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Soccer star Mo Salah’s massive popularity is changing perceptions of Muslims in the UK

The Muslim soccer star has millions of fans. But is that enough to combat Islamophobia?

Soccer star Mohamed “Mo” Salah, who plays for Liverpool and Egypt, might be heading to the 2018 World Cup. But his fame — and Muslim faith — are already changing perceptions of Muslims in the UK.
Soccer star Mohamed “Mo” Salah, who plays for Liverpool and Egypt, might be heading to the 2018 World Cup. But his fame — and his Muslim faith — are already changing perceptions of Muslims in the UK.
John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Mohamed “Mo” Salah, who plays soccer for Liverpool, England, as well as for Egypt, has just come off a season in which he established himself as one of the most exciting players in the world. A Muslim of North African heritage, he plays, excels, and is adored in Britain, a country in which anti-Muslim sentiment is increasingly part of mainstream political and cultural discourse.

And he should be one of the stars of the upcoming 2018 World Cup later this month — if, that is, he makes it to the tournament at all. Due to a recent injury, that’s now in question.

Salah started playing organized soccer as a teenager on an Egyptian team called the Arab Contractors. He joined Egypt’s national team in 2011 at age 19 and moved to Europe the following year. His first years were promising but patchy, and to say this has been a breakout season for Salah is a massive understatement.

The 25-year-old had never scored more than 19 goals in a single season. This year, he scored 44 goals, with an eye-opening 32 in the Premier League. The only player with better stats in Europe was Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, widely considered to be one of the two best players in the world.

But his stardom doesn’t just come from what he does on the soccer pitch; it also comes from who and what he is off it. His brilliance combined with his charming personality and his faith have made him a hero in Egypt, where his face adorns Ramadan lanterns.

He is arguably the Arab world’s finest homegrown soccer player and most prominent sports star, and hundreds of millions of fans follow his every move.

Here’s what you need to know about Salah: why he’s so popular, and why some are hopeful that his enormous popularity in Britain may help combat the Islamophobic attitudes all too prevalent in the UK and beyond.

What makes Salah special as a player

The first thing you notice about Salah as he moves around the soccer field is his speed. He’s quick. Very quick. Sizzlingly quick.

He was brought to European football by FC Basel, of Switzerland, after a scouting process that included an exhibition match against Egypt’s under-23 international team. It was supposed to be a warmup game ahead of the Olympics, but as their president, Bernhard Heusler, later confessed to Sky Sports:

The only reason we wanted this match was because of the chance to see Mohamed Salah play live. I will never forget what I saw that day on that pitch. ... I had never seen a player with so much speed in my entire life.

Of course, speed means nothing in soccer if you can’t use the ball — this is why Usain Bolt’s dream of playing for Manchester United may never come to pass.

That’s what makes the second thing you notice about Salah so important: His speed doesn’t seem to cost him anything. The ball sticks obligingly to his feet, leaving his eyes free to dart around, searching for the right pass or putting himself in the best position to try to score.

Which leads to third thing you notice: Salah’s wonderful finishing ability. There is a calm and quiet precision about his shooting — a precision that looks, in the moment, an awful lot like inevitability.

Salah scores them all. He’ll roll the ball gently into an empty net if the situation demands it. But when the only route to goal is through the spectacular, then he’s more than capable.

Here’s a video of Salah in action:

Put all of that together and the result is one of the most exciting soccer players in the world.

But while it’s his skill on the pitch that has made him a hero in Liverpool and Egypt, it’s his emergence in Europe at a time when anti-Muslim bigotry is becoming increasingly normalized across the continent that has made him a figure of intense interest.

It has even led people to wonder if his athletic excellence might play some part in combating intolerance.

Why Salah means so much to his fans

Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly once said, “If you are first, you are first. If you are second, you are nothing.” But the club Shankly once led hasn’t been English champions since 1990, and it’s been a long and at times agonizing period of nothing.

This is a club looking for a hero. A club that has seen other heroes — Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez — pass through without bringing that elusive Premier League title. Salah hasn’t brought a title yet either, but he carries the promise: Next year will be Liverpool’s year.

You can see this in Salah’s songs and Salah’s T-shirts, and in the rhapsodic smiles Salah provokes on Liverpool faces. There would be a certain entertaining irony if they were led back to the promised land by a man nicknamed the “Egyptian King.”

As Sports Illustrated notes, Liverpool fans even coined a song for Salah sung to the tune of the 1990s pop hit “Good Enough.” The lyrics are, well, not the usual thing you hear in a sports arena:

Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah,
Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah!

If he’s good enough for you,
he’s good enough for me.
If he scores another few,
then I’ll be Muslim too.

If he’s good enough for you,
he’s good enough for me.
Sitting in the mosque,
that’s where I wanna be!

Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah,
Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah!

Salah is the leading star of Egypt’s national team, the Pharaohs, and his popularity in his home country even exceeds his standing in Liverpool.

More than a million people submitted write-in votes for Salah in Egypt’s 2018 presidential election, and while the eventual result — Salah pushed the actual opposition candidate into third place — says little for the plurality of Egyptian democracy, it says plenty for Salah’s popularity.

After Salah’s shoulder was dislocated — accidentally? carelessly? deliberately? — by Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos in Champions League final on May 26, the outcry across social media was remarkable. One Twitter user joked, “Qataris, Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, Egyptians, Omanis all cursing Sergio Ramos. Thank you Ramos. You united the whole Arab world.”

Salah is changing perceptions of Muslims in Britain. But is it enough?

Islamophobia isn’t new, and certainly isn’t limited to Britain. But Matthew Feldman of Teesside University in the UK says the country, at this moment, has an “acceptance of anti-Muslim discourse that we would find absolutely noxious if it was about someone from an ethnic minority or other religious background” — a claim that will ring true to anybody familiar with Britain’s public conversation.

Even the Times, revered as the national newspaper of record, recently had to apologize for the “enormous offense” caused when it distorted a story regarding Muslim foster families. Meanwhile the governing Conservative Party is facing calls for an inquiry into the “more than weekly” incidents of Islamophobia within in its membership.

How, then, does a much-loved and widely feted Muslim soccer player fit into this?

Salah is not the only Muslim in the Premier League, or even in Liverpool’s squad, but he is certainly the most high-profile, and, to put it bluntly, he appears the most Muslim to a nation reared on stereotypes. His is a public faith, openly expressed.

Indeed, it’s telling that this conversation is only happening now; British football culture has generally preferred to ignore the Muslims on the pitch.

A recent article in the New York Times quoted Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain:

He is someone who embodies Islam’s values and wears his faith on his sleeve. He has a likability. He is the hero of the team. Liverpool, in particular, has rallied around him in a really positive way. He is not the solution to Islamophobia, but he can play a major role.

Not everybody shares this view, though.

Asked by the New Yorker about Salah, Joseph Massad, a historian and modern Arab studies professor at Columbia University, noted that former France captain Zinedine Zidane “received much adulation” within France, “but his fame has not mitigated the ongoing Islamophobia of mainstream French culture, and I strongly doubt that Salah’s fame will in any way decrease the mainstream Islamophobia in British culture.”

As Nikesh Shukla, editor of The Good Immigrant, a book of essays by people of color reflecting on their positions in British society, puts it:

The biggest burden facing people of colour in [Britain] is that society deems us bad immigrants — job-stealers, benefit-scroungers, girlfriend-thieves, refugees — until we cross over in their consciousness [by] winning races, baking good cakes...

Or scoring goals.

Islamophobia, then, ends not with the valorization of exceptional Muslims — who are, by definition, exceptions — but in the acceptance of ordinary Muslims. Whether there is a path to the latter through the former remains to be seen.

And as Asif Sujid has noted at the Conversation, the chant described above “is conditional. The chant makes clear that it is only ‘if’ Salah continues to score goals that his displays of Muslimness will be accepted.”

But regardless of the views of bigots, it is perhaps Salah’s significance to other Muslims that is the most heartening consequence of his rise to superstardom. As the New Yorker’s Yasmine Al-Sayyad puts it:

What stands out to me most about Salah, who is far more conspicuously Arab and Muslim than I am, is that he doesn’t seem concerned with trying to blend into anything. He is simply himself. That, more than anything else he has done on the field, is what I admire most.

Will he be able to play in the World Cup?

So will this brilliant more-than-a-footballer make it to Russia? As mentioned above, Salah left the Champions League final early due to injury and was later diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder. That was on May 26, and the Egyptian Football Association estimated that he’ll be fit again in three weeks.

Egypt’s first World Cup match is against Uruguay on June 15. Salah could very well miss that game. Egypt is being optimistic, but since it’s not favorites to win that game anyway, it might hold him back. But he should be back for Egypt’s second game, against Russia, on June 19.

The fear, in truth, isn’t that Salah will miss the tournament. This is the man who scored the penalty that took Egypt to its first World Cup since 1990 and he’d have to be bedridden not to make it out there in some capacity.

Instead, Egyptian fans worry that Salah simply won’t be himself. By the time he returns, he’ll have missed all of Egypt’s warmup games, and going straight from weeks off to matches against some of the world’s most skilled soccer players will be a monstrously difficult task.

Another comparison with Zidane may be unfortunately apt: France’s inspirational captain was rushed back from injury to appear at the 2002 tournament, yet only played one game, was visibly underpowered, and contributed little as France slumped out of the competition without scoring a single goal.

Can Egypt actually win?

Let’s assume for a moment that Salah returns and is at, or close to, his best. How far could Egypt go in the World Cup?

The Pharaohs play a cautious brand of soccer. Their priority is to maintain a strong defensive unit, reinforced by the midfield. Salah’s speed therefore becomes a counterattacking weapon: If Egypt’s opponents stray too far forward in their attempts to break down the Egyptian defense, they may leave space behind for Salah to exploit.

The World Cup begins with a group stage, in which four teams play each other once in a round-robin format, with the best two progressing to the next stage. Egypt is in Group A along with host-nation Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Uruguay. The South American team is the favorite to win the group, thanks mostly to their attack, which is led by Barcelona’s Luis Suarez and Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is the weakest team in the competition, according to FIFA’s rankings, and should finish in last place.

Much depends, then, on Egypt’s game against Russia. Typically, tournament hosts benefit from the atmosphere and the fact that they are on familiar turf, as well as perhaps the odd lenient refereeing decision or two.

But Russia is an unsettled team and hasn’t won a game since October 7, 2017. Egypt certainly won’t be feeling intimidated.

Should the Pharaohs make it past the hosts, things will get really tricky. The two qualifiers from Group A will face the qualifiers from Group B, expected to be the 2010 winner, Spain, one of the favorites for the tournament; and the Euro 2016 winner, Portugal. As such, reaching the last 16 would represent a good tournament for Egypt. Anything beyond that will be dreamland.

But that’s the true value of Salah. When he’s playing for a team you support, you can’t help but dream.

For more on Mo and the current racial climate, listen to the June 14 episode of Today Explained.