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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

In Mohamed Salah's hometown not everyone supports Liverpool, but all root for him

The forward whose team is the deciding factor in choosing what game to watch

March 10, 2018- Nagrig, Egypt-  Young boys play football in the yard near the youth centre, that was recently renamed for the village's local hero, Mohamed Salah. Dana Smillie for The National
March 10, 2018- Nagrig, Egypt- Young boys play football in the yard near the youth centre, that was recently renamed for the village's local hero, Mohamed Salah. Dana Smillie for The National

He has taken professional football by storm, winning Arab player of the year, African player of the year, and jointly leads England's Premier League in goals scored this season. In this Nile Delta farming town he's a local boy, but that doesn’t stop Mohamed Salah from being a hero, too.

Nagrig has about 15,000 people and the buildings rarely rise above four floors – generally a good measure for how to gauge the size of an Egyptian village. Its unpaved roads are part of the mythology of how Captain Mohamed, as he is known here, worked his way to stardom.

After a freelance football scout discovered Salah, he brought him to the Arab Contractors’ development league in the nearby city of Tanta. Salah started training with the club’s main team in Cairo.

Every day, at 7 am, he would walk a kilometre, ride a bike to Basyoun, the next town, transfer to the regional city Tanta, transfer again to Cairo, and then take a final bus to the club. The four-hour commute would then be repeated, getting home around midnight.

After the Swiss side Basel organised a game with the Egyptian National U-23 team in 2012, Salah was so impressive that within a month the team had signed him.

Salah's talent was especially noteworthy in that he did not play for Egyptian powerhouses Ahly or Zamalek.

From Basel, Salah went to Chelsea, before playing for Roma and Fiorentina in Italy. He joined Liverpool, where his talent has blossomed to wider claim, last June.

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Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp backs Mohamed Salah to feature in awards list

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Wherever Salah, now 25, goes, his village follows.

"He went to Basel, so we all watched the Swiss League. He went to Chelsea, we all left Basel and Switzerland behind and cheered the English league," said Maher Shetia, the mayor of Nagrig.

"Not just the villagers, all of Egypt. Mohamed plays for a team, we cheer that team. He leaves a team, we leave a team. Our interest is dictated by our love for Mohamed."

In the player's honour, youth centres in Nagrig and the town nearby were named after Salah. Before Liverpool games on a Saturday afternoon, lanky teenage boys pile their shoes into goal markers at the field next to a newly planted jasmine grove.

"The Egyptian Pharaoh," is how Osama, a 13-year-old playing at the town’s youth centre, sees Salah, whereas Liverpool fans in the English city have dubbed the striker "The Egyptian King."

Nagrig's youth centre is one place named after him and which bears his face.

Mohamed Salah celebrates scoring for Liverpool against West Ham at Anfield. Oli Scarff / AFP Photo
Mohamed Salah celebrates scoring for Liverpool against West Ham at Anfield. Oli Scarff / AFP Photo

One coffee house was named "Chelsea", since it was deemed a violation of Salah's honour. It has not been renamed, despite Nagrig's football fans apparent distaste for Coach Jose Mourinho, presumably after Salah wasn't picked by the coach in enough games.

There is though, evidence of Salah's generosity, albeit lacking any sign that he was the benefactor.

A religious school under construction, a charity food market, and an empty parking lot that will become an ambulance station will all be given to local authorities once construction is completed thanks to funds from Salah.

Mohamed El Bahnasy is the director of The Mohamed Salah Charity, which dispenses financial support to families monthly. Hassan Bakr, the charity’s social researcher, checks that the money is going to the right places, and is stopped in the street by villagers hoping that they or those they know can qualify for help.

"We're sons of the village. We are serving our village. We're responsible for our people - we are," Mr Bahnasy said.

"I find it strange that people are so interested in this charity work. People should focus on how Mohamed Salah got to where he is. For us, in our religion it's required that the rich help the poor."

"Everyone as a community is proud that Captain Mohamed Salah is from here, he’s considered the pride of Egypt, the pride of the world’s Muslims. We are proud that Mohamed Salah is a son of the village of Nagrig."

Some fans often compare him to Mohamed Abou Treika or Mahmoud El Khatib, who were legends at home, too, but never European superstars.

Abdel Wahab Ismail, another son of Nagrig, has followed in Salah's footsteps, playing left fullback for Arab Contractors, and is taking the same buses.

“Salah is a good player, an excellent one frankly, because God has blessed him. His morals are high, he's respectful and very purposeful."

The villagers attribute his success to his piety and countryside morals rather than natural talent, too, repeating his personality traits and over again.

He's never been bad to anyone says Ahmad Hassan, 22. He's respectful, says Mido Saadani, 23. He's moral and pious, says Selem Hussein Selem, 31.

The young men gather regularly at the “Magic Sport” cafe, nestled between onion and wheat fields and within earshot of a few water buffalo.

It is Salah that they want to watch.

Sallam, slouching in his seat, watched as Liverpool took on Manchester United last weekend. If Salah had scored he would have overtaken Harry Kane to be the sole top scorer of the Premier League. Sallam is not a Liverpool fan - he supports Manchester City - but he was rooting for the Reds because of Salah.

"When Mohamed went to Liver everyone became Liver fans," he said, using the local shorthand for Salah's team. "When he went to Roma, nobody followed the Italian league to begin with. In the Basel days, nobody watched the Swiss league. But anywhere he goes, people will watch."

The Manchester United game was a rare occasion when Salah did not score. Instead, in the 14th minute, Marcus Radford scored for the opposition.

Liverpool then went 2-0 down, before an own goal in the 66th minute halved the deficit. By the end of the second half the game had heated up and nobody ordered drinks or moved to have the coals on their shisha pipes replaced. Even the cafe's owner had taken a seat.

Most knew the reason for Liverpool's defeat.

"Mourinho won because he was able to stop Salah. Since he stopped the whole team did," said Zarif Ramadan Zamzam, a 34-year-old paint wholesaler, referring to Mourinho, now Manchester United's manager.

Salah's renown means he is the talisman of the Egyptian National Team, which will be playing in the World Cup for the first time since 1990. In a decisive qualifier for this summer's tournament in Russia, Salah scored a goal and the winning penalty.

Mamdouh Abbas, the head of the Zamalek Club who decided Salah would not play for him, attempted to give the player a gift (villagers said it was a Hummer truck) for his role in qualifying. But Salah turned the gift down, and reportedly asked Abbas to instead buy medical equipment for the hospital in Basyoun.

Ehab Lehita, the director of the National Team, says that Salah is an important player, but denied that he overshadows his team mates.

"All the players are the same," he said.

In Nagrig they disagree.

"It's considered that Mohamed is the team. All the Egyptians are placing their hopes on Mohamed Salah,” said Mohamed Saad Farahat, 26. "God willing, we won't be disappointed."