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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Mohamed Salah's fitness race has Egypt and World Cup rivals waiting with bated breath

Liverpool superstar's injury in the Uefa Champions League final occurred just 20 days before Egypt open their World Cup campaign against Uruguay

Mohamed Salah receives treatment following his injury in the Uefa Champions League final. Michael Regan / Getty Images
Mohamed Salah receives treatment following his injury in the Uefa Champions League final. Michael Regan / Getty Images

Mohamed Salah offered the news a nation wanted to hear, but it was felt far beyond his country’s borders.

“It was a very tough night, but I’m a fighter,” the Egyptian tweeted on Sunday, less than 24 hours after he departed the Uefa Champions League final in tears, the final billed as his as much as it was Liverpool’s, or Real Madrid’s, or Cristiano Ronaldo’s. “Despite the odds, I’m confident that I’ll be in Russia to make you all proud. Your love and support will give me the strength I need.”

The power to perform had deserted Salah the previous night, a half hour into the clash in Kiev, when Sergio Ramos yanked him to the turf. Salah attempted to continue, but the pain was too great. The magnitude of the injury was too.

There were fears Salah had dislocated his shoulder, ending not only his season with Liverpool, but his World Cup hopes. Seeking to assuage the angst, the Egyptian Football Association announced Salah had sprained ligaments, predicting his return within three weeks. The World Cup was 19 days away; Egypt’s Group A opener against Uruguay one day more. Egypt’s first World Cup match in 28 years.

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As the country sought reassurance, sports minister Khaled Abul Aziz took to Facebook, stating the injury wasn’t as bad as initially feared, that two weeks was indeed the prognosis. President Abdel Fattah El Sisi conveyed his hopes of a speedy recovery, then later following a conversation with "Egyptian champion" Salah, said his national team’s prized asset was excited to not only participate in Russia, but shine.

“I have assured him that he has become an Egyptian symbol that makes every Egyptian proud and glorious,” Sisi tweeted. “I pray to God, as a dad praying for his son, to protect him and recover him well.”

For that is what Salah has come to represent, how his reputation has risen and his influence intensified. He is a footballer, yes, but as Sisi underlined, he is also Egypt’s son, the country’s shining light, a beacon of hope, the smiling, selfless philanthropist who impacts his country through football and his many charitable pursuits.

The World Cup felt an obvious place to celebrate that. It provided another opportunity for the cult of Salah to swell. With Salah, Egypt could dream of getting beyond the group stages and more, for he pushes back their boundaries, lessens their limitations, makes the impossible appear that little easier to reach out and touch. Without Salah, a competent-yet-modest Egypt look exactly that.

His authority on the pitch is obvious: 44 goals in a debut season at Liverpool; the nerveless, injury-time penalty against Congo to seal Egypt's place in Russia.

In March, Ahmed Elmohamady, one of the team’s most experienced players and who grew up in the same city as Salah, told The National: "He’s a player who can do something at any time. We need him at the World Cup.”

Away from the pitch, Salah mixes comfortably with teammates and technical staff, the focus of apparently everyone but those inside the squad. He seems almost a reluctant star, although it is a weight he wears well.

The load will only thicken, as the days until his return are logged, as the clamour surrounding his fitness amplifies. David Beckham has been there, in 2002, so too Wayne Rooney, in 2006. Ditto Luis Suarez or Cristiano Ronaldo last time out. Neymar this year.

Of course, this week’s friendly against Colombia comes too early, as does next week’s against Belgium. In between, Hector Cuper’s final World Cup squad will be confirmed. No doubt Salah will be there.

But the clock is ticking and Egypt must, for the next two weeks at least, prepare for a first global finals since 1990 without their only global name. Arriving in Italy on Saturday for their final camp, they had hoped to concentrate on fine-tuning the team for Russia 2018, for Uruguay on June 15. Now, solutions must be found, all the while played out against the backdrop of the Salah uncertainly.

Though, as the player declared, he is a fighter. He will feed off the love and the support, do everything within his power to come back in time. Twelve hours after his tweet on Sunday, it had collected 50,000 replies, 147,000 retweets and half a million likes.

Ramos, despite the backlash and the online petition demanding he be banned, wished Salah well. World champion Toni Kroos also. Suarez, however much he truly meant it, hoped Salah would be back to face his Uruguay in Yekaterinburg.

“I want the best ones to be present,” Suarez said.

So too everyone else.

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