CAIRO: Deep in Egypt’s Nile Delta region, the children of Nagrig village have a clear goal in life: they want to become football stars like Mohamed Salah, Liverpool’s top scorer and Africa’s top player.
Salah, who hails from their village, has been one of the sensations of the Premier League since joining Liverpool — his goal in the victory against Southampton on Sunday was his 29th of the season.
Further enhancing his status as a national hero, Salah played a key role in leading Egypt to the World Cup finals in Russia later this year.
On Wednesday his talent will be on show in the Champions League as Liverpool tackle Porto.
Mohamed Abdel-Gawad, 12, gazes in admiration at the three-storey house where Salah was born and raised, which overlooks a narrow dirt road like most of the houses in the village, about 120 kilometres (75 miles) northwest of Cairo.
“I hope to be like Mohamed Salah when I grow up,” Abdel-Gawad told AFP.
“Mohamed Salah has become a professional player because of his ethics and humbleness.”
In Nagrig as well as in Basyoun, the closest town, the youth centres were renamed after the Egyptian star.
Fully aware that his success has become an inspiration for children in Egypt and Africa more widely, Salah addressed them in his acceptance speech when he won the African player of the year accolade in January, telling them: “Never stop dreaming, never stop believing.”
While the house of the player’s father, Salah Ghali, resembles others in the village, it was quieter: no-one was looking out of an open window, and no clothes hung from the house.
The village has been the focus of huge media interest as Salah has risen to stardom, but family members at his house in Nagrig refused to talk to reporters “out of respect for his wishes”.
– Gruelling daily journey –
Salah’s journey, figuratively as well as literally, was anything but easy.
“His talent clearly showed from the beginning,” said Ghamri Abdel-Hameed el-Saadani, who was the juniors coach at the Nagrig Youth Centre, where Salah started training at the age of eight.
Still, Salah’s success is not just due to his talent, “it’s also a product of a will of steel, effort, and determination”, said Saadani.
The mayor of the village, Maher Shateyya, a family friend, bursts with pride when he talks about Nagrig’s most famous son.
“Mohamed was only 14 when he joined the Arab Contractors club in Cairo, and he had to spend nearly 10 hours a day in transport to make it to and from practice,” said Shateyya of Salah’s “journey of torment”.
Nagrig to Basyoun, then to Tanta city, the capital of Al-Gharbiya province, then a bus to downtown Cairo, and a final ride to the Nasr City neighbourhood where the club is located.
Salah grew up in a sporty family, with his father and two uncles having played football at the youth club in Nagrig.
“When his father noticed his son’s talent, he strived to enrol him at a big club,” said Shateyya.
“In the beginning, Salah played with the team in Basyoun town, then he moved to Tanta city before he was taken by the Arab Contractors team.”
Starting in the under-15s, Salah spent five years there before his talent earned him a moving abroad and Swiss club Basel.
Salah “imposed himself, and his ability to penetrate the other team’s defences shone”, Arab Contractors coach Said el-Shishini told AFP.
He recalled the dribbling ability that characterises Salah’s goalscoring exploits for Liverpool: “He would take the ball from the middle of the pitch straight into the penalty area.”
From Basel, Salah moved to Chelsea but failed to break into the first team. He went to Italy where eye-catching performances for Roma caught Liverpool’s attention and he signed last year in a deal that could eventually be worth 44 million pounds (49.5 million euros, $60.8 million).
– Summer return –
Salah was raised in a traditional family where both his parents had government jobs at the village. In addition to his government role, Salah’s father also traded in Jasmine flowers, Nagrig’s main harvest exported for perfume production.
In Nagrig, as far as the eye can see, the fields are filled with jasmine, which flowers in the spring.
Salah married Magi, a fellow Nagrig resident, when he was 20, and she has given birth to a girl they named Makka, the Saudi Arabian city that is home to Islam’s holiest site.
The Liverpool winger still spends his annual leave with his wife and daughter in Nagrig, where he has never forgotten his roots.
He has donated money to an intensive care unit at Basyoun Central Hospital and to a religious centre in Nagrig that is yet to be built, said Saadani.
Salah also founded a charity in Nagrig that provides up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,800) a month for people in need.
“He is very modest… eight-year-old Mohamed is the same Mohamed (as he is now), Africa’s top player.”