water treatment plant in his village, Nagrig. When sport is seen as an avenue for emancipation, sport stars often become the centre of that hopefulness. Salah now shoulders an entire nation’s expectations.
Football’s history, like that of other popular sports, is full of examples where it came to be at the intersection of identity and politics. In his book Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper outlines incidents where the sport has been used as a tool to fight against oppression. Salah is no stranger to such things. His boots from this past season are going to be displayed in London’s British Museum. To commemorate his feat of scoring the highest number of goals in a single Premier League season, Salah’s boots will have a place amongst ancient giants in the museum’s Egyptian artefacts collection.
Other than being enshrined in museums, Salah’s name has inspired adoring chants across the UK. While some are encouraging, and sound like music to the ears, others… really shouldn’t exist. The thing is, chants about Salah aren’t just inspired by his professional prowess, but also his religion, Islam.
“If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too. If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. Sitting in the mosque, that’s where I wanna be! Mo Salah-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la-la-la.”
Another one goes, “Mohamed Salah, the gift from Allah. He came from Roma, to Liverpool. He’s always scoring, it’s almost boring. So please don’t take Mohamed away”
Evidently, Salah stands at the precipice of something big, not just on the field but also off it. He has shouldered the hopes of an entire nation which is struggling to cope with itself. He is the ray of hope that Egyptians have hoped for, for years now. Salah may be taking Egyptians to the World Cup, but more importantly he is giving them hope in desperate times. By virtue of being in the spaces he is, Salah is also tackling Islamophobia head on.
The chants, the musuem-worthy boots and the general mania surrounding Salah are, hopefully, a testament to people’s changing mindsets. Apart from demonstrating the art of scoring goals, Salah’s also managing to humanise Muslim men in a world that forgets to treat Muslims as people. As Salah continues to handle his newfound fame, I hope he’ll continue to knock down goals and stereotypes with the same awe-inspiring skill.
Mridul Kataria is a 22-year-old sports writer from New Delhi.
Featured image credit: Reuters/Jason Cairnduff