The inspiring story of Egypt and Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah

A visit to the Pharaohs and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah's home village reveals the inspiring story of a man with the footballing world at his feet. (REUTERS)
Updated 04 March 2018
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The inspiring story of Egypt and Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah

BASYOUN, Egypt: In front of the Arab Contractors Club in Jabal Al-Asfar, east of Cairo, I embarked on a journey to Najrij, the hometown of Liverpool and Egypt star Mohamed Salah.
It is an arduous trip, one that the 25-year-old used to make every day, but one that reveals a lot about the drive and determination that have made Salah one of the best footballers in the world.

THE JOURNEY BEGINS
The journey started near the El-Mokawloon Club, where I boarded a minibus that took me to Ramses Square in the center of Cairo. It did not take long for the bus to become packed. Having broken free from Cairo’s notoriously crowded streets, we traveled 100 kilometers on bumpy roads to El-Maarad station in Tanta, a two-hour journey. Two hours, and another two taxi journeys later, I finally reached Salah’s hometown.
While neighboring villages had gates and signs displaying their names, Najrij had neither, and it was not until I asked the taxi driver that I was actually able to find my destination.
Najrij’s main street is a paved road that runs through alfalfa and wheat fields before reaching the village center. After walking for about 500 meters, I finally arrived at the street on which Salah and his family lived.
The four-hour journey from El-Mokawloon Club to his house was long and exhausting. But while I made the trip just once, it is a journey a young Salah took every day — back and forth — just so he could stay with his family and be with the people most important in his life.

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
There was nothing exceptional about Salah’s three-story house. Similar to others around it, its exterior façade was unpainted, except for the balconies. The iron gate was closed, as was the garage.
Salah’s neighbors are used to seeing the world’s press descend on their street in search of where the star grew up. These streets were the arena where he played with friends, learning and honing his exceptional talent, scoring thousands of goals, before gaining experience playing alongside the footballers of the local Amateur Youth Center.
The Egyptian football star’s instructions to his family members are strict: “Do not speak to the media at all.”
According to sources close to his family, Salah feared that they would be chased and annoyed by the press delving into their personal lives. This move was praised by some, who felt he was simply making sure his private life was respected, while others criticized him, saying that people had a right to know details of the Egyptian star’s life.
But due to the silence little is known about what makes Salah tick and the foundations of what is fast becoming an exceptional career.


CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME
Walking around Najrij’s narrow streets and alleys, you would not guess that this was where one of the world’s best players grew up. There was not a single picture of the country’s favorite son on display, either on his house or anywhere else.
But while his face his absent from Najrij, his sense of civic duty and kindness is clearly evident. Across the village it was easy to find projects created and funded by Salah. There was the Azhari Institute for Girls, being built at a cost of 8 million Egyptian pounds ($450,000), according to the village’s mayor, Maher Shatiya. Salah has also helped build an outlet to sell National Service Projects Organization products in the village, as well as a building for ambulance services.
Walking through the village, it was not long before I stumbled across a store for school supplies owned by Hajj Mohammed El-Bahnasi. The 60-year-old used the small shop as a temporary head office for the Salah Foundation, which he managed in cooperation with a board of trustees that included Salah’s father, uncle and brother.
El-Bahnasi, like the rest of Najrij, is used to being hosted by local and foreign media. After selling drawing pads to two young girls, he straightened his back and said in a calm tone: “I don’t know why the media is so concerned with the details of the foundation’s work. This is charity work and must be kept secret so that it gets rewarded by God.”
I asked him to speak about the foundation in general — as he wished.
“Captain Mohamed suggested starting this foundation after spending a few days in the village last Ramadan and noticing how people in need went and knocked on the door of his family’s house. He and his father responded to several requests they received, but he decided there and then it would be better to organize this work and ensure help reached those who deserved it.
“We have identified those in need in our village first because we are aware of their circumstances.”
Today, about 400 families in the village, including widows, orphans, and those who are ill, receive assistance. On top of that the foundation finances a few marriages and helps Syrian refugees in the Gharbia Governorate, where the village is located.
El-Bahnasi believes “Salah’s success with Liverpool is a result of his proximity to God and his humanitarian and moral commitment, as well as the prayers of millions of loyal Egyptians.”

GLOBAL SUPERSTAR
El-Bahnasi’s son, Mahmoud, is a close friend of Salah’s; they speak regularly and discuss the Egyptian star’s performances in the Premier League and Champions League.
Of the new anthem sung by Liverpool fans, in which they 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,” El-Bahnasi said: “Every day after I perform Salat Al-Fajr, I surf social networking and news websites. One day and by coincidence, I read the news about the anthem the fans created for our son, Mohamed Salah, and I immediately broke into tears because Mohamed the Muslim still holds on to the morals of Najrij and everyone respects him and loves what he does — like prostrating in the pitch after scoring goals.
“Mohammed taught the Europeans that Islam encourages sincerity and diligence in everything we do. His success was not a coincidence because success requires hard work.”


THE MAYOR’S MEMORIES
Close to El-Bahnasi’s house is the home of Najrij’s mayor, Maher Shatiya. He was waiting for me on the balcony of his house, overlooking the street.
After Salah stopped his family speaking to the media, Shatiya, together with a few other villagers, took responsibility for speaking to journalists and answering their questions.
Sitting back and speaking in a tone that exuded both pride and enthusiasm, Shatiya said: “Mohamed was a very ordinary child — like all the other children in this village. He inherited his love for playing football from his father and uncles, who played with the village’s Amateur Youth Center’s team during the 1980s and 1990s.
“Salah’s father noticed his son’s talent and had him join the Ittihad Basyoun team when he was 12 years old.
“One day, Reda El-Mallah, a football scout, came to our village to watch another child named Sherif and possibly persuade him to join one of El-Mokawloon’s small teams in Tanta.
“He asked the children to play against Sherif so he could assess him. But watching the match there was one player who stood out — Mohamed Salah. So he asked him to play with El-Mokawloon in Tanta. From there Salah went on to play with the club’s youth team in Cairo, then for their first-team in the Premier League.
“It was then he began to make a name for himself across Egypt and it wasn’t long before European teams showed an interest.”
Salah’s first foray into European club football was with Swiss side Basel, where he moved in 2012. While at the Swiss giants he caught the eye of Chelsea and moved to Stamford Bridge two years later. Later success with Roma persuaded Liverpool to part with as much as £38 million ($52 million) and since his move to Anfield he has been setting the footballing world alight.

HOMEBOY AT HEART
Shatiya told me a story about Salah’s wedding that illustrates his love and attachment to Najrij.
“Salah’s henna party (a party thrown on the day before the wedding day) was held here,” he said. “And even though his wedding was in Cairo, he spent his honeymoon in the village.”
He added: “Salah walks around the village like any other young man. He knocks on the neighbors’ doors to say hello to them during occasions.
“He also renewed the tradition of visiting families during Eid and visited me when he was in the village last Ramadan after I was injured in a car accident.”
Mohamed Salah greets a neighbor on one of his many trips home. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

As if to illustrate the love the village has for Salah and the awe he inspires in children, three cafes were opened in Najrij after Salah become famous, just to accommodate all the football-mad children who are always keen to watch all his games.
“Our greatest wish was to see Salah play in the Egyptian Premier League, but he exceeded all expectations and played with the world’s greatest clubs and became the best footballer in Africa.”

HUMBLE HERO
I left the mayor’s house and headed to the Azhari Institute for Girls, which is still under construction, with Hassan Bakr, a social researcher at the Salah Foundation. When we headed toward the village’s youth center, which was renamed “Mohamed Salah’s Youth Center,” I asked my companion what he liked most about Salah, and his response was: “His humbleness.”
The center has a football pitch, and the main building was decorated with a big sign featuring Salah’s name. We saw a few children practicing karate inside one of the halls.
I bid Bakr farewell and left, returning to Cairo by the same route — another trip that lasted four exhausting hours. But while making my way back to the capital, I remembered this was the exact journey the Egyptian star would take every day and, despite the hardship, it only made him more determined to succeed and achieve his dream.


World Cup live: Portugal 1 Morocco 0

Updated 2 min 23 sec ago
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World Cup live: Portugal 1 Morocco 0

  • Cristiano Ronaldo heads in an early goal

4.16pm: SAVE! What a save that was from Patricio to prevent Younes Belhanda from finding the bottom corner with a header. that's as close as Morocco have come.

4.11pm: How long before Herve Renard sends for striker Ayoub El-Kaabi from the bench? He has 11 goals for his country and is the top-scorer in the squad. Morocco need one badly here.

4.07pm: Ronaldo may have scored the only goal but he had the third fewest touches in the first half. Only Mehdi Benatia (21) and Goncalo Guedes (19) had fewer.

4.05pm: We're back underway at the Luzhniki Stadium and Morocco need to score and avoid defeat otherwise they are out of the World Cup.

4.02pm: Random fact but Ronaldo has five hotels in Marrakech. He was certainly made to feel welcome by the Moroccons from that fifth-minute corner.

3.50pm: 37 percent of goals at this World Cup have been scored from set-pieces. 

3.46pm: "I think Morocco have dominated the ball," says BBC Sport's Kevin Kilbane. "Portugal have been dreadful."

3.45pm: It's half-time in Moscow and Portugal lead thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo's fourth-minute header. 

3.42pm: Morocco's Mehdi Benatia is the first player to be booked. He is shown a yellow card for clattering into Cristiano Ronaldo.

3.37pm: Morocco are having a good go here. They've had 49 percent of the possesion and registered six shots to Portugal's four.

3.31pm

3.30pm: "There are worse teams than Morocco at the World Cup," said BBC Sport's Terry Butcher. "They may be 1-0 down and heading out of the World Cup, but there is plenty of confidence out there."

3.27pm

3.25pm: "Morocco should be pleased with how they have responded," said BBC Sport's Martin Keown. "They have not done an awful loy wrong apart from conceding that goal,"

3.21pm: Marking Ronaldo is a two-man job. Here Achraf Hakimi and Manuel Da Costa keep tabs on the Real Madrid superstar.

3.19pm: Goals are a big problem for Morocco. The only player who has more than ten international goals to his name is Ayoub El-Kaabi and he's on the bench.

3.15pm: "Morocco have got good variation from their corners," says BBC Sport's Martin Keown. 

3.12pm: Not content with scoring 44 goals in 44 games for Real Madrid this season, Ronaldo now has four in two World Cup games. He is a machine. 

3.08pm: "That is appalling marking by Morocco," said BBC Sport's Martin Keown. "You just can't give Ronaldo that amount of room."

3.06pm: GOAL. And it's Cristiano Ronaldo, who else? He steals a march from a corner and powers in a header. Worst possible start for Morocco.

3.04pm: A real positive start from Morocco. "What a start that was with 12-13 passes from Morocco," said BBC Sport pundit Terry Butcher. "Wonderful play. It all started with a ball up to Cristiano Ronaldo, who just shrugged his shoulders."

2.59pm: The size of the task facing Morocco this afternoon is demonstrated by the fact that Ronaldo has scored 33 goals in his last 23 games for club and country and has only failed to score in five of those games.

2.52pm: "The Moroccan fans are taking their seats and are already making a significant amount of noise," reports BBC Sport's Gary Flintoff. "They are dotted throughout the stadium, but there are thousands of them grouped together behind one of the goals."

2.45pm. "Ziyech is their playmaker and he's been instrumental at Ajax," said BBC Sport's Jermaine Jenas. "Technically, he's the one they need to be going through. He's got an eye for a pass and can glide past people. There are a lot of clubs looking at him. Morocco desperately need him today if they are to get anything out of the game."

2.42pm: Mexico '86 seems a long time but that is when these two last met at the World Cup. The Atlas Lions won that one 3-1. 

2.41pm: Cristiano Ronaldo needs just one goal to move outright second in the list of all-time international scorers.

2.39pm: Morocco's Mbark Boussoufa in the zone before the match at the Luzniki Stadium.

 

 

2.38pm: "It will be a different gamplan from Morocco," said BBC Sport's Kevin Kilbane. "They are going to have to play on the back foot."

2.35pm: "This Morocco side will feel they need to come out and produce a performance after their opening defeat," said BBC Sport's Jermaine Jenas. 

2.32pm: Morocco are chasing their first World Cup win since they beat Scotland 3-0 in France. Salaheddine Bassir (2) and Abdeljalil Hadda got the goals that day.

2.29pm: Cristiano Ronaldo is again partnered in attack by Goncalo Guedes, despite the Valencia forward's unimpressive form in a 3-3 draw with Spain. Joao Mario starts in midfield replacing Bruno Fernandes. 

2.28pm: Morocco coach Herve Renard has made three changes, with forward Khalid Boutaib replacing Ayoub El Kaabi, Manuel Da Costa coming in for Romain Saiss in central defense, and defender Nabil Dirar replacing winger Amine Harit.

2.14pm: Morocco need to bounce back from their agonising defeat against Iran but Portugal, and Ronaldo in particular, pose Herve Renard's men a monumental challenge at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.
"We lost a battle but we haven't lost the war. We're not dead," said midfielder Faycal Fajr, one of 17 foreign-born players in Morocco's squad.

2.10pm: The surprise team news is that Nordin Amrabat has been passed fit for Morocco. He came off following a head injury against Iran and the feeling was he would not pass the concussion protocol.

2.09pm

It has not been the best World Cup so far for the Arab nations. Saudi Arabia were thrashed by Russia, Egypt lost late on to Uruguay, Morocco were floored by a sucker punch from Iran and then Egypt were beaten again, this time by Russia. But now Morocco have the chance to make up for that by pulling off the shock of all shocks against European champions Portugal. A win would go down as one of the biggest in their history and resuscitate their hopes of getting out of Group B. And you can follow our live coverage of the game at the Luzhniki Stadium right here, so stay tuned for our insight and opinion on events in Moscow.