From Nagrig to Merseyside: Mohamed Salah’s inspirational journey to stardom

Mohamed Salah is pictured. via Wikimedia Commons

Piles of construction gravel and a series of unpainted buildings provide the backdrop to a courtyard with a dirt field. Among the debris used as goals and a few patches of grass is a group of barefoot teenagers chasing a yellow ball. Perhaps the only oasis in this dull desert village is the vibrancy of their jerseys and the magnificent mural of Mohamed Salah.

Born into a working middle-class family in the Nile delta village of Nagrig, roughly 80 miles from Cairo, Salah began chasing his golden dream of becoming a footballer. Salah dreamt of playing for Al Ahly or Zamalek, two of the nation’s leading clubs. Idolizing the likes of Francesco Totti and Zinedine Zidane, Salah spent countless hours in narrow alleyways emulating the magic he saw on TV.

After impressing a scout at a tournament for his local club Ittihad Basyoun, Salah joined the academy of Al Mokawloon in 2006. Still only 14, Salah would commute five hours to get to training in Cairo, often transferring four to five busses both ways. This grueling sacrifice paid off as Salah was eventually spotted by head coach Mohamed Radwan, who promoted him to the first team. There, Radwan immediately changed Salah’s diet and training, helping him match the physicality of older players. As a youngster, he was regularly chosen as a full-back but had an aptitude for carrying the ball deep into the opponent’s half. Once converted to a forward, Salah cemented his role in the team and was a consistent starter throughout the 2011–12 season. 

After the suspension of the Egyptian Premier League due to the tragic Port Said Stadium riots, Salah’s domestic season was cut short. Shortly after, Swiss side FC Basel organized a friendly with Egypt’s U-23 team, in which Salah scored twice in a 4–3 victory. Having impressed club president Bernhard Heusler, Salah was invited to stay on for a week’s trial after which he signed a four-year contract. Faced with a new language and the expectation of replacing Swiss stars Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, Salah initially struggled adapting to life in Switzerland. Within a season, however, the Egyptian winger found his feet, scoring decisive goals in the Champions League and helping Basel secure its fifth league title in a row. 

In January 2014, Salah was signed by Chelsea F.C. for 11 million euros, hoping to uphold the formidable legacy of African players in the Premier League. Under José Mourinho and in a squad filled with veteran stars in their twilight like Ivorian striker Didier Drogba, Salah was sidelined, making only a handful of insignificant appearances. The following February, Chelsea agreed on an 18-month loan for Salah to Italian side Fiorentina. Back in the spotlight, Salah’s speed and instinct for goals proved unstoppable for many defenses in Italy. Scoring against Inter Milan and Juventus, the Egyptian started to turn heads among Europe’s elite clubs. After a successful season, Salah chose Rome over Florence, joining A.S. Roma on loan. In the 201516 season, Salah’s 15 goals helped Roma clinch Champions League qualification, finishing third behind Juventus and Napoli. The following year saw Roma climb to second place, only four points behind Champions League finalists Juventus. In his final game for the club, with 19 goals to his name, Salah fittingly came on as a substitute for club legend and childhood idol Francesco Totti.  

In the summer of 2017, Salah was sold to Liverpool F.C. for a club-record fee of 34.3 million euros, becoming the first Egyptian in the club’s history. Anticipation loomed throughout Liverpool as Salah’s electric reputation personified manager Jürgen Klopp’s high-intensity “Gegenpressing” philosophy. A successful first season would be an understatement as Salah broke the all-time Premier League scoring record for a 38-game season, netting 32 times, a record previously held by Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008. Awarded the Golden Boot and the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award, Salah led Liverpool to the Champions League final. During the game, Salah was infamously injured by Spanish center-back Sergio Ramos, as Real Madrid left victories on the night. In spite of his shoulder injury persisting through the summer, Salah captained Egypt for their short campaign at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. 

Fast-forward three years, which included both Premier League and UCL titles, and Salah’s recent performances, in particular a hat trick at Old Trafford in a 50 thrashing of Manchester United, have seen comparisons being drawn to Leo Messi. Despite the accolades, the Egyptian king, as often referred to in songs at Anfield, hasn’t forgotten his roots. In Nagrig, Salah has built hospitals, schools and mosques, giving hope to a new generation of Arab dreams. During the pandemic, Salah funded the organization of emergency oxygen supply for suffering patients. After every dazzling goal, Salah’s celebration concludes with him kneeling and lowering his forehead, a respectful gesture of his Islamic faith. In a world plagued by racism and Islamophobia, Salah is more than Liverpool’s No. 11. He embodies unity, passion and loyalty, proving that every identity has a place in our world.