Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

How Mo Salah scores even when he's making the pitch

Spate of TV spots underline status of Egypt's global star to his football-mad countrymen

Egypt's star forward Mohamed Salah greets a fan before a friendly match against Tanzania in Alexandria on June 13, 2019. Reuters
Egypt's star forward Mohamed Salah greets a fan before a friendly match against Tanzania in Alexandria on June 13, 2019. Reuters

A blitz of ads featuring Liverpool's Mohamed Salah are taking his native Egypt by storm, all while feeding the hopes of local fans that the 27-year-old striker will lead the Pharaohs to victory in the African Cup of Nations that kicks off on home soil later this week.

Clever, funny and widely shared online, the TV spots also showcase Salah's star power, not just as a footballer but also as a global trendsetter, a fashion icon, a father and a generous benefactor.

A football-mad country of 100 million, Egypt has never had an athlete or a celebrity with such global appeal. The late film star Omar Sharif and the squash players currently dominating the men's and women's international circuit do not even come close. For the world's estimated 1.8 billion Muslims, only the late Mohammed Ali comes close to Salah as the most popular Muslim athlete, although the internet has given the Egyptian a significant edge over the American three-time world heavyweight boxing champion.

But even that does not tell the full story of Salah's stardom, which began barely two years ago when he arrived at Liverpool from Serie A's Roma.

For Egyptian fans, his meteoric rise has had added significance because it came at a time when many of them needed a fairytale success story or the emergence of a superhero of their own to distract them from their troubles. After years of political turmoil and violence, they were faced with an unprecedented spike in the price of basic goods and services as part of an ambitious programme to rebuild the country's battered economy.

The rising cost of living has crushed the middle class and posed serious challenges to the poor, whose numbers are said to have grown substantially in recent years.

Egyptians are further beset by a long-running war against Islamic militants whose attacks on security forces have killed hundreds over recent years, bringing a backdrop of grief and anger to life in the country.

Moreover, the sport has been shaken to its foundation by a 2012 riot that killed more than 70 mostly young fans in one of the world's worst football tragedies. Some two dozen more met the same fate three years later during a stampede at a military-owned stadium.

It is amid this doom and gloom that Salah's exploits on the pitch – he won the Champions League with Liverpool this month and was the Premier League's top scorer for two consecutive seasons – have become a rare source of joy and immense pride. His matches have captivated millions of Egyptians, glueing them to television sets in homes and tea houses across the nation.

The advertisements – the latest ones are for Mobil Super engine oil and Vodafone – show the extent of the footballer's influence, the depth of affection felt for him by fans and the responsibility he shoulders in being a role model for millions.

Images posted online of Salah holidaying on Egypt's Red Sea coast before he joined the Pharaohs' camp are said to have caused a dramatic spike in hotel bookings in the region. A photo of him holding a large fish he caught there sparked a surge in people taking up fishing in Egypt, according to numerous media reports.

But it is the latest Vodafone commercial that best showcases the hopes of fans that the footballer will deliver Egypt an eighth African title. In voice messages supposedly left on his phone, fans say things such as "the whole of Egypt is waiting for you", "we're all behind you" or "we will shake the ground for you".

Salah humbly replies: "As long as you are behind us, God willing, we will bring joy to all of you."

The star forward is no stranger to carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, but the stakes are higher this time round.

Egypt might find it relatively easy to top a group comprising Zimbabwe, who they play in the tournament opener on Friday, Uganda and the Republic of Congo. But things will get considerably tougher later on.

"Salah took the ambitions of Egyptians to new heights and everyone is dreaming of lifting the cup, but very few have the confidence that it will happen," said football analyst Sabry Sirag.

"Reaching the semi-finals would be good enough, anything short of that would bring heartache to fans."

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who met with the team on Saturday, has demanded more than just good play.

In a video clip released by his office, the general-turned-president told the players: "More important than playing is how we present ourselves to people in Egypt and the world ... Matches will always be played, but what will endure are the positive impressions."

Updated: June 16, 2019 08:03 PM

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