Many believed that 2018 would be the year that Neymar Jr finally shattered the Ronaldo/Messi duopoly of football’s greatest individual award, the Ballon d’Or.
When Liverpool and Roma meet this week for the second leg of their semi-final, there may indeed be a new favourite, but it will not be the Brazilian 26-year-old.
Eulogised as Egypt’s fourth pyramid, the Pharoah, and the most important football player alive today, Mohamed Salah has embarrassed almost every defence he’s faced in the past nine months and even made dark horses of Egypt in Russia.
Not since Cristiano Ronaldo has a player captured the British imagination quite like Salah, who has made Liverpool the envy of the Premier League in a season when Manchester City have broken myriad records and assembled what some believe to be the greatest side ever. He has overshadowed a Kevin De Bruyne masterclass and as the league draws to a close, this season may be remembered for Salah and not City.
For sure, the Egyptian has already done enough to be remembered as a Liverpool great. He has swiftly expunged any longing memories of Philippe Coutinho or Luis Suarez and elevated Liverpool to the cusp of a Champions league final – their finest achievement in over a decade. However, though the love he feels in Liverpool is unquestionably fierce, it will never replicate the immeasurable adoration he arouses in his native Egypt.
In recent years, sport has taken a back-seat in Egypt as the nation has endured one of the most difficult periods in its history. In February 2011, citizens disillusioned by corruption and authoritarianism erupted in Cairo’s Tahrir square, holding protests that continued until President Hosni Muburak resigned three weeks later. This revolution and the crisis that followed would have a profound effect on Egyptian football and its fans.
On 1 February 2012, a massive riot occurred at Port Said stadium in which 74 people were killed. Allegations of conspiracy surrounded the incident in which police forces stood idly by as men unaffiliated with either club led the carnage.
Domestic leagues were cancelled for two years causing a ripple effect that impacted the national game. Having won an unprecedented three consecutive African Cup of Nations between 2006 and 2010, Egypt failed to qualify for the next three. When Egypt’s current manager, Hector Cuper, arrived in 2015, football had been played behind closed doors for four years.
In recent years, the situation has vastly improved as stable leadership has allowed for growth and the tourism industry has recovered to almost pre-crisis levels. That, and Salah.
Egypt’s slow rebirth from its near-disintegration during the Arab Spring has been concurrent with the emergence of Salah the superstar, the timing of which has meant he has become a poster boy for a better Egypt and its greatest international representative.
Having played for neither of Egyptian football's biggest teams, Salah has brought fans together with his football, charity, and exemplary devotion to Islam. He is known for his regular donations to impoverished communities, funding gyms, schools and academies. Salah has even been credited with strengthening the Egyptian economy with a €200,000 donation.
Since the Port Said disaster there had been an iron-clad ban on unauthorised gatherings and demonstrations, but authorities could do nothing in November 2017 when Salah sent Egypt into ecstasy by scoring a 95th minute penalty that secured a place in Russia. Military helicopters dropped flags onto Tahrir square as fans celebrated en masse for the first time in over half a decade.
The delirium has hardly subsided and for his exploits Salah was labelled the hope of 2018, credited with reviving Egyptian spirit and uniting a nation. But a closer examination of such tributes exposes the uglier side of the circumstances under which Salah is so revered.
England lost its mind when David Beckham scored the free-kick against Greece that sent his side to the World Cup, but in a wider context it meant little for the nation. For Salah, his every move for Liverpool and Egypt is celebrated with an almost over-zealous delirium.
This reaction is only possible when juxtaposed with the bigger picture - Salah’s pedestal gets higher when the ground under those who worship him sinks.
Yes, Egypt has shown signs of recovery from its crisis, but the situation is still far from perfect. The nation is still plagued by violent unrest and many of its citizens struggle to stay afloat in an economy still crippled by years of political turmoil. For all Salah’s brilliance and generosity these are not problems he will be able to solve on his own.
Instead, he numbs Egyptian pains with his performances on an almost twice-weekly basis.
Accordingly, the pro-government Egyptian newspaper Al-Watan capitalised on this by allocating nine of 16 pages to Mohamed Salah in its New Year's Day edition, distracting from the bigger issues and harsher realities of the nation.
Famously apolitical, Salah undeniably brings joy to millions, but it is only temporary relief to a country with bigger problems. ‘He scores, we’re happy, and we forget,’ said Egyptian Hatem Kadous to the Sunday Times.
On a global scale too, Salah’s importance cannot be underestimated. In an age of Islamophobia he is exactly what the world needs to see, but it is a great shame they need to see it in the first place. Salah deserves the tag of world’s most important footballer, but that is a label only given in the context of a sadder state of affairs.
If one man must bear such a burden, Salah has so far risen to the challenge. Kadous goes as far to say that his football has created unity in the Middle East. Whether or not this is true, the sentiment is clear - people feel united by him.
We need Salah and other players like him, but in an ideal world we’d speak only of his football, which after everything else may just be the finest on the planet right now.
The limits of Salah’s talents are still unknown, and Cuper has built a side tailor made to get the most out of his best player. Egypt have drawn one of the most favourable groups in Russia and will have their eyes firmly on the knockout stages. For now, at least, celebrations will continue, and they may get a lot bigger this summer.
Football should just be a game, but when it has to be more than that we are lucky there are players like Mohamed Salah.