Egypt hopes Mo Salah can deliver AFCON though his hometown, Nagrig, is cheering just a little louder
NAGRIG, Egypt -- Mrs. Amene sits on a step outside the youth centre in Nagrig. Looking over the dusty football field out front, she remembers one particular player who played there two decades ago.
"Of course I saw him play here," she says. "He was a respectable child. No matter what, I can say nothing bad about Mohamed Salah."
These days the youth centre bears Salah's name and on the side facing the pitch, there's a near-lifelike mural displaying his face and red-tracksuit-wearing upper body. Fewer than 9,000 people live in Nagrig and the journey deep into the Nile delta from Cairo, 80 miles to the south and three hours' drive in a sturdy car, is not for the faint-hearted. Yet those who attempt the trip nowadays are mounting something that feels like a pilgrimage: Nagrig is where one of the world's best footballers made his first steps and, in a country where his cult permeates every section of society, this is essentially a sacred site.
You wouldn't know it when navigating the roads, which dart between paddy fields and livestock farms while becoming steadily more treacherous while leading to this remote part of northern Egypt. People rely on agriculture to make a living here and it feels a world apart from the relentless tumult of the capital. In these parts, people must make do with simplicity. Yet Nagrig has benefited in extraordinary ways since the boy who sped up and down the rocks and gravel on that playing surface, taking the cuts and the bruises and getting up for more, took flight on his soccer journey.
On a Sunday afternoon in late June, Nagrig's streets are almost deserted. There is only one main thoroughfare, really; a few cafes are open to anyone who might stop, but this is nowhere anyone would end up by accident. A handful of teenagers kick a ball around and there is one easy way to break any language barrier. "Mohamed Salah!" is the best currency for any foreigner and instantly kick-starts an impromptu tour through some of the means by which he has transformed this small community.
In what passes for a square outside the town's modest medical centre, preparations are being made for a wedding. Inside are two kidney dialysis machines paid for by Salah, along with a range of other supplies he helped fund. Nearby is the site of a girls' school whose construction he has funded; a religious institute built in 2017 also owes its existence to his funds. He runs a charity, the Mohamed Salah Charity Foundation, set up with the intention of funnelling a healthy proportion of his fortune back to the place that made him.
Just around the corner, a bulky, four-story house sits empty halfway along a quiet residential street. During his youth, this was the Salah family's home base.
"He was my neighbour and his house was next to mine; I know him well," says Mrs. Amene, who works in the youth centre and watches Nagrig's next generation, many of them wearing Liverpool shirts, go through their paces. About 20 of them have gradually gathered on the pitch, more through curiosity about their new visitors than any real intention to stage a match, but Mrs. Amene has them under control: The smallest hint of what might be perceived as insolence is met with a click of the fingers and an instant straightening-up. Discipline is a cornerstone of society here and they have the perfect role model for it.
Anyone attempting the return journey to Cairo can only regard Salah's old routine with awe. The tale is well-told by now: He used to leave school at 9 a.m., after two hours' study, and then take up to five local buses so that he could train with El Mokawloon (also known as Arab Contractors), a team he joined early in his teens. It's a trip that would exhaust anyone just once, a route that runs the gantlet of Basyoun municipality's uneven tracks before the gantlet of Cairo's overwhelming traffic. Salah would do it five days a week and an anecdote told by one of his former coaches speaks of the fear that such a sapping amount of sacrifice might not pay off.
Said El Shishiny coached Salah at Under-16 and Under-17 levels, initially finding it hard to accommodate a player who was, at one stage, effectively a fifth-choice left-back.
"Many coaches will say they are the one who made him famous, but I am the one because I changed his position," El Shishiny tells ESPN FC.
"He was not one of the main players in the team so I transferred him to the right wing, because of his speed. Soon after that, we had a match against ENPPI and won 4-0. Salah had three chances to score but didn't take any of them. After the match I went to the dressing room and found him crying. I asked: 'Why are you crying?' He said: 'Because I didn't score any goals today.' I told him he would be the team's top scorer the following season and he scored 30 times in total."
Salah would never look back except to frequently turn his head toward Nagrig, where he remains a regular visitor. There is no five-star hotel here, no gated community and no exclusive suburb for the rich. He simply returns for Ramadan annually and goes home, although he complained of "disrespect" earlier this summer when a mass of local journalists and fans made it impossible for him to travel to the local mosque for Eid al-Fitr, the fast-breaking festival that signals the end of the holy month.
In a town of this size, everyone professes some kind of Salah connection. As I prepare to leave Nagrig a tall, chiselled older man extends an invitation into his home for tea. It turns out he is an uncle of Salah's by marriage, named Mustafa. "Mohammed is very kind to us here," he says. Some superstars leave their hometowns behind when the bright lights flicker into view but Salah has, in his own way, brought Nagrig along for the ride.
It means there is hope for the children, kicking up dirt under Mrs. Amene's watchful eye, of a successful and healthy life even if they do not enjoy the mind-boggling sporting success of their predecessor here.
Last Wednesday night they watched on their televisions as Salah, to a spine-tingling reaction inside a stadium that is in thrall of his every move, got his Africa Cup of Nations up and running with a superb finish against Democratic Republic of the Congo. Hours later, Salah courted controversy by publicly calling for Amr Warda, the Egypt midfielder who had been suspended from the squad for alleged sexual harassment, to be given a second chance. He got his way, and football fans were split down the middle.
With two Salah goals so far and a last-16 match against South Africa to come on Saturday, Egypt is more than capable of a deep run in this tournament. Salah holds an entire country in the palm of his hand to an extent without parallel in modern football; for Nagrig's residents, though, there is an extra sense that his success is also theirs.