A tale of three Egyptians, a tale of three legends
Three men. One, arguably the best Egyptian player ever, who never made it to the World Cup; one the current captain who waited 25 years for his chance, and one the best of this side, and among the best in the world, who fought his way back to fitness to be here.
Everyone knows of Mohamed Salah, whose imperiousness on the pitch is matched only by his humility off it. Having won every award in the Premier League this season, he was in the fray for a Champions League winner's medal when he suffered a shoulder injury that threatened to rule out at least part of his World Cup. His coach says he will play Egypt's opening match, barring any last-minute issue.
Most people also know of Essam El-Hadary, Egypt's captain, who at 45 is comfortably the oldest player ever in the World Cup. He has waited 25 years for this moment, he says, and will be the "happiest person in the world" when he makes his World Cup debut.
Both are heroes at home; Salah's status is legendary, not only for his footballing skills but for being, to put it bluntly, a really good person.
Spare a thought, though, for Mohamed Aboutrika. He won everything with club and country - national titles, continental titles, even a bronze at the FIFA Club World Cup - before retiring in 2014. He, too, is beloved among his fans. But he lives in near-exile in Qatar, unable to go home after being officially put on the terrorist list by his country's government on charges of financing the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
And he never played in the World Cup.***
There are many things that made Aboutrika unique as a player. His skills as a midfielder, of course, is one of them; my colleague Ed Dove writes about one last-minute winner for Al-Ahly. There is also his outspoken mind, which prompted his public endorsement of the Palestinian cause - that too, at the Club World Cup. Not to forget his degree in philosophy from Cairo University. The biggest distinguishing factor from all other African footballers, however, was his decision to ply his entire career in Egypt. Rather, his refusal, even at the peak of his success and fame, to accept offers to play in Europe. It would have brought him riches and a far wider fan base.
Why did he never go to Europe? "You have to understand how big he was in Egypt. He had everything - money, fame, success," says Marwan Ahmed of the Egyptian fanzine KingFut. "So there was no drive to move abroad."
What about the challenge of playing with the best in the world? "He comes from a very humble background," Ahmed says. "So his vision was limited. He, his family, they were happy with what they had, they thought why try for something you might not get?" So, a lack of ambition.
Does he have any regrets today, I ask Ahmed. Looking back at his career, looking at what Salah has achieved by playing abroad, would he feel he blew it somewhere? "He has no regrets," Ahmed says. "Even today, though he cannot come to the country, his name is chanted by the fans of his club Al-Ahly. It's the sort of fame he would not have got had he left."
The irony is inescapable; Aboutrika stayed at home, turning down a potentially lucrative foreign career, and now cannot visit. There is talk of his official records being expunged. He will be photoshopped out of the frame, as it were.World Cup diaries: Jayaditya Gupta in Russia
Salah went abroad, found his fame and fortune and could make his World Cup debut on Friday, in a tournament where his coach Hector Cuper says he can fight for his place among the world's best on show.
Salah, too, comes from humble stock. It's what endears him to fans. "Salah is humble. He is one of us," says Ahmed, a neuropsychiatrist from Cairo here for the match. "He could be my brother, my son." Ahmed is one of an estimated (admittedly his own estimates) 18,000 Egyptians who will be at the Ekaterinburg Arena for Salah's World Cup debut.
So if they are both of the same stock, I asked Marwan Ahmed, how come Salah plotted his career differently? "There are two differences between Aboutrika and Salah. One, Salah is from a different generation; they have the aspiration to go abroad, to pit their skills against the best. They are far more driven.
"And two, Salah went abroad as an unknown, He has become a star in the past year, but he left home when he was 20. Aboutrika's offers came when he was already famous in Egypt, in Africa, and he didn't want to, or need to, risk giving that up."
Last question. If Aboutrika was so good, and Egypt were continental champions twice in his career, how come they never made it to the World Cup in 28 years? "The mentality was wrong," Ahmed says. "Back then, they didn't know how to close out the big games. In 2009 they lost a tiebreaker to Algeria; in 2013 they were beaten by Ghana. They weren't tough enough."***
On Friday, the omens seemed good for Salah. The sun was out, warming the backs of the Egyptians; Ahmed the neuropsychiatrist had feared that weather could be a factor, and yesterday's rain would not have helped those fears. Salah did his routines with the others, though he did seem to go easy on the shoulder-flexing part of it.
The omens seemed good for El-Hadary too; sitting next to his coach, hair slicked back and a broad smile on his face, he looked at least ten years younger than his 45. He will be a proud man to lead his country out.
Aboutrika has played with them both. On Friday he will watch them - probably from a commentary position in the same stadium - achieve something that he never managed in all his hugely successful career. Maybe a stint in Europe would have helped hone that mental toughness. But you can bet he wouldn't want it any other way.