“Mohamed Salah is so good, he’s even usurped ‘God’ at Liverpool” read a headline in the Liverpool Echo, the city’s most popular daily newspaper.
The ‘God’ here is veteran Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler who scored more than 180 goals in 350 appearances for the Merseyside club and whose nickname perhaps demonstrates how serious Liverpool fans take their football.
On February 24, Salah broke Fowler’s record in scoring 20 Premier League goals in the shortest period of time. Egyptians are hoping that Mo Salah, as English commentators and fans have taken to calling him, can replicate that form at the World Cup this summer.
With half the season to go, Salah has 31 goals in all competitions; Liverpool’s top scorer last season had 13 goals. If the Egyptian maestro secures Liverpool some silverware, he will go down as an Anfield legend. For many Egyptians like myself, Salah already has that status.
“He is a great positive example of an Arab and Muslim and this summer he will do that on the world stage alongside other Arab and Muslim players,” said Britain-based Egyptian expat and football fan Ashraf Taha.
For the first time, four Arab teams — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Morocco — have qualified for the World Cup. Unlike previous tournaments, Arab players now mix it up in the best leagues in the world, from the English Premier League to Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga.
Arab teams rarely make it past the group stages at the World Cup but many are hoping that Russia 2018 will see a few Arab teams advance. The World Cup is traditionally a place to showcase talents, with many other Arab players hoping to attract transfer requests to Europe’s big clubs.
Salah’s effect is felt not just on the pitch but also on the terraces. He has, almost overnight, become one of the most prominent Arab and Muslim representatives in Europe. Although he does most of his talking on the pitch and one would be hard-pressed to find a post-match interview of Salah breaking out of the confines of the stereotypical footballer talking about heeding “the gaffer” and the importance of securing three points, he is more than eloquent with his feet.
Football chants are a staple of the English game. In addition to the old chestnuts about this team being on the road to Wembley or that player running down the wing, there are the more comedic or risque versions that seem to emerge spontaneously and live long in the memory.
A recent chant by Liverpool fans about Salah — it went viral on social media — belongs in this category and contains perhaps the only positive representation of Islam on the football terrace. Sung to the tune of 1990s Britpop band Dodgy’s “Good Enough,” the chant contains the lines: “If he’s good enough for you/He’s good enough for me/If he scores another few/Then I’ll be Muslim too,” and ends with the line “He’s sitting in the mosque/That’s where I want to be.”
Salah is not the only Arab or Muslim footballer in the Premier League. His teammates Sadio Mane of Senegal and Emre Can of Turkish descent are Muslim. There are Manchester United’s French midfielder Paul Pogba, Leicester’s tricky Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez and Arsenal’s German midfield maestro Mesut Ozil, to name a few. However, it is Salah who has caught the imagination in a way that nobody before has.
“We are all mad for Mo across the mosques of Liverpool. This chanting has brought a huge change in perception about the Muslim faith. It has done so much to break down hatred and fear, showing we are all one nation,” said Mumin Khan, CEO of Liverpool’s Abdullah Quilliam Society Mosque, in comments carried by Britain’s the Sun newspaper.
The World Cup begins June 14, with the first game featuring the host Russia against Saudi Arabia. Many across the region are hoping that Russia 2018 will finally be the tournament where the Arab teams cut loose.
Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.