I was fortunate to read the manuscript of this book before it was released bearing just the title “Mo” with a simple picture of Mohamed Salah -- not the usual image of him dressed in full football regalia. Thus from the start, the reader knows this isn't just another book about a football player.
Author Ahmed Khaled says Salah always describes himself by saying, “I am just a football player." From the introduction, to the twentieth and final chapter, the author demonstrates a lasting love of football.
Khaled begins in the early 80's with the story of his own village football team in Upper Egypt, which succeeded in unifying the sons of different tribes in one team, under one banner. In what can be called a personal history of football, the author stresses that sports and especially football form strong barriers to terrorism and drugs.
In the first chapter titled The Russian Sheikh, Khaled recounts the story of Sheikh Muhammad Ayyad Tantawi, who was born in Salah’s hometown of Nagrig and grew to become a well-known author and translator in St. Petersburg, where he migrated in 1840. Thus the reader learns of a link between Europe and the tiny Egyptian village, established decades ago.
In chapter two, The Jasmine Pain, Khaled approaches Nagrig itself from a different angle. He reveals that the main pillar of the village's economy -- jasmine cultivation -- is controlled by a mafia that makes millions off its growth and export, while the villagers survive on peanuts.
When he turns to Salah’s beginnings on El-Mokawloon football team, Khaled focuses on the club’s plan under its then-president, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, to discover, sponsor and invest in new Egyptian talents. He questions why the state has not adopted this same plan, which could lead to the discovery of hundreds of talents like Salah.
It is a well-documented book, especially in statistics which the author employs in the book’s most important chapter, devoted to racism. Khaled debunks a common perception that Salah has contributed to a decline in racist incidents in Britain.
The author writes that from 2017 to 2018, racist incidents increased inside and outside the football pitch, according to Kick It Out organisation. In what may come as a sad surprise to readers, the worst of these was against Egyptian student Mariam Abdel-Salam, who died in February from injuries sustained in a street assault in Nottingham.
What’s really going on, Khaled counters, is that Salah has made his way into British homes, achieving a social impact that even led some British parents to name their children "Mo" after the beloved forward.
As for popular theories that Salah represents a new model of Islam, Khaled asks “what is this model?” What new image of Islam does the Guardian mean?” His conclusion? That Mohamed Salah truly is just a football player.
Mohamed Salah is not a symbol of Islam, neither its representative nor an Islamic model, he argues.
Muslims are in need of Islam and to realise its calling they must perform the holiest mission assigned to them by Allah: to populate and cultivate the earth. This mission means they must do what Allah has required for anyone who wants to succeed: hard work.
However, the observatory belonging to Islam's largest institution, Al-Azhar, said that “Salah’s success and prostrations are a triumph of religion.” This is a farce, Khaled says, for what religion would it be that triumphs through a football player? Can Messi’s or Ronaldo’s excellence be considered a triumph for Christianity?
Salah is a Muslim – that’s an honour to him – and devout – this is an accompanying virtue – but he didn’t succeed because he was a devout Muslim from the outset. He succeeded for the same reasons that Messi and Ronaldo did.
Having talent, perceiving, preserving and developing it – an essential idea for Salah – and of course work, work, work, and professionalism are the keys to Salah's and indeed any player's advancement.
The value of the European attitude, Khaled then concludes, is in its appreciation of distinction. Europe has accommodated Salah because he has talent; it didn’t refrain from doing this because he is Muslim, Egyptian and Arab. It is true that racism has become ordinary in its city squares and pitches, but this does not apply as a rule.
As a rule, Europe accommodates anyone who excels. “Although the comparison is impermissible, Britain has accommodated Salah as it did the genius Magdi Yacoub, who was knighted in return for his deeds in service to humanity. These deeds are more deeply useful to humankind and hold a higher rank before Allah and His Prophet than those of Salah. I repeat before Allah and His Prophet”.
Ultimately, Khaled's book is not overwhelmed by analyses and theories, but retains the simplicity that is football, and does not forget the industry and the business that stand behind the sport.