I am a big fan of Liverpool’s soccer team. They just earned a spot in the final of the UEFA Champions League where they will face two-time defending champions Real Madrid on March 26. Liverpool has a fluid, attacking style of play that makes them a joy to watch. They have a front three (Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino), who go on the offense with finesse, flare, and clinical finishing skills. Sure Liverpool gives up a lot of goals (too many to win the English Premier League), but when they go on the attack, it is thrilling.
At the heart of Liverpool’s success this year is Mohamed Salah. In his first year, Salah has scored 43 goals in 49 games. He’s been voted England’s player of the year. He often starts down the right wing with pace, only to cut back across the middle in order to set up his deadly accurate left footed shot on goal. Liverpool fans have a special chant for him: “Mo Salah, Mo Salah, running down the wing, la, la, la, the Egyptian King!”
Which brings me to the point. Salah is an Egyptian and a devout Muslim, and soccer fans in Liverpool adore him. He is very public about the practice of his faith and he is a great philanthropist. When he scores a goal, he and the Liverpool fans have developed a routine. When he scores, the Liverpool stadium erupts joyously around him, and Salah runs to the fans closest to him with his arms outstretched, and then stands stock still in front of the crowd soaking in the celebration. Then, after his teammates have congratulated him, he walks slowly back to the center circle, and a hush comes over the stadium. Salah raises his hands to the sky and then kneels on the field, prostrating himself in a deeply personal demonstration of his Muslim faith. The crowd keeps quiet to allow him this moment of devotion. Then he stands upright and the crowd again roars in celebration.
In England, where there is a growing amount of Islamophobia, this embrace of Salah is not insignificant. Let’s just say, your average Liverpool soccer fan is probably not best described as a progressive liberal. Which is perhaps why Liverpool’s adoration of Salah is even more important. Songs in his honor boom out at Liverpool’s home stadium, fans carry flags bearing his image, and he is mobbed wherever he goes, asked to pose for selfies at filling stations and at fish-and-chip shops. When it comes to breaking down barriers and creating a culture of acceptance, Salah and the response he gets from his Liverpool fans probably means more than any statements made by religious or political leaders.
So here is my idea. Let’s have Washington’s MLS team, DC United, host Liverpool for a friendly match. Let’s also invite the president and give him front row seats. And then, when Salah scores, which is quite likely, and after he prostrates himself in the center circle and stand up again, everybody in the stadium should stand and cheer for this beautiful soccer player.