“We don’t want any more Africans… Sometimes they can have a bad attitude and cause mayhem.”
It was only this January that West Ham United’s director of recruitment, Tony Henry, was sacked for his racist views. While the world around him swarmed to appreciate the mayhem caused by Mohamed Salah on the football pitch, Henry opined that players who belong to the same continent as the Liverpool forward are not welcome at the London club. West Ham, which does have two African players on their roster in Cheikhou Kouyate and Arthur Masuaku, were roundly embarrassed and hastily moved to distance itself from the controversy.
Even as such regressions persist, African footballers are breaking the glass ceiling. Two seasons ago, Riyad Mahrez became the first footballer from the continent to win the Players’ Football Association Player of the Year – a prize decided by other professional footballers in England. Now Salah has followed in the Leicester City playmaker’s footsteps, having taken the Premier League by storm with 31 goals this season.
The 25-year-old’s prize also arrives in a good moment for Arab countries in African football. For the first time ever, three countries from the region will be present at the FIFA World Cup this summer – Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. Salah will lead the Egyptian squad, his star shining brighter than ever within his own country and worldwide.
While the goals and performances have earned Salah the prize he deserves, it is his humility and charm which has won over fans and pundits alike. In fact the Liverpool forward, who is affectionately called ‘the Egyptian King’ by some admirers, is the subject of a chant which challenges religious divisions like no other - “If he’s good enough for you/He’s good enough for me/If he scores another few/Then I’ll be Muslim too/He’s sitting in the mosque/That’s where I want to be.”
Salah’s public celebration of his Islamic roots has been embraced by Liverpool fans, who are dominated by a white, Christian majority. During matches it is a common sight to see the Egyptian footballer pray on the pitch, just like his Muslim teammates Sadio Mane and Emre Can. While British society has often confronted accusations of Islamophobia, Salah’s faith is respected by those involved with the club.
This represents a sea change in attitudes. It was not very long ago that another Egyptian footballer, Mido, was called a “shoe bomber” by football fans across England when he plied his trade with a host of Premier League clubs.
But Mahrez first, and now Salah have changed the perception of Muslim footballers. They have demolished another stereotype along the way. Most African footballers are often painted as powerful and athletic. The chant about Romelu Lukaku’s p***s earlier this season was a reminder of racism in its vilest form. But even when it is softer, invention, guile, and a cerebral approach to football is not associated with African footballers.
The argument deserves a spot in the trash bin now. Leicester City’s Premier League-winning campaign was built on the skilful pleasures of the aesthetically sound Mahrez. Salah, meanwhile, has earned comparisons to Lionel Messi for the savagery he unleashes with his left foot – the Egyptian’s dribbling is a particular delight. Time and again this season, Salah has bamboozled defenders by running past them with an economy of movement.
Inspired by the image of a wholesome footballer who is really good at his job, Liverpool FC has made Salah a central figure of its marketing strategy. On multiple occasions this season he has featured in the club’s outreach campaign, charming fans across the board. Salah’s humility marks him out considerably, in addition to his heroic displays.
And he’s just 25. With a long career still ahead of him, the Liverpool forward can establish a legacy for other Egyptian and African footballers to follow. His stupendous season has already guaranteed his place among the Premier League’s biggest stars. With repetition, Salah can go on to find a place among the all-time greats. It did not work out for him at his first stint in England with Chelsea, but he has cracked the English football nut open at the second time of asking. “I came here to show everyone my football,” Salah told FourFourTwo earlier this season. Without a shadow of doubt, he has.
There is, of course, still some way to go before Salah can share the same pedestal as other Premier League legends from Africa like Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, and Yaya Toure. But his name will be a landmark among the 300 or so African footballers who have featured in the Premier League since Zimbawe’s Peter Ndlovu turned out for Coventry. No matter how Salah’s time at Liverpool ends, his displays will be storied for a long time.
For now, though, the Egyptian still has a few milestones to accomplish. Not merely personal, although he is just a strike away from making the record for most goals scored in a Premier League season his own. Liverpool’s Champions League campaign offers Salah an opportunity to earn a few more mentions in the history books, in a season which has already seen the Reds constantly defy expectations. A victory for Liverpool in the final next month will carry him closer to the FIFA’s male player of the year award.
The case will grow stronger, if Salah also shines at the World Cup this summer. But even if Egypt fails to make a splash, the gains made by Liverpool this season mean that he and his teammates can look forward to challenging for more silverware in the future. Salah’s record has been incredible but one suspects that, individually, he can go on to scale even greater heights. If the prospect is realised, the PFA Player of the Year award will not be his last.
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Updated Date: Apr 23, 2018 19:01:45 IST