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When Liverpool and Real Madrid take to Stade de France pitch on Saturday evening, Egypt will come to a standstill.
Streets will be deserted, cafes and homes crammed beyond capacity as the hopes of a nation are once again placed on the shoulders of one individual – Mohamed Salah.
Reds fans were right to enthrone their No 11 as the Egyptian King on his arrival from Roma in 2017. Salah has the presence of a head of state and is revered as such in his north African home.
Mohamed Salah will once again have the weight of a country behind him on Saturday night
‘The first thing you do when you come out of Cairo airport, there are huge billboards with his face on. So many different adverts,’ says Egyptian football expert and Kingfut.com editor Ahmad Yousef.
‘Egyptians are very patriotic and he’s that symbol of it. It’s all Salah 11. Everyone’s wearing it. You can’t go a minute in the street without seeing one.
‘He’s the biggest star out there. Not just in sport but in media. In the way Egyptian are proud of something they’ve produced. He’s that star in the world and Egyptians are always very happy to see him win things.’
It is an insight into a different type of fandom across Africa. While in Europe supporters will swear by a club and stick with them through thick and thin, Africa tends to be drawn more to the individual.
You cannot move in Egpyt for references, images and adverts including the Liverpool striker
You cannot go a minute walking around Cairo without seeing a person in a Salah shirt
It’s evident in the global followings clubs amass online. While Real Madrid and Manchester United boast a hold over most countries, there are some notable exceptions.
Research by Betsperts has broken down the most-loved sports teams from each country across the globe. In Ghana and Ivory Coast, Chelsea reign supreme given their long-term affiliation with icons Michael Essien and Didier Drogba respectively. In Egypt, it’s Liverpool for one reason and one reason alone.
‘Before Salah joined Liverpool, if I was in a public place and a Liverpool game was on, my chance of this game making to the tv was very low,’ says Omar Khairallah, a Reds fan based in Cairo. ‘There was always a game that was more important. No one cared about Liverpool!
‘Now, everyone in Egypt knows when Liverpool are playing, who they are playing, what their position in the league. If they’re not a Liverpool fan they’re still watching the game for Salah.’
Cafes will be packed, and outdoor spaces assembled to allow fans to watch the game
Salah’s stock has soared for the magic he has produced for the national team, not just Liverpool. His role in helping the Pharaohs to their first World Cup for 28 years in 2018 produced incredible scenes inside the Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria.
‘The experience is very hard when you go to watch the national team play, it’s different to Europe,’ says Omar.
‘The game where we qualified for the World Cup in 2017, the capacity was 75,000 and they oversold it by 10,000.
‘I ended sitting on the staircase between two seats. This was five hours before the game. There was no seat available in the stadium.’
Saturday will provide similar scenes inside the cafes of Cairo and Alexandria, the game set to dominate every television set in the country, the rush for a seat just as frenzied. It is the only way to experience matchdays in Egypt.
Such is the public fixation with Salah, the streets grow quieter as people huddle round screens
‘I remember it being cold and everyone stuffing into this café,’ Ahmad recalls from his own initiation into the tradition. ‘You could see the condensation on the glass but everyone was hooked on this TV.’
‘I watched the 2019 Champions League final in a coffee shop,’ says Omar. ‘It was absolutely packed. People were sitting on the ground, there were no chairs.
‘It wasn’t just inside the coffee shop. They put some big projector screens in the street. I had to go there three hours before the game.’
The 2019 final, which saw Salah score in just the second minute from the penalty spot, brought scenes of jubilation across Egypt. It was a world away from the anger and despair of the previous year in Kyiv.
Forced off with a shoulder injury, it wasn’t just Liverpool’s hopes that Sergio Ramos dampened, but the excitement of an Egyptian public brimming at the prospect of the World Cup in Russia just weeks away. Petitions were started, Facebook pages created, but nothing eased the pain.
Salah has spoken openly about his desire to ‘settle a score’ with Real Madrid after 2018
The injury suffered in that final in Kyiv not only hurt Liverpool, but Egypt too at the World Cup
‘The whole national team was built around Salah, he was the main reason we qualified. It was very disappointing,’ says Omar.
‘There was a lot of hope on Salah as well, he was the star man in that Egyptian squad,’ adds Yousef. ‘It wasn’t that strong and it was very reliant on him. It was a big moment in Egyptian football.’
It is perhaps here where a lot of Salah’s desire for revenge stems from. While the Champions League disappointment was put right 12 months on, the suffering of a World Cup campaign gone to waste is harder to stem.
There is no Ramos, but there is another figure for Egyptians to aim their anger at in the form of Karim Benzema. A direct rival for the Ballon d’Or, it is the prize the country’s football fans most covet, with World Cup aspirations dashed for another four years.
There is a new nemesis for Salah, too, with Karim Benzema replacing the vilified Sergio Ramos
‘Egyptians want [Salah] to win that Ballon d’Or, that’s the next thing for him,’ says Ahmad. ‘I feel like this game is really important because it’s him versus Benzema.
‘Whoever wins, it will have a big say. For Egyptians, Egypt will never win the World Cup but can win the Ballon d’Or.
‘There’s a new villain that is Benzema. Out of all of this, it’s Salah himself who feels that he wants revenge against Real Madrid.
‘He’s the one who wants to prove to the club and the world that’s he’s come back form that loss, from that injury and what Ramos did to him.’
If he can, their might be little to distinguish the streets of Liverpool and Cairo on Saturday evening.
Salah will be aiming to get his hands on Europe’s ultimate prize for a second time after 2019