On the opening day of the tournament on June 20, Cairo International Stadium was filled to capacity four hours before kick-off of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations game one between Egypt and Zimbabwe.
It was obvious who the enthusiastic, vibrant sea of red had come to see. Even with the din of over 70,000 voices in the stadium, when Mohamed Salah Hamed Mahrous Ghal stepped onto the pitch for the pregame warm-up the decibel cranked up several notches higher.
Like the star attraction in a blood drenched colosseum of ancient times, Salah was the last player to step onto the pitch, lapping up the hysteric acknowledgment from the stands.
Nine days later – when Egypt played Uganda, the stands were once again a sea of red. Most fans, adults and children alike, were wearing the Egyptian national team replica jersey emblazoned with the name “M. Salah”.
He did not disappoint them, beautifully directing his bullet free kick into the left corner of the net past Africa’s best goalkeeper Denis Onyango as Pharaohs dismissed Uganda Cranes 2-0.
“Salah, Salah!” they chanted.
The Liverpool forward is the talk of Egypt as the tournament progresses deep into the knockout phase.
Almost every local you hold a conversation with will invariably mention Salah when the subject of football comes up.
“He is the greatest football player in Africa now and one of the best in the world,” says Youseff Omar a university student in Cairo.
“Mo Salah is the best. He helped me. I was a drug addict but he brought a message of hope in campaigns against use of drugs and I stopped. We love him,” talkative cab driver by the name of Mohamed Attalla said.
“Salah is a good person. He has helped many people. He has a good heart,” a fan who came to Cairo to watch the Pharaohs second game against DR Congo said.
Last year he donated 8 million Egyptian Pounds (about Sh50 million) to his hometown, Nagrig that was used to buy land and construct a much needed sewage treatment. He has made previous large donations to his village earning him the nickname “Happiness Maker”.
A story is told of how Salah, valued once turned down the gift of a luxury villa from Zamalek’s former president, Mamdouh Abbas, urging the leader to give the donation to his hometown.
Such actions have endeared the Liverpool star to the Egyptian people and his influence on them. His village’s local youth club, where Salah once played, and his old school have been renamed after him.
Anything he posts on social media is instantly devoured by his millions of fans.
On June 12, just over a week to the Afcon kick-off Salah uploaded a picture on his official Instagram account holding a large fish, while he stood in a boat during a fishing trip in El Gouna, Egypt.
The picture caused a storm on social media sites in Egypt with celebrities, sports stars and your regular guy, posting similar images in a “Mo Salah fishing challenge”.
And another picture he earlier posted on the same platform reading the book: “Summary: The Art of Not Giving A F#*K; A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life” by Mark Manson caused the demand for the book to skyrocket in Egypt.
A post of him, bare-chested playing with his cat last year got 7,000 retweets within hours.
Not surprising, his Instagram account has 29.8 million followers while his Twitter has 9.36 million followers.
Journalists covering the Africa Cup of Nations have been eager to interview him, but his handlers have kept him in a balloon with limited interaction with member of the Fourth Estate. He is yet to appear at any official press conference of the team but whatever he posts on social media is big news.
When Egypt midfielder Amr Warda was kicked out of the team camp over allegation of sexual misconduct and online harassment of women two weeks ago, Salah posted two tweets.
The first one: “Women must be treated with the utmost respect. “No” means “no”. Those things are and must remain sacred. I also believe that many who make mistakes can change for the better and shouldn’t be sent straight to the guillotine, which is the easiest way out.”
And the second one: “We need to believe in second chances … we need to guide and educate. Shunning is not the answer.”
While he was condemned in some quarters for these tweets, the Egyptian public in general let this slip in judgement by their football idol pass. Warda was later reinstated.
Salah does not need any introduction. The 27-year-old forward, married to Magi and blessed with a five-year-old daughter called Makki, is a professional football player with Premier League giants Liverpool.
He is considered the most famous Arab footballer at the moment and was in April listed in TIME Magazine’s 2019 “100 Most Influential People” in the world.
Salah was the only male footballer to be included in this year’s list and was named under the “Titans” label alongside the likes of LeBron James and Tiger Woods.
He was also named African Footballer of the Year for the second year in a row and PFA Player of the Season, as well as coming third in the award for the Best Fifa Men’s Player.
He is sponsored by Vodafone and Pepsi and has been appearing in various advertisement in the Egyptian media endorsing the two multinational companies.
Two T-shirts in Egypt bearing his logo “1110 Salah” – that depict his jersey numbers (11 for Liverpool and 10 for Egypt), and “Never Give Up” – message of encouragement when he missed last season’s Uefa Champions League semi-finals through injury, have been selling like hot cake in his country.
There was divided opinion about his ability to carry Egypt to the African title on home soil even before the last 16 loss to South Africa.
Joseph Gamal, a civil engineer based in Cairo thought not: “Salah does well in Liverpool because he has very good team mates. Egypt does not have very good players. And all Salah knows is to run and run with the ball. I don’t think we will win.”
The overwhelming majority here though feel he is the best player from this continent and dared to dream that he would lead the Pharaohs to a record eighth title.
Immediate former Egypt coach Javier Aguirre weighed in two weeks ago by saying that if the Liverpool man won the Afcon title it would make a strong case for him winning this year’s Ballon d’Or award, football’s most prestigious individual honour.
“He is a very decent, very humble person, and generous. That is why he is loved by all Egyptians,” recent language and humanities graduate Yara Abdallah, who is a volunteer at the Afcon, summed up Salah the person.