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Monday, September 27, 2021

In Champions League final, Liverpool fans chant for Mohamed Salah: ‘I’ll be Muslim too’

It’s the one that gives Liverpool a massive early advantage in the Champions League final Saturday night, silences the “white end” of the stadium and wreaks havoc with Tottenham Hotspur’s gameplan.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Madrid |
Updated: April 26, 2020 11:49:08 am
Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah celebrates with the trophy after winning the Champions League Final. (Reuters)

“If he scores another few,
Then I’ll be Muslim too…
If he’s good enough for you,
He’s good enough for me,
Then sitting in a mosque, is where I wanna be
Mo Salah-la-la-la-lah! Mo Salah-la-la-la-lah!”

ESTADIO METROPOLITANO is shaking. Around 20,000 Liverpool supporters are bouncing in the stands, paying the ultimate homage to their “King”. Most of them haven’t even settled in their seats when Mohamed Salah hammers home a penalty in the second minute. But they see him sprint towards the corner flag, slide on his knees and raise his arms skywards. The unassuming celebration can mean just one thing — a goal has been scored.

This isn’t just another goal.

It’s the one that gives Liverpool a massive early advantage in the Champions League final Saturday night, silences the “white end” of the stadium and wreaks havoc with Tottenham Hotspur’s gameplan.

As much as the goal and its significance, the jubilant, impromptu rendition of the Salah song is equally striking. Here are thousands of fans, largely middle-aged and white, in what are divisive times with Islamophobia on the rise, singing aloud the lines, “I’ll be a Muslim” and “a mosque is where I wanna be”.

Salah’s strike paved the way for Liverpool to end their 14-year wait for a European title, their sixth overall. But what he’s doing goes way beyond the football field. Scoring goals. Breaking barriers. Bridging gaps.

“He’s a god. He will never, ever need to buy a beer in Liverpool,” says 35-year-old Simon Curtis, a lifelong Liverpool supporter. “In the current climate, it’s not easy for a Muslim man… Salah’s changing the perception. That’s what the last line of our song signifies… he cuts across all the barriers… giving us a reason to sing aloud and celebrate week after week.”

Salah isn’t in the same league as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, yet. His has been a stuttering career that began at Najrij in Egypt, by undertaking eight-hour bus journeys every day so that he could train and stay with his family. From there, he moved to Basel before trying to establish himself as a professional player, without much success, in London, Florence and Rome. Then, Liverpool happened.

When the Reds signed him for 42 million euros (roughly Rs 327 crore) in June 2017, the logic was questioned by football pundits in England and abroad. A year later, they voted him as the best player in the English Premier League and his peers bestowed the same title upon him. At the FIFA gala, he was voted among the best three players in the world by FIFA last year.

But Salah’s impact is visible more beyond the field. In Egypt, for instance, the government got him to campaign against drug abuse among the youth. Salah’s cameo appearance in the video resulted in a 400 per cent surge in calls to treatment centres, according to the country’s social solidarity ministry. During the presidential elections last March, more than 1 million Egyptians voted for Salah to become the country’s leader despite him not even contesting the polls.

“It’s his simplicity that makes him endearing,” says 44-year-old Teddy May, who has been following Liverpool since he was four. “We have had Muslim players in the past but unlike the brashness that is often associated with mega stars, Salah is a family man who is deeply connected with the local community. You see him at the mosque or in the city like normal people. You can relate to him… there’s no cockiness.”

May is among the thousands in Madrid wearing a Liverpool jersey with the 26-year-old’s name inscribed on the back, singing songs in praise of the striker. Another Salah song, sung to the tune of “Sit Down” — a 1990 hit by English band James — goes: “Mo Salah, Mo Salah… running down the wing, Salah la-la-la-lah, Egyptian king.”

Salah is everywhere. On the streets of Puerta del Sol, the city centre. In the shopping complexes of inner districts. And inside this giant stadium, chasing down every ball hit in his direction.

But in middle of all the frenzy, he is calm. The traumatic scenes of last year’s final against Real Madrid are still fresh in his and every supporters’ mind. In that match, he hobbled off in tears after picking up an injury. Saturday is his chance to exorcise the ghosts of Kiev in the city of the team that broke his and a thousand other hearts.

Forty-five minutes before kick-off, Salah warms-up alone, standing inside the semicircle on top of the box. He plays a little one-two with Sadio Mane, his strike partner, and takes a couple of warm-up shots on goal. None goes in: two hit the cross bar, two go wide on the right of the goalpost and one is saved by goalkeeper Alisson Becker.

But in the one opportunity he gets in the match, he scores. Becker goes on to deny Spurs a couple of chances for late equalisers and Belgian striker Divock Origi’s goal in the 87th minute puts the match beyond Spurs’ reach and seals the title for Liverpool.

As the Reds unite in a spine-tingling rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the club anthem, the players lift the trophy one after another and salute the fans. But they want Salah, who is smiling and hugging Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s inspirational manager, as if they are a young couple.

Salah, shy and introvert, accedes to the crowd’s wish. He steps forward, bends slightly to lift the trophy and hoist it aloft. “He’s our king,” Curtis, the Liverpool fan, beams. And this is his coronation day.

(The writer is in Madrid on the invitation of Gazprom, one of the tournament sponsors)

This story was published on June 3, 2019.

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