Mo Salah is breaking more than goalscoring records
One of the enduring images of the 2018 UEFA Champions League final was that of Mo Salah walking off little more than half an hour into the game with an injured shoulder.
The Footballer of the Year, with more than 40 goals to his name in his debut season for Liverpool, left the field in tears and the Reds went on to lose the game 3-1 to Real Madrid.
It was a sad end to a glorious season.
There was some form of symmetry that he would score the opening goal in Liverpool’s 2-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur in the 2019 final and lift the trophy that had eluded him 12 months earlier.
Salah is a genial figure, always smiling and engaging and one would have to be the most partisan of fan not to enjoy watching his swashbuckling style of play.
But Salah’s influence goes beyond the football pitch.
There are more than 40 Muslim footballers in the Premier League but by virtue of his profile, the Egyptian has had a far greater impact on society in general than most, even featuring on the front cover of the influential Time magazine.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, far-right groups have blamed Muslims for wider societal problems and elements of the population treat Islam with suspicion and fear.
In the UK in 2017-18 alone there were nearly 100,000 hate crimes recorded, according to recent statistics.
And Salah has experienced some abusive chanting himself, such as by West Ham fans earlier in the season.
It is to his credit that Salah does not let these incidents affect him, continuing to smile and conduct himself with dignity at all times.
The 2019 State of Hate report from Hope not Hate argues that: “The conspiracy theory known as ‘the great replacement’, the idea that Muslim immigration is part of a bigger plan to make Muslims the majority of a country’s population, has seeped into the public consciousness.”
Salah has helped address Islamophobia without ever really trying to do so.
The striker does not hide his religious beliefs, celebrating goals by holding an index finger up, a declaration of faith known as the shahada. His social media feeds, sometimes in Arabic, have images of Mecca and his wife, like a majority of Egyptian Muslim women, wears a hijab.
According to a research paper by Immigration Lab at Stanford University, Salah has reduced Islamophobia among Liverpool fans.
Hate crimes in Merseyside and anti-Muslim speech among their fans has come down sharply, relative to other countries and fans.
There was an 18.9% drop in hate crimes in Merseyside (and no similar effect for other types of crime) with anti-Muslim tweets by Liverpool fans dropping by half.
The research concludes that “The survey experiment suggests that these results may be driven by increased familiarity with Islam.”
The debate about whether sports stars should be seen or held up as role models endures.
Thrust into the limelight at an early age, often with limited education, expected to win at all costs and experiencing adulation and riches in equal measure, sports stars may inspire and excite but not all are going to lead by example.
As an Op-Ed in Stuff said: “It seems like an unfair burden on the players themselves, not to mention a sad commentary on who we, as a culture, want kids to look up to, and why.”
Sports stars are human, and many will make mistakes on and off the field.
Earlier this year Australian rugby international Israel Folau had his contract terminated and saw sponsors ASICS and Land Rover cancel their partnerships with him in response to homophobic social media posts he published.
But Salah, his Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane and others playing in the Premier League are breaking down barriers and reminding the global football fanbase that a footballer can be a role model, regardless of race, religion or creed.
As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said recently: “He’s a role model in so many different things. It’s really, really nice to have him, and Sadio as well.
“Both are Muslims and live in a world where these things are very often discussed in a dangerous manner, where people think ‘they are all like this’ or ‘they are all like that’. We know that’s not true, but it is nice to have somebody around full of joy, full of love and to do what he is doing around his religion.”