Africa’s best striker was widely hailed as the outstanding player on the pitch in the UEFA Champions League game at Stamford Bridge a couple of weeks ago — and no, it wasn’t Samuel Eto’o. Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah has arrived on the global stage with Swiss club FC Basel, and he’s so talented that everyone is just going to have to put up with him regardless of what they think of his politics. You see in the past year Salah scored plenty of goals for Egypt (six in World Cup qualifying so far) and it turns out he also scores goals for another nation — Palestine.
When Salah curled in Basel’s equalizer vs Jose Mourinho’s lackluster Chelsea earlier in the month (the Swiss side went on to win) it will have been uncomfortable viewing for his many critics.
Here’s the story from last month when Basel played Maccabi Tel Aviv in the qualifying round: ” … [Salah] played an important part in [Basel’s] qualification for the Champions League, but it was not without controversy. At their home fixture against Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv, he refused to shake the opposition players’ hands for political reasons, busying himself with his shoelaces instead. Then he indicated he did not want to play the return fixture at all.”
Basel management insisted on Salah’s turning out, and he gave in, albeit grudgingly so. “Football is more important than politics, and it is my job. In my thoughts, I am going to play in Palestine and not Israel, and I am going to score and win there,” he said at the time. “The Zionist flag will not be shown in the Champions League.”
His prediction came true when he scored Basel’s second goal in a 3-3 draw. Maccabi Tel Aviv were beaten 4-3 on aggregate. And about those handshakes? Salah fist-bumped instead.
Unsurprisingly, Salah’s protest drew plenty of criticism from different parts of the Israeli press, as well as from 101GreatGoals, a hugely popular website that we like for their relentless and often witty coverage of the game around the world (and their ability to mine the internet for videos of goals), but which seems to get it all wrong when it comes to politics (they’ve also dabbled in pubescent-style misogyny now and again). They ranted: “Will UEFA investigate this shocking lack of sportsmanship from the Egyptian?”
After the first game, in which Salah tied his laces to avoid shaking the hands of the Maccabi players, 101GreatGoals called it an “unsavory incident” and again called for UEFA to investigate. Investigate what exactly?
Predictably, there were those who criticized Salah for bringing politics into football, which is supposedly non-political. Those people need to go read Laurent Dubois’s recent blockbuster piece on the history of the World Cup and have a serious rethink. The sportsmanship and mutual understanding supposedly expressed through the ritual of pre-match handshakes is just one of the many circumstances in and around a football match where the sport takes on a political significance. (Remember when both Patrice Evra and Anton Ferdinand, in separate incidents, refused to shake the hands of opponents who had racially abused them?)
Of course Salah was accused of pettiness, and he certainly risked appearing juvenile with the two schemes — tying his shoelaces and fist bumping. All this shows is how narrow the opportunity for political protest was for him, and how well he used it — those fist bumps come to look almost like a series of black power salutes (check the replay).
Nowadays everybody loves Tommie Smith and John Carlos even though in 1968 the IOC kicked them out of the games and the white American establishment treated them as unsporting pariahs. Like Salah, Smith and Carlos chose a ritual moment outside of the contest itself to make their protest, and it’s worth remembering that Tommie Smith regarded his salute principally as a “human rights salute”. Salah wasn’t at the Olympics, but his courage and conviction shouldn’t be dismissed.
Clearly the fact that he scored a crucial goal definitely helped — they say you should do your talking on the pitch rather than off it, but fortunately Salah can do both.
We applaud Salah, who at the young age of 21 has realized that not only can there be no neat separation between football and politics, but also that football can provide the venue for meaningful moments of political dissent. Salah joins other leading African players like Mohamed Aboutrika and the Malian forward Frederic Kanoute who have shown their solidarity with the Palestinian people while on the football field. Egypt’s men’s national team coach Bob Bradley says Salah is “the future of Egyptian football”. Bright future.