This is a story about a footballer, but it’s not just about football. To misquote a former manager of Liverpool Football Club - it’s much more important than that.
The Liverpool and Egypt footballer Mohamed Salah became a phenomenon last season; breaking records and winning almost every award going in the English Premier League.
(Photo: ALLSPORT/Getty Images)
But what happened on the pitch is only a small part of his story.
Over the past few months I’ve been recording interviews for a documentary about the player for BBC 5 live and BBC Arabic.
I watched him break down the boundaries of prejudice, religion and nationality. I watched him become a hero, not just in Liverpool itself, but across the country and right across the Middle East.
In fact, despite all his achievements with a football - including being named the Premier League’s Player of the Season, being named player of the year by both football writers and other players and winning the Golden Boot – I wondered if Salah’s influence off the pitch might be bigger than his impact on it.
(Photo: ALLSPORT/Getty Images)
I set out to find the untold story of this sporting hero. The journey took me from the back streets of Liverpool to the shadows of the Pyramids.
From meeting those on the Kop singing about Salah running down the wing to meeting some of the hundreds of men, women and children who depend on regular financial payments from Salah in his hometown of Nagrig, in northern Egypt.
Nagrig, Salah's home town.
Along the way, I met football fans of different faiths, nationality and club allegiance, all of whom were united in their respect for Salah.
They explained how that shared feeling has helped break down the boundaries that divide them.
The imam of the Liverpool mosque where Salah prays described how the player’s decision to openly perform sujood, where he kisses the ground after scoring a goal, encouraged non-Muslims to “take the first step” towards understanding and accepting his faith, and how the city’s Muslim community will welcome them in return.
Mo Salah's old pitch in Nagrig
In Egypt, amid the manic excitement surrounding Salah’s appearance in the European Champions League final and World Cup, I learned how the footballer has used his success on the pitch to directly change the lives of people off it for the better.
The head of the Egypt’s Anti-Drug and Addiction Fund told me Salah’s influence has increased the number of calls to its addiction helpline by four hundred percent.
The player has appeared in a television advert, imploring people to turn away from drugs. When Mohamed Salah says something, people listen.
Amr Osman, head of Egypt's Anti-Drug and Addiction Fund
In Salah’s hometown of Nagrig, I visited the half-completed shell of a school being built by a charity established and funded by the footballer, and a youth club renovated by Salah.
I also visited the site of an ambulance station they are hoping to build, and met some of the hundreds of men, women and children being supported by regular, monthly payments from Salah.
The donations of food and financial support are vital to the people who receive them.
A youth club renovated by Salah.
In Nagrig, I also joined the crowds crammed in to a café built from corrugated metal sheets to watch Egypt’s first game of the World Cup, many of whom had been literally praying for his recovery after a shoulder injury in the Champions League final.
Mo Salah merchandise on sale in Egypt.
For Salah, and for Egypt, it was not to be – but talking to the people and watching their reaction afterwards, I realised that the result (or lack of it) had done nothing to detract from the standing of the local hero they value as much for what he has given back to the town as they do for his achievements since he left it.
What is the secret of Salah’s success? Many of the people I talked to spoke about his humility, his work ethic, even his smile. Others said it was the goals; that goals spoke for themselves.
What I learned was that Salah has managed to translate those achievements into something, ultimately, much more long-lasting.