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How Egyptian football’s darkest day sparked Mo Salah’s rise to the very top

“For 90 minutes he unites the nation and makes us forget all the crap we’re going through. [Lionel] Messi doesn’t unite a nation, a region, right?”

Quite the observation, from Hatem Kadous in the Sunday Times last year, of a man who has gone from Chelsea flop to Liverpool legend in less than nine months.

Because Mo Salah is far more than just a footballer.


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  • 44 goals in all club competitions this season
  • PFA and FWA Player of the Year
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Showing off his golden boot

REUTERS
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Showing off his golden boot

But this is the story of how the tragic death of 74 fellow Egyptians sparked his rise to the very top of the game.

Like so many of today’s biggest names, Salah’s journey started from humble beginnings.

Salah is the most famous person in Egypt right now

Getty - Contributor
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Salah is the most famous person in Egypt right now

Born in the town of Nagrig just outside Cairo, the diminutive little winger used to trek four and a half hours just to train with his first club El Mokawloon.

At 19 he was handed his first international cap, but his real breakthrough arrived after the darkest day in Egyptian football history.

We promise that’s him

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We promise that’s him

Representing Egypt’s Under-20s

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Representing Egypt’s Under-20s

Port Said disaster

In February 2012 74 fans, many of them teenagers, went to a football match and never returned, whilst hundreds more were injured.

The Port Said disaster lives long in the memory in Egypt after Al-Masry and Al-Ahly supporters clashed with knives, swords and fireworks as weapons.

An injured fan is carried away on a stretcher

Reuters
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An injured fan is carried away on a stretcher

The police were held accountable for a vast number of the fatalities after a decision to close the stadium gates caused fans attempting to flee to be crushed in a stampede.

The Egyptian government took the decision to disband the domestic league for two years.

It has always stayed with Salah, with the Egyptian electing to wear the number 74 as a mark to those who died during his loan spell at Fiorentina.

74 people lost their lives

EPA
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74 people lost their lives

With league fixtures postponed, Swiss side Basel arranged a friendly with Egypt’s Under-23s in a bid to scout some of the country’s best emerging talents.

Salah, of course, was one of them – and he scored twice despite being reduced to a second-half cameo.

So Switzerland beckoned for the then 19-year-old, who also made a splash later that year at the 2012 Olympics with three goals in as many group games.

The ‘Chance Killer’

Basel was a learning curve for Salah where he quickly earned the nickname the ‘Chance Killer’ because of his profligacy in front of goal.

Salah had a knack of scoring against English sides

AP:Associated Press
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Salah had a knack of scoring against English sides

Hard to imagine that nowadays, right?

“When he arrived he was clearly a great talent but was very cavalier,” former team-mate Alexander Frei told World Soccer magazine.

“I put him on special shooting sessions and it did make him more effective in front of goal. I know he appreciated it.”

More challenges at Chelsea would arrive, where Jose Mourinho marginalised him in favour of their range of other attacking midfielders at the time.

Fiorentina and Roma refined his raw talent which prompted Liverpool to stump up a £36m club-record fee this time last summer.

And again

Getty Images - Getty
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And again

The ‘Happiness Maker’

But he hasn’t neglected his roots since taking his game into an entirely different stratosphere at Anfield.

Known also as the ‘Happiness Maker’ in Egypt, from new hospitals to new schools he’s hellbent on making a difference in his birth town of Nagrig.

His charitable foundation funded the first ambulance in the area whilst more expensive medical equipment is helping dozens of people every single day.

An image of the medical centre being funded by Salah’s charitable foundation

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An image of the medical centre being funded by Salah’s charitable foundation

Preparation of the girls’ school Salah is funding

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Preparation of the girls’ school Salah is funding

Salah makes sure he witnesses the development himself too, returning to Nagrig every year during Ramadan to share his wealth.

“Salah is a refined person who, despite his popularity, has never forgotten about his town,” Maher Shatiyah, board manager of the foundation, told The Sun in April.

“The establishment of the charity caters for a larger number of families, [he spends between] £2,000 and £3,500 monthly.”

Immortalised in Egypt

AFP or licensors
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Immortalised in Egypt

It’s hardly surprising that – despite obviously not appearing on the ballot paper – he finished second in the Egyptian presidential election with over a million votes.

His most important goal

Salah will lead Egypt at their first World Cup since 1990 this summer after scoring the goal that earned their right to be there last Autumn.

His nerve-jangling last-gasp penalty against Congo – the most important goal of his career – provoked utter pandemonium in Cairo and across Egypt.

Held aloft after his winner against Congo

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Held aloft after his winner against Congo

The darling of a nation

Reuters
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The darling of a nation

Salah was offered a lucrative villa for his heroics by former Zamalek president Mamdouh Abbas, but instead turned it down and asked for the money to be invested in medical supplies in Nagrig.

The ‘Egyptian King’ has arguably surpassed monarch status back in his home country, changing lives for the better with a smile on his face.

Kadous, of the Oil Field Index podcast, told the Sunday Times last year: “When he plays you don’t have to worry about revolutions, about Islamic Brotherhood, Isis, any of that.

“He scores, we’re happy, we forget. And that echoes round the Middle East.”

Imagine creating that kind of impact just by sticking the ball in the back of the net on a regular basis?

A new Egyptian landmark?

Reuters
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A new Egyptian landmark?

The World Cup as his playground

So could he really cap his remarkable, record-breaking season at Liverpool by inspiring his country on the biggest stage of all too?

The group stage draw back in December has certainly given Egypt an outside chance of causing a stir.

Uruguay, hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia are all potential cannon fodder for Salah after his 44 goals this season.

Slightly creepy

AMR ABDALLAH DALSH
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Slightly creepy

Need we remind you he broke the Premier League scoring record for a single season and swept the floor with his rivals at the end of season awards?

That translated into fantasy football success too, becoming only the second player in Dream Team history to rack up 400 points in a campaign.

Unstoppable in Russia?

PA:Press Association
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Unstoppable in Russia?

WhoScored – the ratings suppliers for Dream Team and the upcoming Dream Team World Cup – had him as the third highest rated player in the Premier League too at 7.69.

Egypt are as far out as 150/1 with Sun Bets to actually win in Russia, but in Salah they have a player who can thrive individually even if his country doesn’t threaten the latter stages.


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