How a Golden Goal Scorer and Devout Muslim Charmed England
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Can Liverpool’s popular Mo Salah make a dent in racism and Islamophobia?
By Carly Stern
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
At Liverpool’s Anfield stadium on Sunday, it was a different kind of “take your daughter to work day.” Clad in jeans and her dad’s dark red uniform, Makka Salah, the young daughter of Liverpool soccer star Mo Salah, dribbled down the turf in front of 54,000 fans. Dark hair swishing, she sent the ball to the back of the net amid thunderous applause from the stadium and her beaming father, who stood off to the side.
Just another heartwarming moment for the devout Arab Muslim family that has improbably charmed the U.K.
Suffice it to say that Makka could read a crowd: She dished out a pick-me-up just when Liverpool fans most needed to crack a smile. The team had just come up in second place to Manchester City in a charged campaign for the Premier League championship, which would have been Liverpool’s first English league title since 1990. In spite of the team falling short, Salah was being honored with his second Golden Boot for most goals scored in the season in a three-way tie.
This is great. Mo Salah’s daughter wanted to score a goal at Anfield after her dad won the Golden Boot pic.twitter.com/WBsWbsDOcm
— Tim Callanan (@MrTimCallanan) May 12, 2019
Salah, 26, has captured global attention for his speed and monstrous goal-scoring prowess on Liverpool and the national team for Egypt, where he was born. He began his career in 2010 with Cairo club El Mokawloon in the Egyptian Premier League, leaving to play for Basel in Switzerland soon after. Basel won the league in Salah’s inaugural season, and his accolades only began to pile up from there. Salah won the SAFP Golden Player Award and joined Chelsea in 2014 but got stuck on the bench — so he zipped off to Fiorentina, then Roma. His speed and handy left foot caught the attention of Liverpool, which in 2017 signed him with a club record transfer fee that tops out at $56 million.
Salah departed for England and quickly became a critical asset on the field, breaking the Premier League goal-scoring record with 32 goals in 36 league games and finished third in FIFA’s vote for the world’s best player in 2018.
Salah is visible about his faith, but he’s largely stayed apolitical.
He’s won the hearts of fans who love to root for teams with long odds. “Salah is far and away the best player on Egypt’s national team, which is a popular underdog in international competition,” says Beau Dure, a journalist who’s written books about soccer. Dure likens Liverpool — which won a slew of titles in the 1970s and ’80s before its current drought — to the Boston Red Sox before breaking their World Series “curse” in 2004 (both teams, he notes, are owned by Fenway Sports Group). While Salah could be the next Lionel Messi on the pitch, his charm has won him just as many admirers.
“As well as being one of the most talented footballers in the world, he is immensely likable,” says David Kershaw, CEO of the international agency M&C Saatchi PLC and longtime Arsenal fan. “Even fans of opposing clubs like me, who normally dislike other teams’ players, warm to him.”
Salah grew up in Nagrig, Egypt, in the Nile delta. Just like other young hopefuls, he launched his childhood soccer path by kicking around old socks packed with worn-out shirts. He recalls watching the Champions League on TV and dreaming of taking the pitch himself. In 2013, Salah married his wife, Magi, who wears a hijab in public. Their daughter, Makka — who graces Salah’s social media followers with regular appearances — was born in 2014.
“Yes, I know we have one at home. This is a new one” pic.twitter.com/9q8L7fSOgB
— Mohamed Salah (@MoSalah) May 12, 2019
Beyond his field presence, Salah has garnered attention as a devout Muslim playing for a soccer club with a majority White fan base. His daughter is named after the Muslim holy city where the first revelation of the Quran took place, and Salah prostrates himself after scoring goals. On social media platforms, he posts photos in front of the Kaaba and of Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
Saudi Arabia recently bestowed land in Salah’s name in Mecca for representing Islam in the U.K., and back home in Egypt shopkeepers are selling Salah-shaped lanterns to celebrate Ramadan. In England, it’s more complicated.
Though broadly popular, Salah himself has faced Islamophobic jeers and reports of racism in the stands are common — most notably when someone tossed a banana peel at Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in December. More broadly, Brexit has spurred anti-immigration rhetoric and hate crimes have been rising in the U.K. In the week following the New Zealand mosque attacks by a White supremacist this year, the number of hate crimes directed toward Muslims across Britain rose 593 percent, The Guardian reported. And Muslims were targeted in more than half of religious hate crimes recorded in England and Wales from 2017–2018, according to government data.
Salah is visible about his faith, but he’s largely stayed apolitical. His humility and good humor are traits not normally associated with overpaid soccer stars, says Kershaw. “While his faith is known and respected by most people, I honestly can’t see it changing the minds of anti-Muslim bigots in England,” Kershaw says. “To most fans, he is just an amazing footballer and a great bloke.”
Salah made Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 Most Influential People in 2019, and he’s alluded to the pressure that comes with being in the public eye. But thus far he’s proved more than comfortable navigating the spotlight, all the while demonstrating the importance of visibility for Arabs and Muslims in White spaces that haven’t traditionally been welcoming. As one tongue-in-cheek Liverpool fan chant goes: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim, too.”
And as Sunday’s well-timed breakaway showed, the same goes for his daughter.