Moments after Uruguay scored the 89th-minute goal that dashed Egypt’s hopes of winning its first World Cup match in decades, the TV cameras flashed to superstar forward Mohamed Salah on the bench, wearing a grim expression.
But some 2,000 miles away in Cairo, another Mohamed Salah shrugged off the loss. After seven years of chaos and hard times, he said, the important thing is Egypt is finally playing on the world stage again.
“For the people, this is a sign that things are finally moving in the right direction,” said Salah, a 47-year-old accountant who happens to have the same name as the Egyptian player who has almost single-handedly restored a sense of national pride in his home country.
Mo Salah fever has gripped Egypt especially hard since October, when the Liverpool striker scored two goals, including a late penalty, to bring his team to victory over Congo and send Egypt to the World Cup for the first time since 1990. Egyptians were so euphoric that some on social media likened the victory to the 2011 uprising in which protesters succeeded in unseating a 30-year dictator.
But the country’s short-lived democratic experiment didn’t quite go as planned.
Since then, Egypt has suffered a crushing economic recession and a popularly backed military coup. More recently, the cost of basic goods has skyrocketed, plunging many people into poverty. And the government has thrown alarming numbers of activists and journalists in jail.
But early Friday, which happened to be Salah’s birthday, Cairo buzzed with speculation as to whether his recovery from a shoulder injury would keep the star player out of the action. Waiters readied ahwas (or cafes) around the city by setting up extra chairs, big-screen TVs and cutouts of Salah. It was 100 degrees in the city by the time the call for the midday prayer rang out, but that didn’t slow down an enterprising duo who walked the streets selling Egyptian flags in three sizes.
Mohamed Fouad, the owner of a hole-in-the-wall establishment on a downtown side street, walked around grumbling about the insufficient shade provided by an acacia tree under which he had set up 20 rows of scruffy rented chairs.
The match fell on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim feast that marks the end of Ramadan, which is normally a day of rest for older Egyptians to enjoy family time and younger ones to recover from a night of socializing. Madian Ibrahim, 45, had come to the ahwa with his wife, two sons and a daughter. As with many Egyptians, this would be his kids’ first time to witness their country play in the World Cup.
“I just had a feeling that we should be together for this,” said Ibrahim, who compared his feeling of patriotic hopeful pride to what he might feel for a struggling son. “You just want to see him do better,” he said.
By 2 p.m., the honking, revving, shouting, blaring cacophony that normally emanates from the gridlock of Talaat Harb Square had turned into an almost eerie silence. The only souls left on the streets in downtown Cairo seemed to be the stray cats napping beneath the parked cars.
In one of downtown Cairo’s ubiquitous alleys, however, a raucous crowd had crowded on to plastic chairs to watch the match next to a giant mural of Salah that was recently painted on a brick wall next to other national icons such as mid-century diva Umm Kulthum and Nobel prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz. A manager was trying to charge local reporters roughly $17 a pop for permission to take photos.
Not even the news that Egypt’s starting lineup didn’t include Salah seemed to put a damper on the fans’ enthusiasm.
Things were more low key at the Maxime cafe in nearby Mounira, a neighborhood that — like much of Cairo — was solidly middle-class until a few years ago, when signs of poverty and neglect began metastasizing quickly.
Nevertheless, the place felt festive and a handful of women were seated at the outdoor cafe for this special occasion. Traditional neighborhood ahwas in Egypt are limited to men.
But everyone grew silent after Uruguay’s José María Giménez delivered a surprise header as the game wound down. A few minutes later, everyone stood and headed for the sidewalk. One of the girls was in tears.
But Hassan Ibrahim, 55, who runs a workshop making home fixtures, still had hope for Egypt, which has two more games in group play.
“Before, we never had a player like Salah and God made it possible, so maybe he’ll make it possible for us to win,” he said.
But he, too, agreed that winning isn’t everything.