Anfield. April 17th. Mohamed Salah has just effortlessly controlled a cross-field pass from Virgil van Dijk, a good 40 yards away from goal. Immediately darting inside Emerson Palmieri, he takes a few more prods at the ball before lining up an improbable shot. The angle and distance are way out of Salah’s usual range. It looks as if he's shaped up for the type of rushed effort that has drawn collective groans from millions of Liverpool fans worldwide this season, in a campaign where he seems not to have quite reached the heights he scaled in 2017/18.
In actuality, Salah struck the ball unlike anything he had hit before in a Red shirt. His foot connected with a fierce, rifling venom that bore no resemblance to the usual wand-like strokes witnessed in his debut season. It flew past the Chelsea keeper’s outstretched arms and became the latest sublime goal to add to his rapidly expanding back catalogue of worldies. Salah’s strike against Chelsea would go on to become the club’s goal of the season; a goal that you could watch over and over again, but one that few players could ever replicate.
The subsequent celebration was in stark contrast to the venom with which he had lashed in the goal. Running over to the adoring Kop, Salah calmly stood on one leg – the other perched inwards – shut his eyes, and pressed his hands together into a ‘balasana’ or ‘inner peace’ yoga pose. It was an act that represented the yin and yang that Mo Salah is all about; unrelenting determination on the pitch partnered with composure, calmness, and compassion while not playing.
"IN THE FACE OF HATE, RACISM, AND ISLAMOPHOBIA, HE RESPONDED WITH BALANCE, PEACE AND TOLERANCE."
Just five days previously, a set of Chelsea fans were recorded singing a mindlessly abhorrent, racist song directed at Salah’s creed and ethnicity. The small group of fans have no place in the modern game, yet sadly represent a prevalent section of supporters, and a dangerous and divisive part of wider society. Salah nonchalantly put the celebration down to him being "a yoga man!” – but it was clear Salah’s move was more calculated – more premeditated – than just that.
Symbolically, this goal and celebration didn’t just showcase Mo’s talent as one of the best football players on the planet but also why he has become so revered and influential for millions of people. In the face of hate, racism, and Islamophobia, he responded with balance, peace and tolerance. The now-iconic celebration, which he played down as “just a feeling”, showcased exactly why the 26-year-old has become a role model for his home country, and perhaps the Arab nation as a whole.
Currently, Mo is preparing for his second Champions League Final in a row, after a season which also saw him claim his second successive Golden Boot and African Footballer of the Year award. These are accolades that have further enhanced his global appeal and have seen his status become increasingly global – Salah has 27.6 million Instagram followers; Liverpool, his club, have only 15.8. It’s lead him to become one of the most revered sportsmen in the world, alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But why was it Salah, and not those two behemoths and global brands of the game, that flew to New York to rub shoulders Emilia Clarke at TIME’s ‘100 Most Influential People In The World’ ceremony?
There are huge differences between Salah and two of the game’s ‘GOATs’. Statistically, Salah is unlikely to ever rival the sort of standards set by two players that are widely regarded as belonging to another footballing realm entirely to that of mere mortals. Salah seemed more comfortable and approachable at the award ceremony that either of those footballing demigods; simply put, his basic humanity shone through. Salah is also the diametric opposite of Anfield’s most recent talisman prior to his arrival – Luis Suarez. Salah plays football with a smile rather than a snarl, and though he’s just as determined to win football matches, Mo finds his inspiration to win from his religion. Unlike Suarez, Salah plays with grace and poise rather than full-throttle doggedness, with his energy and ability channelled from his faith and love of the game.
"INSTEAD OF FLAUNTING HIS WEALTH, THE STORIES OF MO SALAH'S GENEROSITY ARE LEGEND."
To Mo Salah, faith and football go hand in hand, and his role as a prominent Muslim in the modern game cannot be overstated. Along with Sadio Mane, Salah is often seen cupping his hands in prayer before matches, as well as performing Sujūd - the Islamic act of prostration - on the many occasions that he has scored for Liverpool. Salah wears his religion on his sleeve. He’s gone far from just shifting perceptions in the City he plays in, where fans have regularly sung “If he scores another few then I’ll be Muslim too, He’s sitting in the Mosque that’s where I wanna be”. Instead of flaunting his wealth, or being involved in tax evasion, Salah has made more people familiar with the practice of Zakat - the Muslim obligation to donate a percentage of your income to benefit the needy, and raised public consciousness about societal issues.
Salah’s gritty rise from the rubble on the streets of Nagrig, completed with modesty and kindness, captured hearts across the spectrum of Egyptian society. He has always given back to the community which made him, having paid for the construction of a religious school, a charity food market and an ambulance station in the village. Stories of his generosity are legend: a father revealed Salah was funding surgery for his son's Leukaemia, and a donation was made towards nursery facilities in Basyoun where he has built a religious and educational institution.
The Mo Salah ‘brand’ is also huge, so much so that when he lent his name to a government-sponsored anti-drugs’ campaign, they reported a 400% increase in calls to their hotline. He’s now the global face of Pepsi, alongside Lionel Messi; the same drink brand who sponsored one of the first tournaments he was scouted at back in Egypt. Thanks to Salah’s massive social media following, which he has embraced via his Twitter and Instagram accounts, fame and constant attention are not things that one of the world’s most recognisable sportsmen can switch off away from the glare of a football pitch. But his instant relatability and humour are clear even on these platforms or in any interview he conducts. Whether it’s every photo he takes with a rival player such as Eden Hazard or Paul Pogba, or winding up Dejan Lovren on a daily basis, Salah’s personality shines through for all to see.
After the last game of Liverpool’s domestic season, you may have seen a video of his four-year-old, Makka, running onto the pitch to score a goal in front of The Kop, just after Liverpool were narrowly pipped to the title by a point. Kitted up in a Liverpool shirt with her father’s name on the back, Makka received the biggest roar of the day at Anfield, and it was evident, in front of the smitten, cheering crowd, she felt the sort of empowerment her father is offering to millions over the globe.
"SALAH IS SETTING AN EXAMPLE TO HIS YOUNG DAUGHTER BY CHAMPIONING WOMEN'S RIGHTS."
Salah is also setting an example to his daughter by championing women’s rights. As part of the press around his TIME Magazine cover, he demanded better treatment of women in the Middle East, “I think we need to change the way we treat women in our culture,” Salah said. “It’s not optional. I support the woman more than I did before, because I feel like she deserves more than what they give her now, at the moment.”
The expectations he’s required to meet aren’t just from his daughter, however. This Saturday, Salah will have a country of 100 million people watching him, and a Liverpool fan base five times that size willing him on to success. Despite narrowly missing out on the league title, Salah is firmly in belief he will have the chance to seek redemption after the disappointment of Kiev last season. That same sentiment - ‘Never Give Up’ - was literally embellished across his chest as he was forced to sit on the sidelines at Anfield when Liverpool trailed 3-0 to Barcelona. “I hope we can right what happened last year,” Salah has said, when discussing this Saturday’s final. For a man that is “Always Believing” – according to his Instagram bio – Salah has a very realistic chance of finally making his dreams become reality this time around in Madrid.