The joy and agony (boo, Sergio Ramos!) of rooting for Egypt's Mohamed Salah
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 18 World Football issue. Subscribe today!
The café was standing room only on May 26 in Montreal. What was I doing spending my Saturday watching a team I don't support play a team I despise in the final of a tournament from which my team had been knocked out embarrassingly early? But the Champions League final must be watched surrounded by noise, and I was determined to stay. Little did I know I had signed up for anguish worthy of a Greek tragedy, in an Italian coffee shop.
As I stood in line for a drink, looking for a seat before resigning myself to leaning against a counter for 90 minutes, the reason I was at the café appeared on the massive screen, and cheers went up.
I did not cheer. There was no way I was going to root for a Liverpool player in public. You see, one day 42 years ago, with the certainty of a 9-year-old, I swore a lifetime of allegiance to Manchester United. I was an Egyptian girl living in London whose dad and brother both supported my boys' archrival Liverpool.
So there I stood this May in front of a big screen, fully taking in the irony of four decades of my obsession with football: The greatest footballer in the world (yes!) is an Egyptian who plays for the wrong Premier League club in red.
Ever since Liverpool signed Salah last June, my dad, my brother, his wife and their four children have been in football nirvana. I have tried to hate Salah; I have tried to feign indifference to him. And yet I watched in hi-def as the wrong team in red played Real Madrid in the Champions League final. I had already decided what to do when (not if) Salah scored. I would stay silent and let the Liverpool fans make the noise.
"He has to score early," I confidently told my companion. "That's the only way Liverpool can win. They have to stun Real early."
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And then it happened: The Most Evil Tackle in the History of Football. Less than 30 minutes into the match, Salah ran for the ball with Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos by his side, and then Ramos had his arm intertwined with Salah's and maliciously pulled him down for a nasty landing on his shoulder. I am convinced that's what happened. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire nation of Egypt and about 75 percent of the global audience is convinced too.
Wait, was Salah crying? How could this happen? How could such a stellar season, full of records and awards, end in such pain?
Salah's 32 league goals set a record for a 38-game EPL season, and his total Liverpool haul of 44 was equaled only by Ronaldo and topped by just Messi, who got one more. Salah was voted Player of the Year by his fellow players and may break Ronaldo and Messi's 10-year grip on the Ballon d'Or.
But there was Salah, crying. This was supposed to be his day, the match in which the 25-year-old who'd come out of nowhere would delight on Europe's biggest stage, with a style of play that was the antithesis of Ronaldo's showy bombast. Like most success stories, "come out of nowhere" does not do Salah justice. He had worked hard for years to be on that pitch against Madrid, starting out with a middling Egyptian team, then drifting through European clubs before donning red for Liverpool and having the most brilliant season ever. So why was he walking off the pitch, dabbing at his eyes with his shirt? I did not sign up for this. They're not even my team!
"I can't f---ing believe it," I told my companion. "He's gone."
I was inextricably incensed and sad. And worried. The World Cup was in less than a month. No. No. No. I pulled out my phone and texted to my family WhatsApp group. "I am ENRAGED and can only imagine how you feel. Sergio Ramos is a thug. That was intentional and red card worthy!"
I knew my dad and brother would not reply until halftime, but I had to tell them how upset I was. Then I had to get out of that café. I could not stand to watch.
On my way out, I heard a Middle Eastern man ask another: "What do you think of your beloved Ramos now, huh?"
Many Egyptians would recognize the irony of that question. Ramos' brutal tackle hurt more because, before Salah, La Liga stars such as Ramos, Ronaldo and Messi were the most beloved players across the Middle East. They were winners, and Egyptians like winners because they provide vicarious victories we long for. Americans new to soccer often proudly tell me they support Watford or some other team devoid of superstars. Unlike Americans, who are used to dominating, backing underdogs is not a luxury Egyptians can afford.
To understand how much Egyptians now hate Ramos, first realize how much they once loved him. During the 2014 presidential election, an election in name only, some voters protested by writing in "Real Madrid" on ballots. One Egyptian wrote "Sergio Ramos #HalaMadrid #Our Saviour" and posted a picture of the ballot on social media.
But since The Most Evil Tackle in the History of Football, Ramos has gone from #Our Saviour to #RamostheAnimal (and worse). A petition to have him banned was signed by more than 400,000 people in just two days. An Egyptian lawyer has reportedly filed a $1.2 billion suit against Ramos, citing the "physical and psychological harm that Ramos gave Salah and the Egyptian people."
At halftime, my brother texted back that his wife and oldest son had been in tears as Salah left the pitch. My mother, not a football fan, posted a picture of a tearful Salah with the text, "One man fell on his shoulder and 100 million people felt his pain." "Everyone on Facebook is losing their minds!" my sister wrote. "I don't care about football at all but I teared up when I saw he might not be at the World Cup!"
My dad sent us a meme asking Christian Egyptians to troll Ramos' social media during the dawn-to-dusk observance of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. "Christian brethren, please curse Ramos until the evening prayer and then we can take over the shift." Not missing a beat, Christian Egyptians stepped in.
When not harassing Ramos, Egyptians posted any updates they could find on Salah's injury. Some posted prayers, others footage of Ramos deploying the same tackle on others. "He's perfected it!" they raged.
So beloved is Salah that if he were to run for president in a fair and free election, he could win. He already has a base. In this year's elections, incumbent President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, a former army chief, ran against Moussa Mostafa Moussa, a little-known leader of an opposition party. Although there were only two candidates, Moussa came in third with 656,354 votes, or about 3 percent of the total. Second place went to the 1.7 million invalidated protest ballots. Of those, a large percentage were reported to be write-in votes for Salah.
Salah is the everyman alternative to the army chief who stole our Jan. 25, 2011, revolution and who wins "elections" by a landslide of 97 percent. Salah is joy in a country with double-digit unemployment and inflation. Salah is a kid from a village in Egypt whose name is now chanted weekly in one of the world's most famous stadiums. Salah is a reminder that when given a chance -- a chance too many young Egyptians have been denied by corrupt regimes supported and armed by Western allies -- an Egyptian can score as many goals as Ronaldo.
And Salah got us into the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.
Salah was not yet born when Egypt last qualified for the World Cup, in 1990. My parents were not yet born the time before that, when Egypt became the first African country to qualify, in 1934. And that's it. We have a long history of football, but Russia is our best chance yet for international success.
And boy, were our nerves frayed in that match against Congo in October that decided whether we'd end 28 years of World Cup drought. I could not watch but followed instead on Twitter. Salah scored the first goal just after halftime. My mentions flooded with congratulations. We can do this! Honestly, our inability to qualify is a long-running source of mockery and pain in Egypt. How can we have won the Africa Cup of Nations seven times -- the most on the continent! -- and yet have qualified just twice for the World Cup? So when Salah put us ahead, the unthinkable was not so absurd.
Then Congo equalized in the 87th minute. Salah buried his face in his hands and slumped to the pitch. There is no artifice about him; he is all sincerity. "We're cursed! Cursed!" I yelled at my phone.
Five minutes of stoppage time was added, and then the miracle happened. An Egyptian player was brought down in the box, and we were awarded a penalty with one minute to go. Of course it fell on Salah's shoulders. (Ramos hurt a mantle of metaphoric steel.) Imagine Salah's nerves as he put the ball on that penalty spot.
And then imagine the euphoria when his left foot put it inside the right post.
Salah has brought Egyptians the most joy since the 2011 revolution forced Hosni Mubarak, our dictator of 30 years, to step down. He has united people in a country where the game plays such a huge role in the political landscape that it has become associated with death and detention.
In February 2012, more than 70 people, many of whom were members of Ultras Ahlawy, a support group for Egypt's top football team, Ahly, were killed after a match in Port Said with bitter rival Masry. Ultras Ahlawy says police did nothing as Masry fans attacked with machetes, strangled with team scarves and pushed them over the stadium's edge; instead, police shut off the lights and welded shut the gates, leading to a deadly stampede. The government blamed the victims; the Ultras insist they were punished for the key role they played in protests that toppled Mubarak.
After Port Said, fans were banned from most domestic league matches, ostensibly for their safety but perhaps to prevent the Ultras from using games to organize opposition to the regime. Three years later, just before fans were to be allowed at matches again, more than 20 people, most of them Zamalek fans, were killed in a stampede after police used tear gas to disperse a crowd attempting to enter a stadium before a game. Zamalek's Ultras, the White Knights, also believe they were targeted by police.
Fans were banned again. This May, both Ultras Ahlawy and the White Knights disbanded. The ban is still in place.
Critics say Salah should be more politically vocal, that the regime will exploit the success of the national team. Imagine the weight on him now, knowing Egypt needs him more than ever. After the Champions League final, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said Salah's injury was "really serious." Media speculated he would be out six weeks, maybe two months. Four days later, on May 30, Egypt's team doctor met with Salah, after which its football association said his absence "will not exceed three weeks."
Hearing this news, every Egyptian started doing furious math: We play Uruguay on June 15, then Russia, the host team, on June 19 and Saudi Arabia on June 25. So he will likely return in time to line up against Russia.
My family has discussed all the scenarios by which we can make the round of 16. A healthy dose of optimism with a dash of delusion is a prerequisite for being an Egyptian national squad fan preparing for your third-ever World Cup ... and that was before The Most Evil Tackle in the History of Football.
The joy of 100 million people now rests on the wounded shoulder of one man. Other Egyptian players have succeeded internationally. But none as much nor as quickly as Salah. None has taken hearts broken too often by hardship and imaginations stifled by tyranny and pumped them with belief the way Salah has. Please heal! We are willing his injured shoulder to give us a break!
All this Egyptian Manchester United fan wants is what 99.9 percent of my people have had all season: a chance to cheer for Salah.