The Mayor of Liverpool wears a nervous smile and a saucer-sized gold ceremonial chain, the kind one wears to salute royalty or a foreign dignitary, which seems appropriate, because it’s not every day you receive a visit from the Egyptian king. It’s a cloudless autumn day in the city, and Liverpool star striker Mohamed Salah has come to the town hall to film an interview with an Egyptian TV channel. The producers wanted an ambitious place, opulent, to film their national icon, and honestly, they couldn’t have chosen better. The building is ostentatiously beautiful, late Georgian, all Corinthian columns and gold filigree cornices and crystal ballroom chandeliers which the Lord Mayor, a little woman named Mary, informs me that each weighs a ton. The staff buzz nervously, chatting in low tones as the cameras roll in the next room. Salah! Even Mary, an Everton fan – and therefore a supporter of Liverpool’s most hated rivals – is excited. “I’m not a bitter Blue,” she whispers, because all rivalries aside, who doesn’t like Mohamed Salah?
In Egypt, where his life story is taught in schools, his nickname is the Happiness Maker. It’s as much for his exploits on the pitch – where he led a resurgent Liverpool to Premier League and Champions League titles in five seasons, breaking countless records along the way – as it is for his exploits. He has this smile of a million lumens; the afro-beard combo; the whole picture of a healthy, hard-working family man. In Nagrig, the Nile Delta village north of Cairo where Salah grew up, his generosity is legendary: he paid to build a school, a sewage treatment plant and an ambulance station there, and each month his foundation donates food and money to the poor.
Tales of Salah’s benevolence occur so regularly that stories about it sometimes crop up that aren’t even true, but since Salah hardly ever gives interviews, no one is there to dispel them. Others are true but it would seem fantastic if there weren’t video and/or photographic evidence to back it up, like the time a group of assholes went after a homeless man at a Liverpool petrol station, only for Salah to show up in his Bentley and defuse the situation, before giving the homeless man some money for accommodation. (True.) Or the time a thief stole 30,000 Egyptian pounds (about $1,900) from Salah’s father’s car, and the police nabbed the culprit, only for Salah to persuade his father not to press charges. , then in fact to give the thief’s money to help turn his life around. (That’s also true.) According to researchers at Stanford University, Salah’s arrival in Liverpool in 2017 was correlated with an 18.9% drop in hate crimes in the city; in Egypt, his involvement in a government anti-drug campaign quadrupled the number of phone calls. At this point, it may not surprise you that in the last Egyptian presidential elections, in 2018, there were numerous reports of voters messing up their ballots and writing in Salah’s name, despite the seemingly relevant fact that he didn’t show up.
Finally, some of the ballroom’s double doors open and here comes Salah, dressed in a black Haculla hoodie, jeans and MGSM sneakers, mobbed by what must be two dozen of the film crew. who are all trying to get a selfie with their idol. Salah accepts with a smile even if it’s clearly a bit too much, until finally his agent intervenes and we take refuge in another equally splendid room which seems set up for a wedding. Salah sits down, hands in his pockets, unfazed. He is accustomed to worship. “It’s something I wanted,” he says. “But not that much!”
Besides, it’s nothing. If he were to take to the streets right now in Liverpool – a city that reveres its football players almost as much as the Beatles – an instant crowd. In New York, he can’t even stay in a hotel without an Egyptian staff member finding his room number and calling to pay his respects while he tries to sleep. (True.) And in Egypt itself? Well, I am unable to adequately convey how beloved Salah is in his own country, where bazaars sell his face on every tradable household item, and where streets and schools are frequently renamed in his honor. “Salah is the dream,” Amr Adib, the Egyptian TV presenter who came to interview him, told me. “It’s a model. It’s a success story: how to start from scratch and become the world’s number one. For a country that has struggled to get back on its feet since the Arab Spring uprising more than a decade ago , Salah is something more than an athlete: he has become a paragon of the way of life.