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Mohamed Salah is carrying the hopes of a nation at soccer’s World Cup.
There’s only one problem: Egypt’s 25-year-old forward injured his right shoulder during last month’s Champions League final, threatening a nightmare end to a dream season.
Liverpool Football Club paid around $50 million last summer for Salah — who is known as “Mo.”
He shot to stardom by scoring 32 goals for the club in 36 English Premier League games, adding 10 more in the Champions League.
But while Salah’s thrilling attacking displays and love for the game have won him fans around the globe, what he does after he scores is just as important.
After celebrating and embracing his teammates, Salah performs sujood, the Islamic act of prostration.
Though he is far from the only Muslim among the world’s best players, few express their religion so overtly and the unabashed statement of his faith has helped make Salah an icon across the Arab world.
In England, where anti-Muslim sentiment is increasingly evident and soccer fans have not always had a reputation for embracing diversity, Salah has become a folk hero.
“If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me,” Liverpool fans regularly chant. “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too.”
Others songs refer to Salah as the supporters’ “Egyptian king.”
Some in the northern English city of Liverpool’s Muslim community say Salah’s status has had an impact far beyond the soccer field.
“I think he’s brought a huge positive change in the minds of people,” said Mumin Khan, co-founder and chief executive of the city’s Abdullah Quilliam Mosque. “[Salah] has brought people together, communities together. [He] has broken all the barriers about negative perception that people hold about the Islamic faith.”
He is also influential back home in Egypt, where he has financed a girls’ school, a food distribution center and medical facilities in his hometown of Nagrig, a small farming community north of Cairo.
On the streets of Egyptian capital, traditional Ramadan lanterns featuring Salah were this year’s hottest-selling item.
“All the children want to be Mohamed Salah,” vendor Saber Mohamed told NBC News. “He has a lovable personality.”
Such is Salah’s popularity that in recent presidential elections he reportedly garnered more than 1 million votes as Egyptians took a novel approach to spoiling their ballots.
“I think he’s very humble about what he does,” said Mostafa Moussa, a high school student from Cairo. “It makes people happy that an Egyptian player is playing for Liverpool … He’s an inspiration for everyone. It makes you think you can do anything.”
Hamdy Nouh, a famous Egyptian striker from the 1980s, said he saw the makings of a star when he coached Salah at the age of 14.
“He wanted to learn and he wanted to achieve,” Nouh recalled. “I told him that he is going to become professional, that he will become a great and famous player.”
Salah has become all that and more.
His remarkable season helped Liverpool reach the Champions League final for the first time in a decade.
But in the opening stages of last month’s tense game, Salah tangled with Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos and fell to the ground in pain. Despite attempting to carry on, he left the field in tears.
Without Salah, Liverpool lost 3-1. But in Egypt, attention quickly turned to whether Salah’s injury would deprive him of the chance to star in the World Cup, which represents the pinnacle of international soccer.
Egypt heads to the tournament, which kicks off Thursday and is being hosted by Russia, as a solid and well-organized team with a chance of making it to the knockout stages.
But that becomes more difficult without Salah, who is both their key player and talisman.
Egypt’s first game is scheduled for Friday against Uruguay, a crucial opener that will go a long way to determining whether the “Pharoahs” make it past the first round.
Amid rumor and counter-rumor, it fell to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to ease his nation’s concerns.
“The president was reassured on the health condition of the player Mohamed Salah, who affirmed that his condition is improving notably and that he is on his way to recovery, god willing,” presidency spokesman Bassam Radi said Saturday.
Sisi’s intervention underscores just how important Salah has become, not just to his team but to his homeland.
Max Burman reported from London, Charlene Gubash from Cairo, and Matt Bradley from Liverpool, England.