Mo Salah – 1, Islamophobia – 0

Sports

Mo Salah – 1, Islamophobia – 0

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“W
ill Mo Salah play the World Cup?”

It was my first thought when I saw the teary-eyed Liverpool striker leave the field with a dislocated shoulder. Sergio Ramos had lunged in for a 50-50 ball, leaving Salah on the mat and the world divided on whether it was a foul. But as opinions kept pouring in, one thing was certain – Mo Salah couldn’t carry on any further. His entire season had led to this big moment, the Champions League final, where he could show the world what he was made of, after an incredible few months in front of the goalpost. To watch a player, in any sport, be robbed of his big moment because of an injury, is heartbreaking. Even for a Manchester United fan like me.

Surely, Mo Salah wouldn’t miss the World Cup, would he? That would be devastating. In the days after his injury, I frantically checked social media for updates on Salah’s condition as frequently as the Swiss fouled Neymar in Brazil’s opening game at the World Cup. I tuned in to football shows and that’s all the pundits and experts were talking about. Egyptians had gone into a tizzy, making the hashtag “son of a whore” trend in Arabic, the anger directed toward Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos. Everyone, it seemed, related to Mo Salah at some level. They really wanted him to make it.

After all, Egypt has qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990. Surely, the gods of the game wouldn’t be so cruel as to let the country compete without their talisman striker? Salah has been Egypt’s top player in qualification, scoring both goals in their decisive game against Congo, including a last-minute penalty that sent them through.

And so, when reports emerged that Salah would be fit for the World Cup, not just Egypt, but a majority of the footballing world rejoiced. I am certain that if all Salah fans had gathered in one place, it would’ve triggered yet another quake.

Salah

When Mo Salah takes the pitch against Russia, all of Egypt will be glued to their TV sets.

Photo by David Blunsden/Action Plus via Getty Images

But to the disappointment of many, Salah sat on the sidelines for Egypt’s heartbreaking defeat to Uruguay in their first World Cup match, leaving José Giménez to steal the game in the dying seconds. The cries to watch Mo Salah perform magic with his feet once again got louder. Today, as Egypt prepares to take on hosts Russia, the team manager Ihab Leheta has issued a comment saying Salah will be ready.

Finally, it is time for the return of the king.

In the last year or so, Salah has managed to achieve the impossible. And it goes far beyond the football pitch, where he scored 43 goals in 49 appearances for Liverpool, won England’s Player of the Year award, and guided the Pharaohs to the World Cup finals. Salah has managed to unite Egypt, a country that has faced intense political turmoil and severe economic downturn over the past three decades, in a way that political leaders and diplomats could only dream of. Only recently Salah was declared the runner-up in a “neither free nor fair” presidential election where he wasn’t even a candidate.

Salah’s face is all over Egypt. According to the New York Times, a beaming Salah mural outside a roadside café has turned into a place of pilgrimage. Citizens proudly don his jersey – he is the face of hope and joy for 95 million Egyptians.

In the last year or so, Salah has managed to achieve the impossible. And it goes far beyond the football pitch.

It’s easy to see why everyone adores him. He is calm, humble, beyond talented, ever-smiling. He is a religious man, not shy of displaying his faith. He sports a beard, has a pre-kick-off prayer ritual, and every time he scores, points his index finger toward the sky in a gesture of shahada. These public displays of faith are what make him a figure of considerable social and cultural significance across Europe. As this op-ed in the New York Times notes, “At a time when Britain is fighting rising Islamophobia, when government policy has been to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants, he is a North African and a Muslim who is not just accepted in Britain, but adored.”

This proposition has been aptly captured in this chant by Liverpool fans:

Mo Salah-la-la-la-la
Mo Salah-la-la-la-la
If he’s good enough for you
He’s good enough for me
If he scores another few
Then I’ll be Muslim, too.

In this climate of leaders advocating strict immigration policy and hostility toward Muslims around the world, the fact that one of the most exciting players in the world should be a Muslim, is a sweet – and at some level, heartwarming – irony. Like Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King before him, Mo Salah transcends the boundaries of sport to become a figure of unity in a divisive world. As Liverpool fans have labelled him – Mohamed Salah, a gift from Allah.

When Mo Salah takes the pitch against Russia, all of Egypt will be glued to their TV sets, along with millions of fans around the world, excited at the prospect of seeing him finally represent his country. Egypt might well be the underdogs, facing the Russians at home in a must-win game, but last season, so were Liverpool.

Mo Salah is the darling we all need to cheer for. No matter who wins today, the actual result of the game is already paling… to the joy he will bring to football fanatics in those 90 minutes.

After all, who doesn’t want Mo?

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