The morning after the Champions League final, Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm barely focused on the identity of the winners. There were very few tales of Loris Karius’ errors or Gareth Bale’s goals. ‘The night Egyptians cried,’ read their headline. The unthinkable had happened: the king had been wounded in battle.
Now Egypt will cry once again. If Uruguay defeat Saudi Arabia on Tuesday lunchtime – and they surely will – Héctor Cúper’s team will be the first to be eliminated from the World Cup. A country that should have been led by their magnificent leader and talisman was left with no choice but to play with his shadow in a must-win match.
Mohamed Salah did play in St. Petersburg – he even scored in St Petersburg. But the Premier League’s best player of last season, the one who led Liverpool to the Champions League final, was nowhere to be seen. The damage done in Kiev lasted long into June, and it is no hyperbole to say it ruined Egypt’s tournament. Think Argentina without Lionel Messi. Think Portugal without Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sport’s magnificence lies in its place as life’s most important non-important thing. It is meaningless, mere trivial pursuit in comparison with politics and economics, yet in that meaningless lies its strength. Sport is an antidote to the grind, sometimes the only antidote. What could be more important than light relief in heavy weather?
Few countries understand that more than Egypt, for whom even getting to the World Cup was an achievement worthy of great celebration. This is a country fractured by politics and ruled by the iron fist of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. If the Arab Spring and and fall of President Hosni Mubarak promised a peaceful future, peace didn’t last for long.
If sport is supposed to be the escape from the drudgery of everyday rigour, even that cannot escape the omnipotent hold of politics. In February 2012, 74 supporters were killed and more than 500 injured after Al-Masry supporters attacked Al-Ahly fans at a Egyptian league game. The principle cause of death was the Al-Ahly fans being locked in the stadium by Police. Al-Ahly ultras had been vocal protesters against the regime of the country’s armed forces. They suspected foul play. Many have been convicted.
Yet amidst the horror of conflict and upheaval – the domestic league was cancelled for two years after Port Said – Egypt somehow found itself a star. Despite all of his heroics at Liverpool over the last ten months, that is nothing to the power of Salah in his homeland. Egypt is a country that has rarely felt unity over the last decade. Only Salah brings everyone together. When they needed a hero, it was Salah who sent them to Russia with both goals in a 2-1 victory over Congo.
Salah is more than just a brilliant footballer, because the best footballers are. He is a role model and an ambassador for unity. He has established a charity in how own name to support people in need. He is also deliberately apolitical when being so is to make a statement in itself. Salah does not wish to be a political symbol, but a vision of hope.
In May, that hope was that mere participation in the World Cup was not Egypt’s glass ceiling. Their group stage draw was favourable, pitting them against weak hosts and woeful Saudi Arabia. When you have the world’s most in-form player, who cares who you’re facing? The knockout stages were a realistic possibility, and then who knows…
…And then disaster struck. The regular upbeat updates from the Egyptian camp always seemed highly transparent. If in childhood were are told that if you want something hard enough it can come true, real life has other answers. You don’t recover from that injury that quickly and be fully fit.
If Egypt laboured and limped against Uruguay in their first match, they wilted completely in the St. Petersburg rain. The hosts are a far better team than even their own experts expected, but they were assisted by some dismal Egyptian defending. In the attacking third, Salah battled against the effects of injury but was conspicuous by his absence. If the late penalty gave him his first World Cup goal, it was consolation in football cliche only.
Egyptians will never lose pride in this team or love for their best player; both mean too much. But their chances of progression in Russia were over from the moment Salah left the Champions League final in tears. I only hope that Sergio Ramos has already ticked seeing the pyramids off his bucket list.