LONDON: A brutal tackle on Mo Salah ended Liverpool’s dreams of Champion’s League glory in Kiev on Saturday night — but it may have done more to cement the Egyptian’s global brand value than any victory.
It was an iconic moment and one that sports marketing experts see as the start of the Mo Salah brand explosion — when the public fell back in love with football.
Images of the Egyptian footballer lying on the turf in agony covered the front pages of newspapers across the Arab world on Sunday while social media lit up with angry tweets directed at Sergio Ramos, the Real Madrid defender who was accused of deliberately injuring the 25-year-old.
But while it was hardly the fairytale ending to a season that saw Salah become the Premier League’s top goal scorer, the global outpouring of sympathy has seen the Mo Salah brand surge.
“People want to believe in brands and he’s a guy that people believe in,” said John Brash, the founder of Brash Brands.
“He never complained about what happened to him, he showed genuine emotion that showed a human side we tend to forget footballers have, he just moved on — which is very powerful from a brand perspective.”
Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the UK’s University of Salford agreed that the events of Saturday could enhance ‘Brand Salah.’
“Many people feel a sense of injustice about the Ramos tackle, hence Salah’s brand value may actually increase even further than it has thus far. One speculates that the perceived injustice perpetrated against Salah, plays into a brand narrative that here is a player who constantly challenges stereotypes and prejudices,” he said.
Even before Saturday night’s shocking injury, the Egyptian footballer was at the center of a global media frenzy that focused not just on Salah’s footballing prowess but his role in reshaping perceptions of Islam in a sport that has often struggled with undertones of racism, bigotry and religious intolerance on the terraces.
“Salah’s constituency stretches from the streets of Cairo to the living-rooms of Western Europe,” said Chadwick.
“For Egyptians, he is a unifying figure at a time when the country has been riven by divisions. For Europeans, he has been a positive representation of Islam at a time when there has been considerable suspicion of Muslims,” he said.
It is summed up in the Liverpool fan chant sung to the tune of “Good Enough” — the 1990’s song by British band Dodgy.
“If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me, if he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too,” goes the version adapted by supporters.
It reflects Mo Salah’s growing popular appeal.
“For the fans he is not your typical superstar,” said Brash. “Ronaldo is very assured from a brand perspective and the Messi brand has also developed. Mo Salah in comparison appears as an innocent and that’s what makes him so compelling. He’s like a Muhammad Ali — a crossover between the ‘maiden’ and the ‘warrior.’
“We often talk about brand differentiation and his differentiation seems to be he’s a human that we relate to and a human who doesn’t have an ego.”
Hind Rasheed, an Egyptian living in Dubai, a Middle East PR expert and self-confessed ardent Salah fan, explains the appeal of the footballer.
“There are many talented football players out there but Salah’s relationship with the people; it’s just a love story. There is no doubt that Salah is respected for his talent but everyone loves his joyful character, his ethics, his humbleness, and sportsmanship. They love him because he is real, he is driven, and he is smart.
“In Egypt, it’s not even about football anymore. Everyone loves him, everyone follows him and when Liverpool is playing, everyone watches.
It is only a year since Salah was signed by Liverpool for £36.9 million — a sum that many fans at the time thought was extravagant and unjustified based on his previous record. But so rapid has been his rise that he still does not figure among the top football player brand rankings.
For example, his name does not even appear in the top 20 footballers listed in the Brandtix Sports Index, which ranks the brand value of players and is topped by Ronaldo, Neymar and Messi.
That is likely to change as the footballer appears not just on the back pages of global newspapers, but increasingly on the front.
“He is probably one of the best things that has happened to the Arab world in a long time,” said Lars Haue-Pedersen, managing director, Burson-Marsteller Sport, the sports arm of the global advisory firm.
“This sounds simplistic, but sport is the number one thing that everybody, rich, poor, young, old talks about. He has huge impact and it maybe has only just started,” he said.
Salah is well-positioned to use his particular ‘brand’ to forge a different path from other footballers who may typically look to partner with lifestyle brands, advertising aftershave or fast cars, he said.
Salah signed a deal in May with the logistics firm DHL Express to become the company’s regional brand ambassador for the next two years. He also become the ambassador for Uber Egypt in February and has featured in a Vodafone advertising campaign.
Haue-Pedersen said he hopes that Salah will also look to work on more non-mainstream projects that encourage broader social change, such as promoting sport or fitness in the Middle East or North Africa.
He cited Salah’s role in an anti-drugs advertising campaign in Egypt in April as an example of the impact the footballer can have. The anti-drug hotline reportedly recorded a 400 percent increase in calls after the advert’s initial broadcast.
This is an example of how ‘Brand Salah’ might set him apart from others. “He’s a role model for the Arab World,” he said.
His tears after being forced to leave the field on Saturday night as he tried to play on in obvious pain resonated with many football fans.
“The tears certainly showed his passion, and also showed a human side we tend to forget footballers have,” said Brash.
“The last footballer to cry on a world stage like that was Gazza at Italia ‘90, when he got booked in the semifinal against Germany and knew he therefore wouldn’t play in the final if England made it.
“It’s an iconic moment that’s often seen as representing the start of a new era of love for football in the UK.
“Maybe Mo will will do the same in the Arab world. A human brand that makes people fall in love with footballers again, and reminds us the game isn’t just all about money – wouldn’t that be nice.”