Mohamed Salah--Soccer Superhero: A Positive Role Model for his Faith
Mohamed Saleh, soccer superstar
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
Mohamed Salah’s fans in the United Kingdom city of Liverpool are absolutely giddy about him and his winning style of play. His behavior on and off the field is exemplary and clearly evokes the symbolism of his religion—Islam. Salah’s fans, because of this one individual player, seem to have become more respectful of Islam, at least on the surface. Whether they’re giddy enough to convert to Islam, as they proclaim, is quite another issue. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether this respect for their hero’s faith is sustainable in the long run. While a team player, he has become the focal point of the many teams he’s now played for. For the moment, despite a recent shoulder injury, this Egyptian ‘soccer’ player, as Americans call the sport or ‘football’ as the rest of the world calls it, remains in the spotlight both for his talent as a player and as someone who exemplifies his religion.
A Rising Star
Salah, whose full name is Mohamed Salah Ghaly, started his soccer career as a forward for the Egyptian premier league team, El Mokawloon El-Arab. Based in Nasr City, Cairo, the team is owned by Egyptian construction magnate Osman Ahmed Osman. Salah grew up in an Egyptian village, playing soccer, often with balls concocted of used clothing. This is a decades-old ritual, Egyptian boys playing rudimentary soccer as they watch the pros on TV, dreaming themselves of one day making it into the big leagues. Of course, we all know what the chances of that are. For Salah, however, he just seemed to have all the talent in the world.
Egyptian village boys playing soccer, often in hopes of making the big leagues
Showing his dazzling foot skills and scoring ability, Salah moved to several consecutive teams, including the Swiss team Basel, Chelsea in the UK, and Roma in Italy. From there, he was picked up by Liverpool, where he has won all kinds of superlatives, including a significant number of awards. Notably, he won the Premier League ‘Golden Boot’ for his achievement of 32 goals in 36 league games.
A Proud Egyptian and Muslim
Even as his professional career has skyrocketed, Salah has continued to represent Egyptian teams in several Africa-wide competitions. He is loyal to his country and practices his faith, Islam, openly and proudly. Married in 2013 and having become a father in 2014, his wife and he named their daughter Makka in honor of the holy city of Mecca. She is herself a big hit with fans as she kicks the soccer ball about with her Dad. Salah’s wife is traditional in her dress code, wearing the veil
Salah often celebrates his goals by performing the sujood. This is an Arabic word that means prostration to God, made in the direction of the Kaaba, the central holy place in Mecca. It is usually done during daily prayers, but whenever it is performed, it is intended to praise and glorify God. Often Salah accompanies the sujood with a symbol of the shahada, the Profession of Faith of Islam, by pointing his index fingers skyward. This gesture represents Salah’s belief in the omnipotence of Allah, as well as his recognition of a goal well-scored.
Salah performing sujood in honor of Allah and a goal well-scored
Another gesture Salah has made to honor his faith was when he refused to celebrate a one-to-one draw against his former team, Chelsea but also to honor the victims of a terrible massacre of Muslims at a mosque in the north of Sinai in Egypt.
Salah’s fans adore and celebrate him with their names for him and their chants. He has been nicknamed “The Pharaoh” and, more recently, the “Egyptian King.” While he is apolitical, Salah has approved a chant to honor their star winger. To the tune of a 1996 hit, “Good Enough,” these fans concocted the following chant:
If he’s good enough for you,
He’s good enough for me,
If he scores another few,
Then I’ll be Muslim, too.
First chanted in Portugal during a Champions League match against F.F. Porto, Salah’s fans were described as clutching pint glasses in each hand as they belted out that tune. Captured in a video, the chant, “I’ll be a Muslim, too,” leapt onto the social media, drawing in Liverpool fans among many others. Liverpool’s ascent is attributed largely to Salah, so in that sense, he is deserving of all the adoration he attracts.
Salah’s ball-handling skills are matched by his devotedness to his faith
One joke going around fans in Liverpool was that when Salah plays for his Egyptian team in the soccer World Cup next month, they will be rooting for Egypt. At this point, Salah claims that his wounded shoulder will not keep him from the World Cup.
Softening the view of Islam or just plain Hero-worship?
In Liverpool at least, Salah has apparently turned an anti-Islamic tide from negative to mild acceptance of his religion. How long-lasting this is, however, is anyone’s bet. For the moment, such acceptance depends on Salah’s visibility as a global soccer star who is also one of the world’s most prominent Muslims. He is devout, attends mosque regularly, he’s modest, bearded, speaks English with a heavy accent, has a veiled wife, and, noted above, performs the sujood in a public space. All of these lead to a picture of an upright Muslim father and husband who is also very proud to be a son of Egypt. For Salah, this is par for the course of an everyday Muslim, not something he just does for the crowds. His behavior seems not to be a political statement but rather one of just who he is—namely someone who is not afraid to openly practice his Muslim faith. Compared to another Arab soccer star from an earlier time, Zinedine Zidane from Algeria, Salah has been much more open and celebratory of his faith.
Salah using shahada, pointing his index fingers skyward in reverence and thanks
Just being himself is what Salah is best at. Whether scoring winning goals on the field or enacting sujood when scoring those goals, he simply seems to do what comes naturally. A young Egyptian man from a village, one who is faithful, and who makes no pretenses about who he is, is perhaps the best way to understand Salah. To expect that he alone can overturn even a sliver of Islamophobia in his UK corner of the world, much less anywhere else, is putting way too much of a burden on his shoulders. Let’s just enjoy Mohamed Salah’s wizardry on the field and respect the fact that he proudly reflects the good-heartedness of Muslims around the world.