People

Salah's long journey to football stardom

Ahmed Fathy, a 26-year-old Egyptian artist, on the stairs at an open-air cafe in Cairo. He painted the mural depicting the smiling face of Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah.
Ahmed Fathy, a 26-year-old Egyptian artist, on the stairs at an open-air cafe in Cairo. He painted the mural depicting the smiling face of Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

CAIRO • The microbus from Ramses Square is a sardine can on wheels; 14 passengers packed in a small vehicle dodging through Cairo's swarming streets. No suspension. Egyptians joke that "business class" is the seat by the driver.

From Ramses down alleys to the Nasr City highway. Stop by the flyover at district seven. A 15-minute journey that takes double in traffic. For Mohamed Salah, the road to the Champions League final in Kiev began here.

Nasr's 7th district houses El Mokawloon, the Arab Contractors club, Salah's first professional team. He joined aged 13 and the Ramses microbus was the last leg of the extraordinary trek he made.

His was a road from nowhere. He started in his village, Nagrig, attending school from 7am to 9am before walking 2km, past jasmine groves and onion fields to another village, Ash Shin. From there, a microbus to Basyoun, the nearest town, then another to Tanta, the nearest city, then one more to Cairo.

The whole schlep: four to five hours. Salah trained at El Mokawloon, then did the whole journey in reverse, arriving home near midnight. Next day, repeat.

His parents sometimes came along and he had school books to help him while away the journey.

THE ULTIMATE COMPETITOR

Salah was very competitive. He hated losing and, when his team was beaten, he cried.

CAPTAIN RIOU, 76, who guided Mohamed Salah's development.

"Success has many fathers," Captain Riou said in his old apartment in well-heeled Heliopolis.

Riou was the playing name of Refaat Ragab, a still-spry 76-year-old from the Ismaily team who won Egypt's first African Champions League. He coached before heading El Mokawloon's youth section.

Today, Salah is so popular in his nation of 100 million that a million of them added his name to their ballot papers to "vote" for him in Egypt's election.

Try reconciling that with the waif Riou points to in a photo - Salah with El Mokawloon Under-14s at the Egyptian Shooting Club. In the 2006-07 El Mokawloon youth yearbook, there is a throwaway sentence Riou translates: "Other news: the club signed an attacking midfielder, Mohamed Salah."

How? Nagrig is 130km north of Cairo, buried in the Nile delta. Riou was on the experts committee of the Pepsi League, a tournament for 55,000 Egyptian schools, and one of its jobs is to award certificates to talented players.

Salah was one of them. The boy, then a left wing-back, was so good that the coaches sent him to Cairo, and put him in the first-team hotel.

He developed in El Mokawloon's "Hope Team", comprising their best Under-15s. The Hope Team's coach moved Salah to No. 10, then striker and he top-scored.

"Salah was small, but fast and very brave, going directly at goal," said Riou.

"He's very intelligent. Some of that comes from God, and some from the tactical education he received. We made our young players play in every different position.

"Salah was very competitive. He hated losing and, when his team was beaten, he cried. But we work with players on having moderate reactions and the emotional stability he learnt helped, especially when he went to Basel."

Salah missed signing for Al Ahly or Zamalek, Egypt's "big two", and benefited developing away from their hype. He was 19 upon arriving in Switzerland.

In Nagrig, though, they tell another story of how Salah was discovered. A scout, Reda El-Mallah, came to watch another boy called Sherif, but Salah dazzled El-Mallah, who recommended him to El Mokawloon in Tanta.

It is tough to clarify which version of the discovery tale is true. Yet one thing is certain: Salah is an inspiration to those children who he says must "never stop dreaming".

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2018, with the headline 'Salah's long journey to football stardom'. Print Edition | Subscribe