When Mohamed Salah is on the offensive, you better watch out.
That’s the lesson countless soccer opponents have learned from Salah, Egypt’s goal-scoring maestro and sports superstar. But this week Salah trained his devastating focus on a new target: the bungling bosses of Egypt’s national soccer association.
In a blistering series of Twitter messages, video posts and leaked letters, Salah, 26, vented a summer’s worth of frustrations against the leadership of the Egyptian Football Association for what he called its grossly incompetent handling of Egypt’s short-lived World Cup campaign in Russia in June.
Autograph hunters were permitted to knock on Salah’s hotel door in the middle of the night, he said, while preening Egyptian celebrities barged in on him, invading his personal space. On long plane journeys, players traveled in economy class while their managers stretched out in business-class seats. Salah, who also plays for the English club Liverpool, couldn’t even make it to the breakfast buffet without being swamped by fans.
A good soccer association ensures that its players are relaxed, Salah noted on Twitter. “But in reality, I don’t see anything but the opposite,” he added.
In Egypt, Salah’s outburst came across as more than just a global star railing at domestic failings: It represented a rare, frontal challenge to the authority of a national institution in a country where dissent of any kind can be highly dangerous.
Among those sent to Egypt’s crowded prisons last week was Masoum Marzouk, a retired diplomat who called for a referendum on the repressive rule of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Others imprisoned since last year include a Lebanese tourist who publicly criticized Egypt, a woman who complained about sexual harassment, and several people who waved rainbow flags at a pop concert.
Salah, arguably the most popular man in Egypt, is a different matter.
During the World Cup, Egyptians vested their fragile hopes in Salah, inspired by his dazzling skills and small-town origins. His golden image had been burnished by endless accounts of his generosity and devotion to Islam: Every time Salah scores for Liverpool, he falls to his knees as if in prayer. Even after the Egyptian team was knocked out of the tournament after three games, his halo was undiminished.
So it was all the more striking to hear Salah and his lawyer rail angrily against Egypt’s soccer bosses this week. “Your World Cup failure is the direct result of the incompetent management which you have displayed” since last year, the lawyer, Ramy Abbas Issa, wrote in a letter to the Egyptian Football Association. “Success on the field took a back seat ever since.”
In videos posted to Facebook, Salah lashed out at the bosses who made the team travel in the cheap seats. “They make us travel in economy class, which is exhausting for every player; all the other African teams fly in business class,” said Salah, stressing that he was asking for the team, not just for himself.
Stunned by the attacks, Egyptian soccer officials tried to defuse the crisis by turning to the playbook often employed by Egypt’s political authorities when faced with an embarrassing situation.
Some officials tried to ignore Salah’s demands; other sought to deflect the blame onto his hard-charging lawyer, who was repeatedly referred to as a “foreigner.” (He is Colombian.) Still others patronizingly referred to Salah as a son of the soil who had become egotistical, or even suggested that his public defiance constituted an act of disloyalty.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Magdy Abdel Ghany, a senior soccer official who drew scorn for traveling to the World Cup in a private jet, offered his services as a conflict mediator. “This huge building must find a way to deliver its messages to the public,” he said, referring to the football association’s headquarters.
But there were few takers.
“In a real country, the Egyptian Football Association would have stepped down and apologized to the public,” said Nada Alaa, a soccer fan from the Nile Delta, speaking by phone. “Resign and relieve us after the abject failure,” billionaire Naguib Sawiris wrote in a Twitter post, referring to the entire board.
Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt analyst at The Century Foundation in New York, said the dispute had an indisputably political flavor in a country where free speech had otherwise withered under el-Sissi.
“I think it’s a big deal,” Hanna said. “Political life is so stultified in Egypt; there are no frontal challenges to the state or big national institutions. So in that context, this dispute takes on political overtones.”
The dispute has been brewing for months. During the World Cup, Salah was furious after he was forced to parade around a stadium with Ramzan A. Kadyrov, the Chechen strongman who has a reputation for human rights abuses. Things got worse when Salah found himself beside Kadyrov at a dinner and was presented with honorary Chechen citizenship.
Angry that he was not protected from such publicity stunts, Salah let it be known he was considering quitting the national team over the episode, and he posted an enigmatic Twitter message that hinted at his desire for accountability. “Some might think it’s over but it’s not,” he wrote on July 1. “There needs to be change.”
After a beach vacation with his family, Salah returned to Liverpool this month for the start of the Premier League season. He offered a reminder of his formidable talents when he scored in the 19th minute of his first game. His next game for the Egyptian national team, against Niger, is scheduled for September 8.
But before he will play, he wants the football association to meet a list of seven demands, including posting two bodyguards outside his hotel room, and granting him the right to refuse all “VIP” meetings. Failing that, his manager has threatened, he will publicly call for the resignation of the entire football association.
“You tried, in your press conference, to say everything and make it seem like I hate my country,” said Salah with a stern face this week. “Thank God, the people know otherwise.”