Liverpool's Mohamed Salah fires a shot during the Champions League semifinal second leg soccer match between Roma and Liverpool at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, Wednesday, May 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)
Since joining Liverpool last year, Mohamed Salah has become an icon for young Muslims in Britain © AP

I grew up in a family infatuated with Liverpool long before any of us had set foot in Britain, let alone visited the city. Like many children in the developing world, my brothers were riveted by English football, and no team thrilled them as much as Liverpool.

My own little adventure with the team was confined to a specific time and a single player: Kenny Dalglish, the early 1980s Liverpool star whose name I fancied as romantic. My teenage crush on Dalglish faded, but my interest in Liverpool FC (my own kids, who grew up in London, are Chelsea fans) has been rekindled of late by a connection between football and social integration.

That convergence is embodied in 25-year-old Egypt-born Mohamed Salah, Liverpool’s electric striker and the best player in English football today (as voted for by both his fellow professional football players and the association of football writers). Since signing for Liverpool last year, “Mo” has become an icon for young Muslims in Britain.

In parts of Europe where populism and xenophobia are resurgent, a beard, a mosque, or even a name can make a young Muslim man uneasy. The “Egyptian king”, as fans refer to him, carries his beard proudly, prays before games and throws himself on the ground in prostration to God when he scores. He called his daughter Makka, after Islam’s holiest site.

Salah’s Islam is no different from anyone else’s. But his fans love it. It’s suddenly cool. So cool that Liverpool fans borrowed the tune of Dodgy’s 1996 hit “Good Enough” for a Salah chant that has gone viral: “If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too . . . If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. Sitting in the mosque, that’s where I want be.”

In his native Egypt, whose long time status as a regional powerhouse has waned as its society has been torn apart by political divisions, Salah’s international stardom is a source of pride and a rare cause for national unity. He’s so popular that some voters wrote his name on some of the more than 1m spoiled ballots in the March presidential election.

That he grew up in a poor village in the Nile Delta, and has recalled how he had to travel more than four hours to his training five days a week, is an inspiration to millions of young Egyptians with big dreams.

From Egypt, Salah was picked up by the Swiss club FC Basel, then moved to Chelsea, who failed to appreciate his talent and loaned him out to two Italian teams. Signed by Liverpool last year, he became the club’s second-highest goal scorer in a single season.

Salah is of course neither the first nor last Muslim player across the western world. English football has had dozens of Muslim athletes, including Sadio Mané and Emre Can, who play with Salah at Liverpool. Before Salah, the Arab world rejoiced over Zinedine Zidane, the French player of Algerian descent who is now the manager of Real Madrid (and one of Salah’s idols). Beyond football too, there are Muslim celebrities in every field, from medicine to fashion and architecture.

Salah is different because he speaks to young Muslim men, particularly in the west — where they have been a target of suspicion in countries with resurgent populist, nativist politics. His fame and success offer a different image of Muslim youth at a time when the rise of Isis, the group’s targeting of western Muslim youth with a twisted version of Islam, and terrorist attacks in European cities have polarised western opinion about Islam.

In both the US and Europe, attitudes towards Muslims have hardened in recent years. There are corners of Europe where people believe Islam doesn’t belong in their country and see the religion as a threat to western civilisation.

Salah doesn’t like to speak about his religion. In interviews, he appears modest and down to earth, his nervous laugh betraying a slight bewilderment over his star status. He prefers to highlight his identity as a footballer and keep his attention focused on reclaiming the Liverpool glory days of my youth. Since those days, though, English football has become a lot more global. Although Salah may not realise it, his talent is resonating far beyond the game, and well beyond Liverpool.

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