Jubilant Liverpool F.C. supporters packed the stands of Kiev’s Olympic Stadium on May 26, the evening of the UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid F.C., the biggest game in the European football calendar.
Mohamed Salah, Liverpool’s Egyptian star forward, watched from the field as the Liverpool crowd, hearts alight with passion, chanted “Allez! Allez! Allez!”, spreading their fervour through every inch of the 70,000-seat stadium. This was a crucial night for Liverpool. No doubt it was the single most important night of Salah’s career: taking his team through to their first Champions League final in more than a decade.
The culmination of this legendary run was shattered when, in the twenty-fourth minute, Madrid defender Sergio Ramos locked arms with Salah, bringing him down and dislocating his shoulder.
After enduring five brave minutes of further play, Salah fell flat on the ground. No longer had he the means, the strength, or the energy to continue. He was broken.
The next image came to define the match. Salah distraught, walking off the field, face awash in tears, as a dislocated shoulder from the earlier tussle left him unable to continue the match.
The scene devastated Liverpool F.C. fans, who, after an 11 year drought from the upper echelons of the competition, made it back to the Champions League finals, Salah’s contributions playing no small part.
However more than that, for millions of Arab fans across the world, Salah’s fall at this crucial stage was an all-too-personal blow to the gut.
In the Arab world, a region rife with conflict, sectarian violence, and civil war, Salah is a talisman. An extremely skilled footballer, he has quietly become one of the world’s most prominent Arabs after a stellar debut season for Liverpool which saw him break the English Premier League record for most goals in a 38-game season, net Liverpool another top four finish in the League and carry his club through the rungs of the UEFA Champions League ladder into the finals.
Salah is by no means the first Arab or Muslim player to succeed in European football. French-Algerian Zinedine Zidane, the former Real Madrid forward and now manager, is considered one of the greatest footballers of all time. However, there is something profoundly different about Salah. In contrast to Zidane, and other Arabs and Muslims in European football, Salah, sporting a rugged beard and head bowed in prayer when he celebrates goals, wears his identity far more conspicuously. This makes him relatable to many regular people like him.
It’s no surprise then, that Ramos’ assault on Salah was felt so deeply by Arab fans. Football is a sport which inspires nationalism and sometimes excessive levels of devotion. On Twitter, Arabs unleashed their disdain for Ramos with the hashtag نبا_ةخسولا (son of filth). In the aftermath of the match, Twitter ended up crashing from the sheer volume of tweets. The injustice done upon Salah incited rage, in his native Egypt, but also across the globe.
It’s a thing of beauty that one man can unite so many people. Football, like most sports, is tainted by racism. It manifests in a myriad of ways, through the use of racial epithets and slogan, chants, and posters. Salah’s identity makes him a target for racism and Islamophobia. However, he overcomes this to bring fans of all colours and creeds together.
One player cannot end racism in football. Salah is beloved, but so was Zidane. But at this point in time, where politics can no longer be separated from sports and entertainment, Salah represents a genuine hope for unity for people of the Arab world experiencing distress and discomfort.
Earlier this year, a video circulated online featuring Liverpool fans roused in a chant dedicated to Salah. Set to the tune of English band Dodgy’s 1994 hit “Good Enough” the lyrics are as follows: Mo Salah-la-la-la-la/Mo Salah-la-la-la-la/If he’s good enough for you/He’s good enough for me/If he scores another few/Then I’ll be Muslim, too. For his fans and inhabitants of the Arab world, Salah is more than good enough; and he’ll score another few, no ifs.