An Egyptian icon: Ever since the Arab Spring uprisings, the country has suffered a series of economic and political setbacks, but in Salah its people have something to celebrate
In a bare-bones cafe in the small farming village of Nagrig in the Egyptian Nile Delta, a cheer goes up from the crowd as they watch their old neighbour score his 26th Premier League goal against Newcastle. Just a few years ago, Liverpool forward Mohamed Salahwould have been here among them, watching European football with his friends from the village. Back then, everyone would have been supporting different clubs, donning bootleg Manchester United or Chelsea shirts. Now, though, there’s no question who the crowd is rooting for.
“Everyone’s a Liverpool fan here,” says 42-year-old Ghamry Abdel Hamid El Saadany. “Wherever Mohamed goes, we’ll support him.”
El Saadany is proud to call himself “Mohamed Salah’s first coach”, having first nurtured the striker’s left foot at the local sports club when he was eight years old. “Even then his talent was obvious,” he says. “He had so much determination. Now, he’s getting better and better. He’s the best Egyptian player since Mahmoud El Khatib [the former Al Ahly player commonly known as Bibo].”
But Salah’s popularity goes further than football. Not just in Nagrig, but throughout Egypt, El Saadany says, he’s become “an icon, a model of the value of Egyptians”. Ever since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, the country has suffered a series of economic and political setbacks. Much of the news coming out of Egypt since then has been bleak. Since Salah took Egypt into its first World Cup in almost three decades, and is now vying with Spurs striker Harry Kane to be the Premier League’s top goalscorer, the country at last has something to celebrate.
And for the residents of Nagrig, his rise to top is also a bit surreal. Next to the cafe is the pitch Salah used to play on. Under bright white flood lamps, 10 barefooted teenagers charge up and down, hoping to follow in his footsteps. Salah’s old house sits a stone’s throw away, a humble three-storey walk-up. It lies empty now, since Salah, his parents and siblings decamped for Europe, but Salah hasn’t cut his ties with the village.
“He was always a simple guy,” says El Saadany. “He was always a strong part of the community.” He came back from his London residence three years ago, when he was playing at Chelsea, to marry a local girl from the village – a wedding to which locals say “everyone was invited” – and makes a point of returning each Ramadan to share his newfound wealth.
In a village of 15,000 people, where LE 3,000 (around £125) is a respectable monthly salary, Salah’s £90,000-a-week can go a long way here, and he’s lavished his former community with donations to his old school, gifts for the local children, and has even helped poorer residents buy the household items they need to get married. He’s not made a big show of it, though. Those who’ve received his help have kept it to themselves. “It’s between them and God,” says 51-year-old local Marwan Jalal Eissa.
Nagrig is a tight-knit community. Virtually everyone here can scratch their heads for a minute or two and work out exactly how they’re related to one another. Locals here say Salah’s donated to the village, not to show off, but out of obligation for his extended family. In return, the village has had the local youth club, in which he once played, and his old school both renamed in his honour.
A big part of Salah’s appeal is that he’s never forgotten where he comes from. All over Egypt, he has become the poster-boy for the average Egyptian, the teenager who, through gut determination, made it to the highest levels of international football, but never turned his back on his roots. “Mohamed is a role model for this country,” says Eissa, pointedly.
“As a person, as a player, and as an Egyptian citizen.”
Three buses and a train ride north of Nagrig, in the smog-filled city of Cairo, Salah’s face beams out from billboards. The capital, which holds around a quarter of the nation’s near 100m citizens, is a world away from the village, but the striker’s story has touched the hearts of Cairenes no less.
All over the city, young men meet up in coffee shops in the evenings to watch the local teams Al Ahly and Zamalek, as well as games from La Liga, the Premier League and the Champions League. Pretty much everyone has a foreign team they support, and Real Madrid and Bayern Munich T-shirts are ubiquitous throughout the crowded streets; but Mo Salah has become a team of his own. A large handful of Liverpool supporters have certainly come out of the woodwork this year, but as one local fan puts it: “They only care about Salah. Liverpool could be winning 3-0 and they’ll watch in silence, but if Salah scores the fourth they’ll go crazy.”
Of course, Salah isn’t the only player in the Premier League. Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny has been in England since 2016, as has Stoke City’s Ramadan Sobhi. But it’s the Liverpool striker that’s captured the country’s imagination.
“This is the first time we’ve seen an Egyptian player that people in other countries are excited about,” says 29-year-old football fan William Fawzy. “And that’s new for Egyptians. You can’t imagine how much people love him here; he’s like our Didier Drogba,” he says, referencing the former Chelsea player often credited with ending a civil war in his native Ivory Coast.
Fawzy explains how for a lot of fans in Egypt, football is a release from the hardships of the last few years, which makes it all the more refreshing to see the rise of a homegrown star. “During the revolution, we didn’t care about football,” says Fawzy. “But now, we’ve all started watching again.”
Since 2011, inflation has pushed up the prices of almost everything, ushering in a cost-of-living crisis and a peak in poverty levels. Under the current president, Abdel Fateh El Sisi, repression is also on the increase, with tens of thousands of political prisoners now in jail, and new suspects disappearing off the streets all the time. “Football is a distraction for us,” says Fawzy.
Later this month, Sisi will go to the polls to seek re-elections. He’s a divisive figure among Egyptians, but with all credible opposition to him swept aside, the elections are all but over. Posters of the incumbent president hang all over the country, encouraging Egyptians to come out in support for him on the 26th. The face of his nominal opponent, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, is nowhere to be seen. Aside from the president, the only Egyptian plastered all over the country is a quiet 26-year-old from a village in the Delta. “He’s the real face of Egypt,” says Eissa.