No one can better sum up Egypt’s relationship with their national soccer team than goalkeeper Essam el-Hadary, who last summer became the oldest player to ever appear at a World Cup: “In Egypt we have nearly 100 million people… and when the national team plays, they suddenly turn into football coaches. Crazy, passionate football coaches. You see, nothing means more to people here than the national team. Try going into a cafe in Cairo when we play… trust me, you won’t find an empty seat.”
I’ve never been to Egypt, but through soccer I’ve seen how just one person and the teams he or she plays for can lift an entire country’s spirits and stand for positive change in society, well outside the realm of sport. I think traveling and the stories we acquire on the road are capable of doing the very same. The story I’m about to tell is both as old as sport itself and revolutionary in its modernity, both relatable in how it motivates and remarkable in how it is transforming the world before our eyes.
I’ve supported Liverpool F.C. my entire life, a fandom I’ve taken with me across oceans and shared with new friends in unlikely places. In Memphis, Tennessee, I’ve woken at 6:30 on Saturdays to watch them play after excitedly guessing all week how a band of complete strangers might coordinate their movements across a field that is thousands of miles away. I’ve watched Englishmen, Spaniards, Brazilians, and Australians glide across my television screen and straight into my lifelong memory, but when a diminutive Egyptian took his first strides in the red shirt two years ago, I had no idea I was watching the birth of a legend.
There is something especially beautiful about the game of soccer and how its ebbs and flows mirror those of real life. There are countless stories of struggling communities rallying around resurgent teams whose successes, in turn, revitalize the people who support them. A recent tale, also from Africa, involved the Zambian national team in 2012. Almost 20 years after a tragic plane crash killed their entire squad of players and staff, they managed to win their first ever African Cup of Nations (AFCON) trophy by defeating Ivory Coast miles away from the very spot of that crash. In the same year in the Middle East, the Syrian national football team won their first-ever West Asian Cup by defeating Iran — less than a year after the outbreak of civil war in their country.
The recent story of Egypt’s team has been much the same: it is made of perseverance and dedication to their passion in troubled times. When the Arab Spring galvanized mass demonstrations across the Middle East in 2010, the Pharaohs were in the midst of their most successful period ever. They had just won a record-setting third consecutive African Cup with a “golden generation” of talent in their ranks, and looked primed to challenge the world’s best in Brazil in 2014. But after revolution rocked Egypt in 2011, they failed to even qualify for AFCON in 2012 — unfortunately, this was just one in a series of setbacks for Egypt’s passionate fans.
On February 1, 2012, an Egyptian League match between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry in the city of Port Said was delayed for 30 minutes because supporters of the latter club were occupying the pitch. Rowdy stadiums are not a rare phenomenon in Egypt, but now fans frequently stormed the field without any clear resistance from police. The match went ahead with disastrous results: a riot broke out at the final whistle and people reported being unable to escape through closed gates. In a politically-charged, post-revolution atmosphere, accusations flew about certain factions in the country orchestrating the violence, but the damage was done in any case. Dozens died, the immensely popular Egyptian league was cancelled for two seasons, and important players for the national team had nowhere to ply their trade.
The Pharaohs again failed to qualify for AFCON in 2013. After successive campaigns without meeting their most basic goal, there was no hope of making the World Cup. It was a devastating blow, having been on the brink of a first qualification in a quarter-century.
Introduce Mohamed Salah. A soft-spoken and speedy forward backed by many as a target for major European clubs, he was signed by London giants Chelsea, recent champions of Europe and the team of emerging international superstar Eden Hazard. Salah was touted to emulate the meteoric rise of the flashy Belgian, and the hopes of those 100 million coaches were already on his shoulders before ever scoring a goal in Chelsea blue. Much to their dismay, it never worked out. While he is now known as the “Egyptian King,” he began to struggle in the same manner as his national team, and the thought of ever returning to the heights of the golden generation seemed like a distant dream.
Then something changed. Salah was loaned for the 2015/16 season to play football in Italy at A.S. Roma, where he showed early signs of the player he was destined to become. Game after game, he raced past dumbstruck defenders at lightning speed and showed an eye for goal that seemed to have come from nowhere. Rome was so enamored with his performances that they signed him permanently for the next season, and soon enough his star was born. A previously unaccomplished goal scorer now averaged a strike every two games — a fantastic return for anyone in the game. As his career fortunes turned, so did Egypt’s. For the first time since their tournament victory in 2010, they would appear in 2017’s AFCON.
But not only did they qualify for the tournament — they reached the final, on the back of several goals and huge performances from Mo Salah. Although they would go on to lose the championship to Cameroon, the eyes of the footballing world were now firmly fixed on Egypt’s newest national hero. It was only the beginning of a remarkable year for the forward, who returned to England to ply his trade for a legendary and resurgent club, Liverpool F.C. He was an instant fan favorite, scoring a goal in his debut match and cementing his spot as the top scorer in the Premier League. But Salah’s biggest test was yet to come: it was soon time to don the Egypt shirt again and qualify for the World Cup.
During the qualifying campaign, Salah truly etched his place in Egyptian soccer history. He scored goals in four out of six games, including the decisive, penultimate match against Congo. When the opposition leveled the score at one to one with just minutes to go, doubt began to creep in for the Egyptian team. But an errant challenge on Salah earned him a penalty kick — which he calmly sized up, stepped forward, and scored. With a final decisive kick of the ball, Egypt booked their place in a World Cup for the first time since 1990. The country went wild, and Salah emerged not just as their favorite footballer, but a bonafide leader and cultural icon. Murals of him began to appear everywhere from Cairo backstreets to Times Square.
With every step Mo Salah took towards international stardom, I watched on from the cafe in Wales where I worked with my Egyptian manager, also named Mo. Knowing that I was a Liverpool fan, he would close the cafe so we could go across the street to watch Salah at the pub whenever they played on TV. Mo couldn’t even name another player on the field for Liverpool; as good as they were, they paled in comparison to the shining star of Mo Salah. My boss was one of those 100 million football coaches, always posting on Facebook in celebration or despair at Salah’s fortunes and receiving so many replies that my newsfeed was often entirely in Arabic.
2018 and 2019 saw highs and lows for Salah and Egypt, but one thing was certain: one man had inspired a whole country to dream again, and was on course to inspire the whole world. Earlier this year, he told TIME that, “We need to change the way we treat women in our culture. That has to be, it’s not optional.” In the same interview, he said that seeing how women were treated “in my culture and in the Middle East” has changed the way he thought about gender relations.
“I support the woman now more than I did before, because I feel like she deserves more than what they give her now, at the moment.” TIME named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people, and made him one of their six cover stars for the series. Comedian John Oliver said of Salah, “Mo is a better human being than he is a football player. And he’s one of the best football players in the world.”
Considering going to Egypt? Read more about it here.