Mys­tery only adds to Salah’s sta­tus as the king of Egypt

Some ques­tion whether char­ity sto­ries are true — but ei­ther way he is wor­shipped at home

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - ED­DIE BOWER

THE vil­lage where Mo­hamed Salah grew up is a clus­ter of redbrick houses threaded to­gether by dusty un­paved streets and sur­rounded by a shim­mer­ing sea of green fields. In its cen­tre, Ahmed al-Masery sits in an empty cof­fee shop watch­ing high­lights on a tiny, wall-hung TV of his old friend play­ing for Liver­pool against Roma. “I used to play foot­ball games on PlayS­ta­tion with him back in the day,” says the 35-year-old, ges­tur­ing at the screen.

Back then, Salah would pick Liver­pool to play video games with his friend. Now the player is the Mersey­side club’s favourite adopted son, a striker whose goals have in­spired his team into the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal later this month. Fans are de­voted to their “Egyp­tian king” — one song in­cludes the line “if he scores an­other few, I’ll be Mus­lim too”.

For the peo­ple of Nagrig, a small farm­ing com­mu­nity two buses and a train ride north of Cairo, Salah’s rise

He beams out from bill­boards, sell­ing ev­ery­thing from choco­late bars to soft drinks

is scarcely be­liev­able. The 25-year-old comes back to the vil­lage about once a year, al-Masery says, but he’s been to­tally un­spoilt by fame. “He doesn’t even drive when he comes here,” he says. “He walks around the streets like ev­ery­one else, speak­ing to any­one who wants to talk to him.”

In Bri­tain, Salah is an emerg­ing phe­nom­e­non. In Egypt, his progress has been watched and charted for years. It’s dif­fi­cult to overem­pha­sise his pop­u­lar­ity — his face is ev­ery­where. Every cof­fee shop has a Salah poster. Mu­rals fea­tur­ing him along­side other icons of Egyp­tian cul­ture, such as singer Umm Kulthum and nov­el­ist Naguib Mah­fouz, have ap­peared around the cap­i­tal. He beams out from bill­boards, sell­ing ev­ery­thing from choco­late bars to soft drinks, mo­bile-phone tar­iffs and bank ac­counts. Such is the power of the Mo Salah brand, that when he lent his name to a gov­ern­ment-spon­sored anti-drugs cam­paign, they re­ported a 400 per cent in­crease in calls to their hot­line.

Much has been made in the Egyp­tian press of Salah’s char­ity work. It’s been widely re­ported that he reg­u­larly helps new­ly­weds fur­nish their new homes with ev­ery­thing they need for mar­riage, although the re­cip­i­ents of these gifts have never come out pub­licly. News­pa­per columnists and talk-show hosts de­light in shar­ing ex­am­ples like these of Salah’s good na­ture, but al-Masery is one of many Nagrig res­i­dents who are scep­ti­cal. “Most of these sto­ries are just hearsay,” he says. One par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar Salah story came af­ter LE 30,000 (€1,420) was stolen from Salah’s fa­ther. The thief was caught and in an act of for­give­ness, Salah’s fam­ily did not press charges. Retellings of the story in the press, how­ever, have Salah in­ter­ven­ing per­son­ally to help the man find work. One ver­sion even has Salah giv­ing the man a wad of cash.

“The me­dia just wants to talk about Salah, Salah, Salah,” al-Masery says. “He’s a nice guy, and very re­spect­ful, but not ev­ery­thing writ­ten about him is true.”

Not ev­ery­body shares al-Masery’s scep­ti­cism about the Salah story. In Cairo, where 200 pun­ters crammed on to the pave­ment at an out­door cof­fee shop to watch Liver­pool se­cure their place in the Cham­pion’s League fi­nal, 29-year-old foot­ball fan Omar Salem says he “doesn’t care” if cer­tain de­tails about the striker are false. “Peo­ple want to be­lieve these things about him,” he says. “At this point he’s so loved that no­body would ever deny them.”

Be­fore last July, you’d be hard pressed to find any­one here sup­port­ing the Mersey­side club. That’s all changed this sea­son, though, with foot­ball fans reg­u­larly turn­ing out in force, for every Liver­pool game. “It would just be amaz­ing to have an Egyp­tian player win the Cham­pi­ons League,” Salem says.

Salem says it was Egypt’s match against Congo in Oc­to­ber that marked the be­gin­ning of his sta­tus as a na­tional icon. Salah’s penalty, four min­utes into in­jury time, put Egypt ahead at the 11th hour, se­cur­ing the team a place in its first World Cup in 28 years. “When he cel­e­brated that goal,” says Salem, “that’s the im­age peo­ple will re­mem­ber from that match.”

Salem calls Salah the first big Egyp­tian player “that peo­ple can ac­tu­ally re­late to”. “We don’t even know what car he drives,” says Salem. In­stead, Salah’s story is that of a hum­ble teenager, who through sheer grit and de­ter­mi­na­tion earned the chance to rep­re­sent his coun­try in the big leagues of Eu­rope.

For the kids of Nagrig, at least, the leg­end of Mo­hamed Salah is very real. His for­mer school was re­named in his hon­our, and to talk to pupils here, you’d think his story was part of the cur­ricu­lum. One such pupil, 13-year-old Osama Eid, tells the story of Salah’s rise to fame as if recit­ing his 12-times-ta­bles. “He’s very re­spect­ful and kind,” he says, “and well-man­nered and does a lot of work to help the poor.” Ac­cord­ing to Eid’s friends, he’s the best foot­baller of their gang. When asked if he’d like to be like Salah one day, he doesn’t skip a beat: “In­shal­lah”.

‘Such is the power of the Mo Salah brand, that when he lent his name to a gov­ern­ment-spon­sored anti-drugs cam­paign, they re­ported a 400 per cent in­crease in calls to their hot­line’

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