Mohamed Salah, to be an Olympian for Egypt or not. It is a debate that has been raging in Egyptian football ahead of the Tokyo Games next year.
The arguments have been aired publicly and passionately on chat shows, social media and in newspaper columns, and started even before the Under 23 squad won the Cup of African Nations last week with a 2-1 win over the Ivory Coast.
The younger Pharaohs secured their trip to Tokyo 2020 when they emphatically beat South Africa 3-0 in the semifinals. With that, their focus shifted to lifting the cup, while the Salah debate started as soon as the post-match news conference the day of the South Africa match.
That the Liverpool winger would give the team significant strength up front is beyond doubt, but his inclusion would be at the expense of an existing member of the squad, one who has already helped the team qualify and win the tournament.
“It is only natural for Salah to join the squad. Countries that compete in the Olympics routinely add their superstars to lift the level of play and attract more media interest,” said football commentator Sabry Sirag. “Salah is one of the world’s biggest stars. It’s only expected for him to be called up for Tokyo.”
It is a logical argument, but with up to eight months before the deadline for submitting the squad names, many in Egypt are counselling patience.
The U-23 squad’s strong showing is being used against the inclusion of any seniors to the team, whether it’s Salah or others.
Beside a perfect record throughout the tournament, Ramadan Sobhy won best player, Mustafa Mohammed received the top scorer prize and Mohammed Sobhy was voted best goalkeeper. That and winning the cup gave the team the nickname “the real men.”
In their entirety, the nickname, the coveted continental triumph and the accolades run in sharp contrast to how the Salah-led senior Pharaohs have fared over the past year.
They also appear, at least for now, to have shifted much of the affection of the fans away from the Pharaohs and toward their younger version.
The senior Pharaohs’ poor form began with a dismal run in the World Cup in Russia when Egypt, after a 29-year hiatus, crashed out after losing all three group matches.
In the summer of this year, Egypt hosted the Cup of African Nations amid high hopes they would extend their record of seven wins. The Pharaohs made a promising start, winning all three group matches, but fell to South Africa in the round of 16.
More recently, they drew against African lightweights Kenya and the Comoros Islands in qualifiers for the 2021 edition of the Cup of African Nations in Cameroon. Salah did not play either because of injury, but his name is closely associated with the failures there and in Russia, when he was widely criticized for coming to the defence of team-mate Amr Warda against sexual harassment accusations.
“I think it’s premature to talk about this now,” said Sobhy, replying to a question about Salah’s inclusion. “Give these people (the U-23 squad) their due. They are real men who gave it their all. We will talk about it when the time comes,” said Sobhy, who now plays for Cairo powerhouse Al Ahly after he failed to impress in short stints with English clubs Stoke City and Huddersfield.