The scene was as familiar as anything soccer fans had seen this past season: star Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah peeling away from the final line of defense, whippet-quick legs motoring almost a yard in front of the rest of the body, one touch, and the ball dispatched nonchalantly into the goal. After opening the scoring against Saudi Arabia in the final group game of the World Cup, however, the celebration did not look like the giddily triumphant afterword to any of the 43 goals Salah had scored this season but something quite different–a largely emotionless grimace-smile. Fatigue, maybe, or even exasperation.
Egypt had already been knocked out of the World Cup in the previous week, and its World Cup run was a pained, prolonged stumble. But that’s not all that had been weighing Salah down: The game had also come a few days after Salah had been uncomfortably championed at a dinner by the Chechen warlord president Ramzan Kadyrov and granted “honorary” Chechen citizenship. Sure enough, within hours of the Saudi game, there were rumors of Salah’s discontent and potential retirement from the national team.
The rumor of Salah’s international retirement has come after one of the most glorious individual seasons in recent memory, nudging him into stratospheric heights as one of the world’s greatest players alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. After scoring just once in his first three Premier League games, the goals gushed forth in an unprecedented deluge. Records fell by the week: most goals scored in a season by an African player, most goals scored by any player in a regular Premier League season, Premier League Player of the Year, and African Footballer of the Year. All of this as a skinny, brown-skinned, and bearded Arab-Muslim who prostrates himself to Allah in gratitude after each goal. At a time of rising Islamophobia and anti-immigration movements in Europe and the West and divisive political factioning in the Middle East, Salah’s individual triumphs as an openly and visibly devout Muslim made him an icon of Egypt and the Arabic world.
“Salah’s visibility on the international stage has been gratifying to me as an Egyptian football fan, and his embrace by Liverpool FC and its fans is absolutely delightful to me as a Muslim and African,” said Sophia Azeb, an Egyptian-Palestinian writer and professor at the University of Chicago. “What a treat to hear Liverpool fans chant, ‘If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too,’ in the midst of Brexit!”
Khaled Beydoun, law professor and author of American Islamophobia, didn’t hold back in praise, telling The Nation, “Mohamed Salah is, very possibly, the greatest Arab footballer ever. During a time of widespread crisis in the region, and military rule in Egypt, Salah is a source of pride for not only Egyptians, but more broadly, Arabs and Muslims across the world. A much-needed archetype of excellence and transcendence for peoples in dire search of hope.”