Encircled by expectant cheers of Egyptian fans, Mohamed Salah appeared at the Pharaohs’ final pre-World Cup training session and kindled hopes he can overcome injury to aid Egypt’s first shot at the tournament in nearly three decades.
Liverpool’s star striker, who is recovering from a shoulder injury that saw him crash out of the Champions League final, strolled around the Cairo pitch talking to colleagues and supporters, but did not take part in the team’s last late night practice before heading to Russia.
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Horns blasted, snack-sellers hollered and chants of “Come Salah, Come Salah!” rang through the capital’s stadium, crowded by thousands of fans keen to encourage their team ahead of their first World Cup appearance since 1990.
Salah, who hit a stunning 44 goals for Liverpool last season following his move from Roma, is the linchpin of Egyptian hopes in Russia.
He has been picked for the World Cup squad despite having been forced out of the Liverpool’s 3-1 Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in tears clutching his left shoulder.
Many of his fans had feared he would miss the World Cup altogether, but his appearance in Cairo has reignited expectations in The Pharaohs’ key striker.
“He will participate, God willing, he must,” said Seif Ibrahim, a 24-year-old salesman wearing Salah’s Egypt jersey.
Fans screamed in delight when Salah’s name was read out over the loudspeaker, while those able to get to the pitch took selfies with their hero.
He gave fans a sliver of hope when he managed to briefly dribble the ball on the corner of the pitch, before returning to the sidelines.
“I was so sad, but now I’m happy to see him in real life, and he seems to be doing fine even if he isn’t actually training with the others,” said Nahed Mostafa, 38, who attended the session with her young children.
– ‘Historic moment’ –
The Pharaohs, record seven-time African champions, have qualified for the World Cup for only the third time.
They begin their Russian campaign on June 15 against twice former winners Uruguay.
The Egyptian football federation said after Salah’s injury that he could be out for three weeks, meaning he would miss their opening Group A match but could then be available against Russia on June 19 and Saudi Arabia on June 25.
Supporters at the Cairo ground, waving the national flag, also yelled enthusiastic approval for the team’s other star players — goalkeeper Essam El Hadary and midfielder Abdallah El Said.
Police in riot gear patrolled the stadium, which was filled to around a quarter of its capacity — a rare sight at Egypt’s highly-restricted football grounds.
Authorities imposed a ban on fans attending local matches after a 2012 stadium riot in Port Said left 74 people dead. The restriction was partially relaxed earlier this year.
“This is an exceptional event because a whole generation has been excluded from stadiums,” said Mostafa Abdallah, a 64-year-old schoolteacher, who wore a checkered shirt and a delighted grin.
“I came for this historic moment, and to admire my country’s team.”