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.


Special Olympics athletes return to Saudi Arabia with record medals haul

Updated 1 min 54 sec ago
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Special Olympics athletes return to Saudi Arabia with record medals haul

ABU DHABI: Victorious athletes from Saudi Arabia’s Special Olympics team are returning home with a record haul of medals.
With the Games in Abu Dhabi having drawn to a close, the Kingdom’s triumphant sporting heroes were heading back with a bumper collection of 40 gold, silver and bronze medals.
And the star performers are rightly proud of their achievements against competitors from around the world.
Basketball player Maan Alkhidhr, from the city of Sakaka in northwestern Saudi Arabia, won a silver medal with his team and said taking part in the Special Olympics had been the best experience of his life.
“It was amazing,” said Alkhidhr. “I love basketball so much and being in the Games was amazing. The tournament was the best experience for me and something completely new. I got to meet people from all over the world.”
The 25-year-old, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome and a heart condition and given a life expectancy of 12 months, said the Games were “a gift from God.”
Alkhidhr was among the athletes who captured the hearts of everyone on the Saudi team, by cheering on his fellow athletes as they battled for a place on the winners’ podium.
As the Saudi female basketball players scooped gold in the championship final, Alkhidhr described the entire Special Olympics squad as having performed “like soldiers.”
He was one of 50 representatives, including 21 women, from Saudi Arabia who joined more than 7,500 athletes from 190 nations taking part in the Games. It was the first time in the sporting event’s 50-year history that it had been held in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Saudi team’s trophy tally included 18 gold, nine silver, and 13 bronze medals, a record for the Kingdom.
The squad won seven golds, one silver, and three bronzes in athletics; one undefeated gold in women’s unified basketball; one silver in men’s basketball; three golds, three silvers, and four bronzes in bocce; one silver and one bronze in bowling; three golds, one silver, and one bronze in powerlifting; one gold in roller skating; two golds, one silver, and three bronzes in swimming; one gold and one silver in table tennis; and one bronze in triathlon.
Saudi powerlifter Hassan Alhadhariti was thrilled to see months of hard work pay off as he won gold in his weight division.
The 23-year-old lifted an impressive 292.5 kilograms, sealing top spot in his combined squat, bench press and deadlift competition held at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC).
“I am proud of myself because the competition was pretty intense and thank God that I came out on top, as I was determined to win,” said Alhadhariti.
His grueling training schedule before the Games saw him shed 3 kilograms to make the 65 kilograms weight limit for athletes. “I had to work out and jog a lot to lose the weight,” he added.
Alhadhariti was cheered on by his coach, team managers and fellow athletes who filled the powerlifting venue to support their friend. “They all came to support me, and they were patient and really helped me,” he said.
Saudi table tennis player Naif first took up the sport four years ago, and trained for two hours a day, five times a week, in the run-up to the Games. His hard work was rewarded with two medals for his country.
“It was a blast,” said Naif. “The competitions and all my brothers supporting me was the highlight. I was very excited all week. I was just praying to win for my home country.”
He added that the inspirational support of his parents had been crucial in helping him to realize his potential.
High school student and fellow table tennis player Faris Almateq practices for three hours a day, six days a week, and for months had been driven by the thought of representing the Kingdom in the Special Olympics.
“I wanted to make my parents and my coach proud, as well as my country,” he said. Almateq learnt to play table tennis by watching YouTube videos but now has a coach to help hone his skills.
He added that his greatest source of encouragement was his mother. “She tells me if I lose, that it’s ok and that I can train to become better.”
Dr. Heidi Alaudeen Alaskary, director of diversity and inclusion and partnerships at Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority, told Arab News she “couldn’t be prouder” of the performances put in by every athlete on the Saudi Arabian team.
“The team have done simply amazing, they have all done incredible. Of course, they are excited about the medals, but what is even more beautiful is the camaraderie, the friendships, and the support. The boys came to support the girls, the girls came to support the boys. Families are here.
“The positive energy, the excitement…it has been beautiful. Some of our athletes, when they first came, their posture was a bit slumped. At the end of the competition, they were standing tall. Their whole faces have changed. It has been amazing.
“It has been more than I hoped for. I have been working in the area of disabilities for more than 20 years and this has been the best experience of my career.”
Alaskary said she hoped the Games would leave a lasting legacy for the region in terms of disability and inclusion.
“We hope this is not just a fleeting event, that it really has a lasting impact. Our team is already talking about employment programs, how to maximize this showcasing of their abilities, and ways of finding more opportunities for these athletes to go out and show their abilities.
“It is heartwarming. My phone has been flooded with messages, families back home telling me about their kids and people in their families who have disabilities. It’s just opened up the floodgates to share stories and accept everyone,” added Alaskary.
“Some of our athletes are married, have kids, jobs, aspirations, and want to go to university. It is amazing the amount of hope they have.
“So, the hope for the legacy is, that this is not just one of those things to look back on and think it was an amazing time. I would like people to look back and say that was when everything amazing in their life started.”
Alaskary said, like any other country, when it comes to disability and inclusion, Saudi Arabia has its “pockets of excellence” and other areas which need improvements.
“We have some great silos of excellence. But we all have areas where we need to do better. The question is, how do we bridge everything together to provide a service that supports each and every person, while meeting their lifelong needs?”