LIVERPOOL, England — Well look, if it isn’t that wonderful, horrible, enthralling, galling, inspiring, dispiriting, awesome force known in the English language as “sport,” rearing its ample head again. It has gone and spent the last nine months crafting a reminder that it remains the peerless glue upon a troubled Earth, then lavishing that reminder upon this spruced-up, 811-year-old port city where the Mersey River finds the Irish Sea. Hang around a few days, you fool, and you might think you feel love in the air, even outside the pubs.
It’s there when one of the world’s great stadiums cheers a 4-year-old Egyptian girl kicking a ball around the grass after a match, until she proves such a crowd-pleaser that she keeps returning to the pitch for more kicks. It’s there when a vendor in center city selling Liverpool Football Club gear, with thick rations of Mohamed Salah T-shirts and Mohamed Salah scarves, says he notices that Salah, with his sprightly disposition and his demonstrative hair, appeals unmistakably to children. It’s there in the witty stadium-and-pub chant that has swept the world:
If he scores another few
Then I’ll be a Muslim, too.
And as the left-footed, 25-year-old Egyptian star Salah and Liverpool club prep for Saturday against Real Madrid in the Champions League final, with Salah sitting already on a staggering 44 goals in his first Liverpool season, it feels like it’s there, too — in this car.
This car has just picked up a straggler in front of a mosque.
The driver, 40-year-old Mehrez Berkane, a native of Algeria but a Liverpudlian for 18 years, has just returned from giving a ride to an elderly man as part of his commitment to the holy month of Ramadan just underway, and now he has offered a ride to a curious sort who happened by. As he drives, he clearly, deeply and enthusiastically wishes to explain something elemental. At times he slaps his knee for emphasis. At times he starts sentences with, “I swear . . .” At times his personality almost booms, even though it’s late afternoon and he’s fasting until sundown.
“You won’t believe it,” he says, “and I swear it’s true. My good, good friends in Liverpool, they’re all Scousers [the slang term for people from Liverpool]. When I was with them there was always this little bit of, how can I say, ‘Oh, you’re the Muslim,’ ” — not disrespectfully, he stresses, but “almost like we were just a little bit separate. Just a little bit far away. But I promise this: Salah bridged the relation.”
Soon after he added, “Plenty of Scouser friends, before, some people, they don’t even come to see you much. But now they see you, the first person they mention: Mo Salah! It’s the connection!”
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It goes to show how wonders in this world can stem from scoring a record 32 goals in a 38-game Premier League season, outshining by one such shining lights as Alan Shearer (1995-96), Cristiano Ronaldo (2007-08) and Luis Suarez (2013-14) with a humble, accessible personality. Berkane collects another passenger, his friend Malik Karkar, also a native Algerian and 18-year Liverpudlian, who says of Salah from the back seat, “He’s kind of made the liaison.”
As they show an outsider seemingly half the city, it’s clear the city might hire them to do PR. They repeat the frequent refrain about Liverpool’s openness to outsiders. They state their preference for it to London or Paris. They know how Liverpool had the first mosque in Britain, starting in 1887, acknowledged on a historical placard on its building. Karkar raves about Salah’s humility when he scored four goals against Watford and then apologized to goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis. They joke that driving around a visitor helps distract them from their stomachs.
They drive to another mosque in the Penny Lane area, which might ring a Beatles bell, and explain that this modest, pleasant mosque is where Salah chooses to pray. As Berkane goes in for a moment, Karkar says: “There was lots of hate about the religion. ‘They’re all terrorists.’ And [Salah] changed that, which is amazing. In six months! People have been trying to do that for, what, three hundred years!”
Of course, nobody could have imagined such chatter last June when Liverpool signed Salah from Roma three seasons after he had made no such ruckus in London at Chelsea, which would loan him out to Fiorentina and Roma in the Italian league. No one imagined him winning a slew of player-of-the-year awards, such as the one at the Football Writers Association when Salah said: “I was here [in England] like four years ago, and a lot of people say, ‘He can’t [have] success, and he cannot play in the Premier League. It’s very difficult for him.’ So it was always in my mind to come back. From day first I left Chelsea, it was always in my mind to come back to make them wrong. So, I make them wrong.”
No one imagined the madly popular third-year Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp, closing the Premier League season on May 13 by commending Salah on handling praise: “Imagine everyone telling you how brilliant you are, or they give you an Oscar for this and an award for that, an award for getting out of the car without having an accident.”
Certainly no one imagined that upon the door of the editorial office of The Anfield Wrap, renowned Liverpool podcast and the online soccer and culture magazine, there would materialize an Egyptian flag.
Gareth Roberts, editor and author, picked it up on a getaway to Egypt with his wife.
Neil Atkinson, the writer, broadcaster, film producer and podcast host for The Wrap, says he figured Salah a reasonable signing for 36.9 million pounds (almost $50 million), which seems a bargain now. He knew Salah had desirable pace. He knew he could add some perfectly respectable goal total in the teens, such as the 15 last season at Roma.
He didn’t know Salah would have him analyzing how Liverpool’s famed front three — with the Brazilian Roberto Firmino and the Senegalese Sadio Mane, all born within 258 days of each other in late 1991 and 1992 — would spring loose Salah for such a splash. He didn’t expect Salah to score so every-which-way, through such an array of paths to various parts of the net, to confound defenses from deciphering tendencies. He certainly didn’t expect Salah to stoke protracted discussion of the city’s entrenched friendliness to outsiders, which stems somewhat from feeling untethered to England itself.
In a Salah-inspired story in February titled “9 Reasons Why Liverpool Is So Muslim-Friendly,” Muslim chaplain and writer Adam Kelwick listed at No. 4: “As a port city, different people from across the world have always been coming and going. Tolerance of and welcoming of others has always been a part of Liverpool’s culture.”
But now, look at all the things that have popped up. Local news finds a woman with her house done up as a Liverpool shrine and a life-size Salah in her yard. A local restaurant, Bakchich Lebanese Street Food on Bold Street, has a familiar photo on the wall of Salah, wearing his mighty smile and a taqiyah (the rounded cap worn by Muslim men), and revels in his drop-ins, his humility with posing for photos and his goals, even though the latter, thanks to a promotion, forces the restaurant to give away falafel and hummus.
Two other Wrap employees in their 20s, sub-editor Josh Sexton and head of marketing Chris Hannan, become the latest in a litany of souls to speak of how, in an era with terrorist attacks in Manchester (a bombing at a concert hall in May 2017 that killed 22 people) and London (three attacks in the spring of last year), Salah has provided a persistent picture of the norm.
Who knew that as Liverpudlian after Liverpudlian will tell you they don’t root much for England in the World Cup, some will tell you that next month they’re about to root for . . . Egypt.
The whole Liverpool Premier League season closed on May 13, at its storied home, Anfield, in the weird, unfettered sunshine. Walkways brimmed with Salah shirts. Fans waited for the team bus to pass between them for a quick cheer and stopped at the Hillsborough memorial that honors the 96 victims of the stadium tragedy of 1989, victims kept alive in memory as well as any on the Earth. Meanwhile, a camera followed around a 20-year-old, first-year pharmacy student because he had come from Cairo to Liverpool, happening to coincide almost precisely with Salah’s nascent stay.
“It’s an amazing feeling, actually, like seeing an Egyptian, a Muslim, an Arab player become a legend in Liverpool in such a short time, just one season,” said that student, Mohamed Habib. “It’s actually mind-blowing. . . . We are very proud of him. And he’s like the beacon of hope, to most of Egyptians, Muslims, Arabs, because everyone wants to be like Salah in his field.
“So because of him, I opened myself a challenge to come here and study in another language far away from mine, because my first language is Arabic, so I stay like three years, to learn how to speak English. So I got everything, the challenge, the determination, from him. He’s my role model.”
With a giddy skip to a first Champions League final in 11 years already complete, Liverpool concluded the Premier league season with a systematic, drama-free, 4-0 win over Brighton & Hove. It ensured fourth place in the Premier League, and with it a berth in next season’s Champions League, the most prestigious competition in club soccer. Salah scored first, his left-footed strike whirring along the ground inside the right goal post. Fans in the legendary Kop section repeatedly belted out their song, “Mo Salah! Mo Salah! Mo Salah! Running down the wing! Salah la la la la la la, Egyptian king!”
Then afterward, per tradition at English football grounds, the players made their way around the pitch with their wives and offspring, thanking fans. In one of those scenes sport can concoct, Salah’s 4-year-old daughter, Makka, began kicking around a ball, and the fans rewarded her every kick with a supportive, “Ayyy!” At one point, when her father had finished receiving yet another award, he walked back from the middle of the pitch, pretended to challenge her and kicked a ball away from her.
The fans booed him, whereupon he loosed a big grin, for they knew each other.