No matter which way you look at it, the giant mural of Mohamed Salah that’s currently hanging in Times Square is unique. For one, it’s the face of a player from a British soccer club illustrated on a 70 x 40-foot canvas in the busiest area of New York City.
Adding to the uncommon nature is that its subject is Egyptian — a nationality that doesn’t get prominent exposure in the United States.
There’s something else, too.
Salah is Muslim, which in itself offers heaps of symbolism.
“There’s a bit of irony in it,” said Vijay Setlur, marketing instructor at the Schulich School of Business, York University. “Times Square has been considered a target for extremists in the past. To have a Muslim in Times Square, when [American] people think about that, they think of something negative.
“But in this case, you have a Muslim in Times Square and it’s positive.”
The mural appeared just a few weeks before the 2018 World Cup, which will see Salah compete for his nation. Its timing comes at a point where the Liverpool striker’s global stardom is brighter than ever. Salah, who turns 26 on Friday, broke the Premier League scoring record during a monster season that catapulted him into a new stratosphere: He’s now mentioned alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in any best-in-the-world conversation.
Salah recently graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and major French publication L’Équipe, and is poised to garner even more attention as he leads Egypt into its first taste of World Cup action since 1990.
There are several popular Muslims in international soccer, but none with a higher profile than Salah, who’s adored for his pious behaviour. He’s amassed over six million followers on Twitter and more than 16 million on Instagram, but his social media posts are sparse and seeped in humility — a tenet of his religious beliefs.
Following each of his goals, Salah performs sujood, the Islamic act of prostration. At points in his career he has fasted during the religion’s holy month of Ramadan and was planning to do so again during the recent UEFA Champion’s League final, but ultimately decided against it after speaking to a team nutritionist, according to reports.
Salah’s eagerness to continue his fast struck a note with many Muslims, including Kasy Kiarash, lead assistant coach of the Ryerson Rams men’s soccer team based in Toronto.
“He understands what this means to everybody else and what a role model he is to so many people out there, no matter what you believe in,” Kiarash said. “Just sticking to your beliefs and being strong that way. It sends a message that’s more than soccer. It’s sticking to the things that have made you become successful — being who you truly are, not being afraid, even when the whole world is watching.
“That’s a really important lesson he is teaching.”
Kiarash and the Ryerson squad will be heading to Russia for two weeks to take in the World Cup as a team-building exercise. The trip, made possible by donations and fundraising, was drawn up by coaches as a way to show players “anything is possible.” An added bonus for Kiarash, who was born in Iran, is the chance to see his home country compete.
When he was growing up, Kiarash was a fervent supporter of the Iranian national team and looked up to its stars. Some were Muslim, just like him, but none carried the appeal that Salah does now.
“He’s really become a role model for Muslims in particular, because when you look at big soccer stars as a Muslim kid, you’re not seeing yourself,” said Kiarash, adding that the Rams feature four Muslim players. “You’re not seeing somebody who looks like you or believes in the same things as you do. When you do see it, you really visualize yourself there because he becomes an actual role model for you. And it becomes more real and then you say, ‘Maybe I can do that too.’
“It just brings pride to people around the world who are Muslim, when they see someone who believes in the same things as they do make it that far.”
Of course, it’s too simple to say all Muslims will be cheering for Salah’s success at the World Cup. There are several Islamic states participating — including Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt and Iran — and that is sure to divide loyalties. However, the opportunity does exist for Salah to endear himself to new fans, some of whom may be unfamiliar observers dropping in to watch the tournament.
He did just that shortly after landing in Liverpool. Britain is rife with racial tension and Islamophobia, yet by the middle of his first season with Liverpool, Salah inspired various chants from club supporters, including one with the lyric: “If he’s good enough for you/He’s good enough for me/If he scores another few/Then I’ll be Muslim, too.”
#LFC fans create "I'll be Muslim too" chant for Egyptian star Mohamed Salah
it's now gone viral pic.twitter.com/3Zc6riD9EJ
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) February 16, 2018
Such instances highlight Salah as a different type of athlete: One who occupies a deeper space in the sporting landscape and is layered and unique, just like the Times Square artwork.
“He’s a perfect flag-bearer for continuing diversity efforts because he’s an example of somebody who represents a group that’s been marginalized,” Setlur said. “So for somebody like him to be celebrated, it really changes the narrative.
“He’s an opportunity for people to change the narrative on the Muslim community.”