From Cairo’s traffic to Europe: the story of Mohamed Salah

Mohamed Salah

Cairo’s traffic is truly something unique.

Command the law of chaos, and once you’re done in it, your only weapon is the horn, as well as the courage that allows you to stick the nose of your car in every available inch. It has not changed, I am assured, after the fall of Mubarak, the failed revolution of the Muslim Brotherhood and the new regime of Al-Sisi.

Mohamed Salah1

In 2009, I was there for the Under-20 World Cup. Each movement had to be calculated on the basis of the always copious flows of the infernal and already mentioned traffic. On one day I decided to watch both Brazil and then Ghana training. Watching Douglas Costa kick live is always a mystical experience but, warned a Brazilian coach following the young Seleção, “until he finds someone who really explains the game to him, he will never become a footballer.”
He would later find Mircea Lucescu, and then his career would turn around. In the group of Brazilian journalists, however, the theme was not so much Douglas Costa but Egypt: never, those who came from
País
do Futebol, had they met so much passion for the game.

In the midst of a thousand difficulties, this is a young, active country, certainly controversial and complicated to change (I would have read only on my return the fundamental “Yacoubian Palace” of ‘Ala al-Aswani), but which has a lot, really a lot of passion for life, and the game of football is an indispensable outlet.

I was thinking, as I arrived at the training ground of Ghana, a team that would go on to win that World Cup in the final against Brazil. The horns were gone, replaced by jackhammers and drills. A lot of work to build a part of Nasr City, the new area of Cairo. The ultras of the two most famous teams in the Egyptian capital, Zamalek and Al Ahly, actively participated in the Revolution that began in Tahrir Square, then ended as we know. Of course, they are not the only teams in a city that thrives on football.
In Nasr City, for example, there is a club with a decent tradition, Al-Mokawloon, a club founded by Osman Ahmed Osman in 1973, just at the time when this very influential builder was redesigning the skyline of the capital: these were the years of the great building boom, President Sadat aimed at a rapid modernization of the country.

One day, a fax arrived at that club with an offer to buy from Basel for Mohamed Salah, who was playing in the yellow-black shirt. Direct contact with the player began and immediately intensified shortly after the 2011 Under-20 World Cup, played in Colombia: it was impossible to remain indifferent to the speed, combined with Salah’s control of the ball. The Swiss club’s head of scouting, Rudi Zbinden, had recommended the player and was convinced that the Basel system was suitable for his development. In recent years we have added a series of failures of many Egyptian talents: the last two are Rami Rabia, a central defender who moved from Sporting Lisbon, and Mahmoud Kharaba, who arrived in Switzerland, first at Lucerne and then at Grasshopper. Both, despite their undoubted and remarkable qualities, have not been able to impose them. And they had to return to their homeland, where, immediately, Kahraba, for example, was decisive in the conquest of the Zamalek title. And it’s not a matter of understanding the game, we believe. Just the adaptation, it’s really complicated.

Complicated for everyone, but not impossible for Basel.

A working group structured in a model company, which for years was chaired by Gisela “Gigi” Oeri, heiress of the pharmaceutical giant Roche (which is based in Basel) and the first woman to become president of an elite club in Switzerland.
Under her management (she joined the club in 1999 and became its director in 2006), Basel has amassed titles in its homeland and has made a name for itself around Europe. In January 2012, he handed over the reins to his deputy, Bernhard Heusler, a successful lawyer in the area who has touched nothing of the winning model.
In that very year 2012, Basel sold two jewels of its youth sector, Xherdan Shaqiri (to Bayern Munich, against a cheque for 12 million) and Granit Xhaka (to Borussia Mönchengladbach for 8 million). A little further away from Roche, with your best boys sold to the Bundesliga, the dream of competitive Basel seemed to come to an end. And instead in the following year, the Europa League was touched: after two balanced games, the Rossoblu surrendered in the semi-finals to Rafa Benítez’s Chelsea.

Showcasing that player bought in a small Egyptian club.

Shortly thereafter, the one who, after Aboutrika’s retirement, will be the new idol of football fans in Egypt.
Because Salah , not only crosses the wall of adaptation (the only other real example is Mohamed Elneny, coincidentally also bought by Basel and from the same club, Al-Mokawloon), the boy who grew up in Nasr City imposes himself in Europe.
He becomes the idol of a people, also because of his manners, and also because he is a young man who, in addition to engaging in many charitable campaigns, does not forget those who, more or less his age, died in the massacre of Port Said, where the responsibilities of the Egyptian authorities are substantially clear.

Salah-FiorentinaWhen, after an unfortunate period at Chelsea, he chose to come to Italy, wearing the 74 Fiorentina shirt, that number corresponds to the number of deaths on that damn day. A choice that definitively elected him as the heir of Aboutrika.

The greatest Egyptian footballer ever: he was there, in Port Said and he ran to the stands, shirt and shorts on.

He carried a dying 14-year-old boy to the locker room to entrust him to the care of the team doctor, a sign that we are facing something more than just an attacking midfielder.
Many in Egypt have seen the civil passion of Aboutrika in Salah, even if here we are still talking about a boy born in ’92, in the other case we are in front of an icon, just below the great singer um Kultum, in the collective imagination of Egypt, and consequently in the cultural imagination of the entire Arab world.

Salah is, however, first and foremost a Mr. Player.

Chosen, after the summer controversy, to reach Rome under the management of Rudi Garcia, he immediately showed his qualities. Now imposed as an attacking winger, he amazes with his speed technique, to which he adds a change of direction that can really separate the trunk from the pelvis of any opponent.
He has continued to score consistently, a detail that is obviously not secondary that he has added with experience: he is cooler and above all decisive, in front of goal. He rejoiced for months in a restrained manner, always after giving thanks to the Most High, kneeling. The scream of the Egyptian community in Italy will have been less contained, each time, even if by now the attention is that of all the country’s sportsmen, from Cairo around the world, who have followed the player’s Roman adventure with sympathy, as evidenced by social networks, where Salah is an absolute star.
Héctor Cúper, the coach of the Egyptian national team, even if he once him off for a delay, knows that only with him as a guide, even the team that previously intimidated every opponent on the continent (seven African Cups), can return to winning. September 2011 changed the history of Egypt, eliminating the competitiveness and therefore the certainties of that football world.

Today, however, Egypt has a new prophet. Who brought the country back to the World Cup, after years of absence, and who continues to score, even on the other side of the Channel.

Photo Salah ©LaPresse