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Mohamed Salah, one of the greatest footballers playing today, is synonymous with Liverpool’s transformation into the unstoppable attacking juggernaut that captured a once elusive Premier League title in 2019-20. But Salah has yet to produce anything like that glittering success for the Egyptian national team, who are hoping to find their moment of glory at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations starting on January 7.
With their trademark Scouse wit, Liverpool fans famously express their love for Mo Salah by singing to the tune of Dodgy’s 1996 Britpop hit Good Enough: “Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah, Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah, if he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me, if he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too”.
Since that chant first coruscated around Anfield in 2018, Salah has kept up his astonishing form – characterised by ingenious dribbling moves, an almost clairvoyant ability to read the game ahead and lethal finishing skills.
When Liverpool thrashed their bitter rivals Manchester United 5-0 at Old Trafford in October – a match that will no doubt live forever in Scouse lore – Salah scored a hat-trick and surpassed ex-Chelsea hero Didier Drogba’s 104-goal record to become the top-scoring African player in Premier League history.
After a disappointing early spell at Chelsea, Salah’s talent bloomed during his two seasons at AS Roma from 2015 to 2017. Liverpool forked out €42 million for him in 2017, making Salah the most expensive African player in footballing history – as the club were determined to turbocharge themselves to their Premiership dream, invigorated by the visionary managerial style of their German boss Jürgen Klopp.
It was an explosive first year at Anfield: As Liverpool hammered his ex-club Roma 5-2 in the Champions League semi-final first leg, Salah scored a brace, becoming the first African player to score 10 goals in the competition in a single season. At the end of 2017-18, Salah had not only smashed Robbie Fowler’s club record of 36 goals in a season – he had also become the Premier League’s highest ever goalscorer in a season, hitting the back of the net 32 times.
“We are witnessing the start of greatness,” Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard told journalists about Salah that season.
Salah was instrumental in Liverpool’s success the following season – scoring a penalty in their 2019 Champions League final win against Tottenham, the same season he pulled off a second Premier League Golden Boot alongside fellow Africans Sadio Mané and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Then came the prize Liverpool fans coveted most: the Premier League title, in 2019-20. As befitted Salah’s role as the talisman of the Liverpool attack, he scored in the Reds’ two most iconic matches of their glorious season.
First there was the penalty smashed into the bottom corner with impeccable confidence in Liverpool’s 2-0 victory over West Ham in January 2020 – the match that meant they had beaten every team in that year’s English top flight; the first time Liverpool had pulled off such a feat in their 127-year history.
Two months later, Salah reached back to meet a slightly off Sadio Mané pass, evaded the opposition defence and snuck the ball low into the net as the Reds beat Bournemouth 2-1 – helping gift Liverpool another tally way beyond anything they achieved during their dominance of English football in the 1980s, as this 22nd straight win at Anfield broke the record for consecutive home victories in England’s top flight.
Used by Sisi regime?
Salah retains a great deal of pride in his Egyptian roots amid this glittering success. “To be an Egyptian at this level is unbelievable for me,” he told journalists after lifting the 2018-19 Champions League trophy.
Indeed, Salah has won colossal popularity in Egypt for his actions outside the beautiful game – such as building a hospital, schools, a religious institute and of course a football pitch in his native village of Nagrig, some 80 miles north of Cairo. Salah has also attracted much attention in his native country for speaking out against drug use and violence against women.
Over recent days, the Liverpool star has won even more praise for helping combat anti-vax sentiment in Egypt by urging his compatriots to get the jab against Covid-19.
A devout Muslim, Salah returns to his native village for Ramadan every year, prays five times a day despite a busy playing and training schedule and celebrates each of his goals with a prayer thanking Allah.
Salah’s popularity in Egypt is such that in the 2018 presidential elections – widely seen as rigged to hand incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a landslide victory – the Liverpool striker reportedly received a million votes from Egyptians who crossed out the names of the other candidates and wrote in Mohamed Salah, even though he had expressed no interest in being involved in those polls.
“Mohamed Salah is extremely evasive about his political views,” Suzan Gibril, an expert on the politics of sport in the Middle East at the CEVIPOL think-tank in Paris and the Observatoire des Mondes Arabes et Musulmans in Brussels, told FRANCE 24. “He stays neutral politically while shining on the football pitch, pleasing everyone: Muslims, Coptic Christians, Islamists, revolutionaries, secularists, liberal-left parties and populists.”
“Salah is the archetypal model Egyptian,” Gibril continued. “He leads a very healthy life – he doesn’t smoke; he doesn’t drink. He’s seen as a model Muslim, a generous person, and above all an incredible athlete regarded as one of the best African footballers of all time.”
Salah’s status as a supremely accomplished football player makes him useful for Sisi’s government – which sees him as an “icon of Egypt’s soft power”, in the words of a former Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman, Ahmed Abu Zeid.
The Egyptian government even put the Liverpool icon in the national curriculum in October, including lessons on Salah in a course called “Giving the example of a successful hero” taught in the second year of secondary school. Salah’s footballing career and philanthropic endeavours deserve to be taught in schools because “he is a hero and a role model for his moral and material support to his compatriots”, said Nawal Shalaby, the head of Egyptian school curricula.
Salah provides a “form of propaganda” the Egyptian regime can use to “entrench its rule” and “make itself visible on the international stage”, Gibril said: “The figure of Salah allows it to boast about its moral worth and modernity.”
But the Egyptian government’s use of Salah for political purposes has created some tensions with the Liverpool talisman. In April 2018, Salah complained about the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) plastering his image on the side of the team’s official plane. This unauthorised move created a tricky legal situation because the plane was provided by Egyptian team sponsor WE, while Salah had a sponsorship deal tying his image to rival telecommunications firm Vodafone.
At the Russia World Cup a few months later, Salah was forced to pose with Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov as Egypt trained in the province. Rights groups have denounced Kadyrov for extrajudicial killings and torture of homosexuals.
Throughout the summer of 2018, rumours swirled of Salah taking early retirement from international football as his lawyers made a series of demands over violations of his image rights, including that EFA staff no longer ask him for pictures or autographs.
The legal wrangling ended in September 2018, with the EFA agreeing that it should not assume the right to use Salah in promotional endeavours.
“Salah’s lawyers made a lot of noise, mobilising Egyptian society and putting pressure on the regime to find a compromise,” Gibril said.
After the resolution of this dispute, Salah was embroiled in controversy ahead of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations as his teammate Amr Warda was excluded from the squad by the EFA due to sexual harassment allegations, then reinstated under pressure from players. Salah – who has spoken out in favour of gender equality in the Middle East – backed Warda, writing on Twitter that “we need to believe in second chances” and “shunning is not the answer”.
A disappointing tournament followed. The Pharaohs, as they are nicknamed, were the favourites thanks to Salah’s presence and a home advantage as they hosted the competition. But Egypt’s hopes died not with a bang but with a whimper as Egypt were eliminated in the last 16 – in a lacklustre 1-0 defeat against South Africa.
Two and a half years on, Salah once more incarnates Egyptians’ hopes of footballing glory as they prepare for the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon. But they will face an uphill struggle: While Salah is arguably the best player going to the tournament, the Pharaohs lack star talent elsewhere on the pitch. The closest they come is with Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny, a solid defensive midfield performer but hardly a transformational presence.
More than ever, Egyptian fans must hope that the player who helped bring a long-coveted league title to Merseyside will play an even bigger role in bringing the African Cup of Nations trophy to Cairo.
This article was translated from the original in French.