The man who lights up the Egyptian sky—and the entire Premier League—might just be the biggest player on the planet. And he’s just getting started. Part 1 of Larger Than Life, a B/R Football celebration of World Cup superstars like you’ve never seen them before…this gigantic mural included 👆
BY HANIF ABDURRAQIB ART BY BRANDAN “B-MIKE” ODUMS JUNE 5, 2018
Mohamed Salah smiles easy and begins most of his sentences with some variation of “to be honest.” The playfulness, though: I acknowledge the obvious—that Liverpool, which strode to the Champions League final, has been having a good season—and he shoots back with, “No, not really,” and then he grins and gives a look across the room, and everyone laughs. It is hard to be both startlingly earnest and consistently adored, and Mo Salah walks the line well.
A cappuccino arrives on his desk, and it takes several minutes before he finally brings the white mug to his lips. He’d been cradling the cappuccino since it arrived here, at a room inside of Liverpool’s Melwood training ground. This is where Salah—the man whose stardom has skyrocketed ever since his spectacular goalscoring run began last summer—has come to rest, converse. He is still dressed to play: a white Liverpool training jacket, black jogging pants, Adidas sneakers. His hair is piled high and immovable into winding black coils.
That hair. Its legend has grown almost as large as Salah himself. Larger than life, even. Fans in Liverpool wear wigs made to look like this signature puff of hair, and Salah seems often aware of the legend, running his fingers over and over his head. He looks as calm and confident in banter as he does on the pitch, where he registered 44 total goals in club competition this season, setting records for Liverpool and the Premier League.
As his shoulder heals from the Champions League loss, Salah will soon represent Egypt at the World Cup for the first time in a generation. “I will do my best to play from the beginning,” Salah would tell B/R in his first interview since the controversial injury against Real Madrid. But right now, he is looking out of the window longingly. He is trying to fathom the level expectations that rest on his shoulders when he dons his red and white Egyptian jersey.
“I’m always saying that when you wear the jersey of the national team, it’s something different, for any player in the world,” Salah tells me. He glances around a room cloaked in Liverpool regalia and issues a slight clarification: “But that doesn’t mean you play for your club like it’s…”
He waves a dismissive hand, and then he chuckles and expands on the idea with: “You play for your own country with your feeling, your emotion. It’s different. You don’t play the same number of games for your country that you do for your club. And so it feels like you are really fighting for your country. It’s a different feeling.” Salah stirs the foam that is arching toward the edge of his mug into a blizzard, and outside, the wind carries a clutch of leaves across the ridges of the metal roof and past our window. He watches this out of the corner of his eye. The Liverpool crest he wears on his chest reads, YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE.
The Liverpool Crest reads YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE, which is taken from a show tune in the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. When Liverpool merseybeat band Gerry and the Pacemakers covered the song, it became inextricably linked to the Reds. In the ‘60s, Liverpool’s home ground of Anfield—a towering stadium with a checkered green pitch, first opened in 1884—would play top-10 hits over its loudspeaker during games, and when “You’ll Never Walk Alone” dropped out of the top 10, Liverpool fans kept singing it anyway until the overseers of music at the stadium relented, playing the song every game, as they still do. The song’s chorus is gentle:
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone.
At Anfield, inside the ground where the relics of past glories sit in cases, the words WALK ON, WALK ON WITH HOPE IN YOUR HEART are painted above the end of a stairway that leads to the grounds. Below the painted declaration are two young boys standing with their hands clasped together, Mohamed Salah’s jersey on each of their backs.
There are Mohamed Salah jerseys on the backs of two young boys clashing in Cairo. They are makeshift jerseys, to be sure. One, a T-shirt with a hand-drawn and uneven No. 11 on the back, with a wavy M. SALAH scrawled along the shoulders. The other, an iron-on kit, with the “M” in Salah’s name drooping askew, threatening to fall to the dirt at any moment.
The two boys are playing team pickup—five-a-side—but are locked in a duel with each other. Each boy holds the other off the ball for as long as possible with a combination of shielding and stationary fakes until the ball is stolen by the other boy, who begins the dance on his end. Their teammates shout and make small runs toward the goal, which is also makeshift—a large box held in place by bottles. The duel is entertaining to observe, though perhaps less so for their frustrated teammates.
B/R partnered with street artist Brandan “B-Mike” Odums and three world football superstars to paint their own self-portraits:
• THE ART: Mohamed Salah Takes Over Times Square
• COMING SOON: Paul Pogba Takes Over NOLA
• COMING SOON: Neymar Jr Takes Over Miami
Finally, the boy with the hand-drawn jersey, while shielding his rival, notices his foe’s wide defensive stance and does a backward toe-drag through the legs of his opponent before spinning around him into open space. One of the kids on his team yells MAESTRO! while the boy darts toward the goal, unleashing a quickly curving shot, which misses wide to the left. The boys all laugh, some of them linking arms. Football, after all, is a game of inches and miracles.
Football is a game of inches and miracles, which means it is ultimately a game of soaring elation and devastating heartbreak. Egypt rode into the World Cup on the former while often being a kiss of wind away from the latter. Salah seems to understand this and steadies himself at a balance of excitement and tentative hope that amounts to a type of controlled confidence. “You know, the people in Egypt have just wanted to be back in the World Cup for so long that everyone is just happy we made it,” Salah tells me. “That is good for us because there is no pressure. It is also good because the rest of the world looks at us like we aren’t supposed to be there, and that is also good for us. There is no pressure on the players. But if you ask me what we are saying to each other, as the players on the team, we are saying something different.”
The questions of expectations and the World Cup are tricky for any player. Trickier, I imagine, for an Egyptian player. Trickier still for this particular Egyptian player, seen as his country’s football savior—he who will lead the briefly triumphant but still underdog Pharaohs out of their group stage and into glory. And trickiest after suffering a ligament injury near his shoulder, three weeks before Egypt’s first match in Russia, with all of the world expecting a miracle.
“It’s a lot of emotions, that moment,” Salah tells B/R in an interview from rehab on the first Monday in June, after Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos brought him crashing down in the first half of May’s Champions League final. “I’m a human being, so I feel pain, and I was thinking about my head, was thinking about the Champions League final—after that, immediately I think about the World Cup.”
“You can’t think about the World Cup during the final,” he insists. “It’s the final of the Champions League!”
Yet, in Liverpool, at rest and before the injury took place, Salah speaks of the World Cup casually, as if he could never imagine that all of Egypt is holding its breath.
All of Egypt was holding its breath while Mohamed Salah touched the ball on the penalty spot. It was October 2017, a qualifier outside of Alexandria, and if Egypt won, the country would earn a World Cup bid for the first time since 1990—before Salah and many of its players were even born. (Salah is 25.)
Salah had already broken free in the attacking third and slid a low ball past the Congolese goalkeeper. The Egyptian section of the crowd, which had been silently on edge all match long, finally erupted. The goal signaled a boiling point for the kettle, with fans being able to feel World Cup emotions, some for the first time in their lives, others who only knew them as a faraway memory. The fans of Egypt were in full celebration. This made the Congolese goal—a brilliant strike in the 86th minute by Arnold Bouka Moutou, which evened the contest at 1-1—all the more devastating.
Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
And so the penalty was questionable, some might say—particularly if you are a supporter of Congolese football. It came in the closing moments of stoppage time, neither obvious nor egregious.
This is where Mohamed Salah comes in. Where his legend became cemented as one of Egypt’s greatest heroes. In the Arabic language commentary, the announcer is tense and prayerful while Salah stands over the ball, adjusting it for the penalty kick. The announcer repeats Salah’s name, interspersed with “bismillah Rahman a Rahim”—interpreted as, “In the name of Allah, the most beneficent and the most merciful.” It is rhythmic and soothing, a healing song. An echo through every corner of the country Mohamed Salah comes from.
Where Mohamed Salah comes from, it is impossible to escape him now. In Cairo, he is on billboards. His name is sprayed onto the sides of buildings. People here are warm and kind by nature, but when the name of Mohamed Salah is spoken, a wider smile stretches across their faces. He is Egypt’s own—now woven into the fabric of the country’s history. He is as famous as the pyramids now, a man tells me on a drive through Cairo, while pointing out the massive structures and the tourists surrounding them. Minutes later, on a highway, there is a projector playing Liverpool highlights on the side of a building: Salah scoring a goal and then running toward the crowd, arms extended. From this angle, one cannot see the crowd, just Mo, towering over Cairo, asking to be taken away by applause.
People always knew Salah was going to make it out of Egypt and have a wider impact on the world, because he worked as if there were no other option but for him to make it. This, combined with his magnetic personality, meant that he was going to be an athlete who was more than an athlete—someone who appealed to the wildest dreams of anyone who felt like they could come from somewhere small and make it big. Yes, he was fast, and, yes, his ability to find angles on the pitch is phenomenal. But it is his mind and will which ultimately separate him. It takes a long road to build a football player, and it is a long road from Nagrig to Cairo.
It is a long road from Cairo to Nagrig, a stretch that can take more than two hours by car on the roads in Egypt. There are few traffic laws, but there is an abundance of traffic. The landscape between the city of Cairo and the village of Nagrig becomes more sparse as the journey between the two goes along. The village is tucked in between two main roads and is close-knit and insular. There are many children in the town, many of whom spend their time outside, kicking half-inflated balls along the dirt roads in sandals, small kisses of dirt puffing up from the ground with each attempted shot.
Mohamed Salah would travel the road from Nagrig to Cairo and then back each day once he realized football was something he could achieve, once—at age 10—he won a contest sponsored by Pepsi, searching for the next young star in the Egyptian Premier League. He would make the trip alone for a few years until the club he played for, El Mokawloon, put him up in the modest brick hotel on the team’s sprawling training ground, where he lived for five years. Still, though, Nagrig was always home. A place he could return to in order to feel whole.
“I BELIEVE MOHAMED SALAH WAS SENT BY GOD TO MAKE EGYPT HAPPY.”
—Local from Nagrig, Salah’s home village outside Cairo
When I arrived with a translator, a few days after meeting with Salah in Liverpool, children quickly spread the word of our whereabouts and followed us as we roamed. We quickly came across a group of adults who were sitting outside of a bright green and worn-down building with an open door. They perked up—the sight of 15 children trailing a few outsiders likely had raised a few eyebrows—and one man, an uncle of Salah’s, came down off the porch to greet us, eagerly grasping each hand and shouting the greeting of As-Salamu Alaykum—or “peace be upon you.” Another man, a cousin of Salah’s, arrived on a scooter—one of the children had sought him out and told him to come—and before long, aunts, second cousins and children who idolize Salah all crowded around.
Upon learning that I was from the U.S., one man asked why no one in the States cared about football. He couldn’t imagine a world in which people didn’t love the game as much as it is loved in the village of Nagrig, where football fuels the heartbeat of the village and its surrounding areas. Children ran to show us their shirts bearing Salah’s face.
The man who says he is Salah’s cousin—names of the family members are being withheld to protect their privacy—is the most eager to speak to us. When Salah was a boy, he tells us, teachers used to complain to his father because Salah would often run out of the school to go play football. When Salah scored the goal against Congo to push Egypt into the World Cup, the village was ecstatic. “It was a celebration like I’d never seen,” one man, who arrived to the crowd late, tells us. “The sky, it was so colorful that night.”
The man pauses a bit before continuing, basking in the memory, looking up at the sky. When he finally looks down, he takes a slow breath and says, “I believe Mohamed Salah was sent by God to make Egypt happy.”
Behind him, the ball kicked by a small boy wearing sweatpants with SALAH across the legs rolls into a makeshift goal. The ball rolls slowly, and the boy watches it confidently, knowing it was always going to go in.
The penalty kick was always going to go in. Any striker worth their salt knows that it is all in the eyes of the goalkeeper. Some keepers hype themselves up, stalking the box and slapping each post in an attempt to intimidate the striker. Some goalkeepers glare at the striker, never breaking eye contact, daring their opponent to look up. The penalty kick is a largely mental battle. One person looking for a window of weakness in another person before opening that window wider and escaping to glory. As Salah set up and prepared to take the kick, the Congolese goalkeeper stayed fixated on the ground in front of him. He’d been beaten by the striker before and had no reason to be confident. He looked nervously around and slowly sulked to his position in front of the goal. This is when it was clear. The penalty kick was going to go in.
Associated Press/Nariman El-Mofty
When it did, the crowd once again erupted. Salah sprinted to the stadium’s outskirts, followed by a group of his teammates. The announcer shouted ALHAMDULILLAH!—“all praise is due to Allah”—repeatedly with joy and elation, which eventually transformed into laughter. Despite the fact the match still had roughly a minute left on the clock, the pitch was crowded with Egyptian supporters, all chasing after Mohamed Salah, who finally paused near the left corner flag to fall to his knees and bow in prayer. A handful of supporters beside and behind him stopped and immediately followed him in bowing.
In Liverpool, the fans follow Mohamed Salah when he bows in prayer. He does this to celebrate goals, and people follow, even if they don’t follow his faith.
As Salah’s celebrity has grown internationally and exponentially, so has the idea that he can be a uniting force for the world, a person who can pull multiple communities together. “It’s something I think about a lot,” Salah says, nursing the lower half of his cappuccino. “I don’t know why it happens or why it is happening, but it is something I think about.” I ask Salah about the way Egypt is changing because of him—how he has given young people a sports star to aspire to become—and he pauses. “I’m always happy when I see the people look at me as an icon or an idol in Egypt. When I was young, I always wanted the people to follow my way, if it was a good way. I am very proud about that.”
“WE’LL FIGHT FOR THE FIRST. IT’S A FIGHTING MENTALITY.”
—Mo Salah to B/R Football, on returning from injury for Egypt’s first World Cup match
Salah is humble by nature, though he exudes a natural confidence that you might expect comes with the territory of being one of the greatest athletes in the world. “I don’t think,” he says, “there’s any reason for anyone to not be humble.”
Still, Salah is thrilled and often surprised by the enthusiasm of the people who adore him. And he takes the affection in stride. In Liverpool, fans serenade him often in song—“They make a new one every week!” he exclaims, both exasperated and overcome with joy. He watches the fan chants on YouTube, trying to keep up, and engages with his followers on social media (15.8 million and counting on Instagram, 6 million on Twitter) when he can. The night after the shoulder injury, he posted a note to fans: “Despite the odds, I’m confident that I’ll be in Russia to make you all proud,” he wrote. “Your love and support will give me the strength I need.”
A statement from the Egyptian national team, that its doctors expected Salah to recover in time for the country’s second match of the World Cup group stage, brought relief to millions. A phone call with B/R may do more than that: “We’ll fight for the first,” Salah says. “It’s a fighting mentality.”
He feels an obligation to the people who support him. “Honestly, when I came here, I said I want to win a cup for this team,” Salah tells me. “I wanted to do it for the city, for the fans, for everyone who believed in me enough to bring me here.”
Salah likes it here in England. It is the only place outside of Egypt where he has felt like he belongs. “I’m very happy now in Liverpool. They have made me feel like I’m home. It is amazing with the fans here. They sing songs for you in the stadium. They chant your name, fans wear your shirt everywhere. It is beautiful.” There is a weight associated with being this great and this beloved. “I give football my whole life. So I’m happy.”
Salah is aware of his celebrity throughout the world and is bold enough to want to push it further. He half-jokes about wanting to trade jerseys with LeBron James: “I see him play when I can, and he is just…he is amazing,” Salah told me somewhat whimsically. “I saw some YouTube of him—not just basketball, but when he’s talking—and I like him.” Salah insists that he wants to be the biggest player in the world. “If you look at my career, last year was better than the year before it, and this year was better than last year,” he says. “But there is more to go. I’m not just going to be settled.”
These are his roots speaking—the way he is wired to always keep climbing, as if greatness is something to fight through, not stand on top of. As if he’ll never have to stop earning every moment of adoration.
“Mohamed Salah has earned every moment of adoration,” says Hamdi Nooh. We are in the office of the legendary Egyptian coach and former player whom locals call Captain Hamdi. Captain Hamdi once coached at the Egyptian Premier League club El Mokawloon, where Salah began his career as a youth player deep into his teens. He is tall and rail-thin and walks slowly, worn down from years as a striker in the ‘70s. (Hamdi played at the same time as Mahmoud El Khatib, widely regarded as one of the best players in African football history.) Captain Hamdi’s fondness for his pupil is palpable. He tells stories while thumbing excitedly through his phone and interrupting his own thoughts to show photos and videos. (In one clip, Salah wears a jacket with one sleeve and gives Hamdi thanks. “My captain, always,” he says.)
Captain Hamdi takes me around the El Mokawloon grounds, showing me the hotel that Salah stayed in while he trained there. “He would wake up with the older players and practice in the morning and then stay out late and do extra training in the evening, staying up while everyone else slept.” It’s the common thread that keeps coming up when anyone is asked about Salah: his determination. His willingness to work beyond what some players might consider a reasonable measure.
Getty Images/Francis Bompard
He broke into the Egyptian Premier League in style, Captain Hamdi tells me. Scoring goals at a high rate but, more importantly, doing so against the league’s top competition, the dominant club Al Ahly. Salah scored his first Egyptian Premier League goal against Al Ahly during the 2010 season—and that’s when Cairo began to take notice of the young phenom. (“That’s when I knew I could make it,” Salah had told me back in Liverpool.)
But Captain Hamdi speaks as if he were still coaching Salah. “From the time he was small, I taught him his left foot and his right foot,” Hamdi says. He thinks that Salah is still the second-greatest player in the world, behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid’s star. But that will change soon. “Salah knows the game better than anyone,” Hamdi says, pointing aggressively at his temple. “I taught him well. I told him to go and change the world.” Outside, in the space where fans once gathered, a group of children laugh while water splashes from a pool and spins into the air.
Before Salah left to play in Europe, Hamdi says: “I told him: ‘I love you, my son. And I am proud of you, and soon the world will know how great you are.’”
The world finally knows how great Mohamed Salah is, and he has—by now—touched every imaginable corner of it. But it is good to know that one can always come home, no matter how massive your star sits in the galaxy. In Nagrig, Salah is both legend and native son. The people here know him as one of theirs and think of him in this manner, but they are trying to come to terms with the fact that he also belongs to the world now. There isn’t much to be done about that, but they still beam with pride at the mention of his name. He came back to Nagrig last year during the holy month of Ramadan and walked the streets as he always did, talking to his old friends and family members. He doesn’t imagine himself a celebrity here, one man tells us. He comes back, and it is like he never left.
Off the pitch, Salah insists that he is a homebody, running his hands through his beard, which—like his hair—has become an iconic part of his aesthetic, both on and off the pitch. “I play video games,” he tells me. “PlayStation 4. FIFA 18, mostly.” His team? “Liverpool,” he says. “I pass the ball to myself.” He says this while laughing mischievously, as a kid might, reveling in some past-hidden delight.
Everyone is a kid from somewhere, as the saying goes. That idea is an American one, but you see echoes of it across the world: Where kids kick footballs underneath billboards. Where kids fire off jump shots and hold the poses that match the poses they saw Steph Curry hold on Instagram, like I stepped into batter’s boxes on dirty fields with my hat turned backward because Ken Griffey Jr. did it too. It’s all the same road, with several hands at the end of it, reaching into villages, or cities or hoods across everywhere.
Bleacher Report/Jessica Dorricott
What Mohamed Salah means stretches beyond the pitches in Egypt, where football players play to the echo of empty stadiums and boys jostle for position in alleyways with goals made of empty soda bottles, arranged just so. Egypt, the place Salah thinks of and smiles upon, before coming at me with: “I want to change the future of Egyptian football forever.” What Mohamed Salah means stretches beyond Liverpool, where people bow in prayer and praise a God which isn’t their God so that they might feel closer to their hero. What Mo Salah means stretches beyond oceans—to the States, where people clock out of jobs early to watch Liverpool play in hopes of seeing a miracle, to Russia, where Salah comes with this: “I’m very sure we’re gonna go very far in the World Cup. And no one expects that, but I’m very sure about it.” Even after the injury, asked if he remains confident in Egypt’s chances, Salah brings back that playfulness: “Yeah, of course,” he says, and laughs into the phone, then laughs again. “Of course.”
At the intersection of all these things is a similar dream: the type of player who comes along and knows exactly how to tie each emotional thread at the end of the match. Mohamed Salah is a player who offers several glimpses into many places at once. To be honest, he is not aiming to unify the world but to shrink it. So that everyone has a small place to sing and bow in praise. Not to him but beside him.
Hanif Abdurraqib, a contributor to B/R Mag, is a poet from Columbus, Ohio. His essays and criticism have been published in The FADER, Pitchfork, The New Yorker and The New York Times. He is the author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and a forthcoming biography of A Tribe Called Quest. He last wrote for Bleacher Report about Tiger Woods. Follow him on Twitter: @NifMuhammad
Additional reporting by Ryan O’Leary, lead producer of #LargerThanLife. Follow @BRfootball for more >>