"Will he play?”
- "Inchallah he will"
“Salah is playing?"
-“Mashallah, he'll play."
"It's his birthday, I wish he'd play!"
These sentences were filling the air of the Demodedovo Airport in Moscow on Thursday night.
Thousands of Egyptian fans were heading east, to Ekaterinburg, a city in the heart of the Ural Mountains. No one slept on these flights. Egyptian and Uruguayan fans celebrated with great singing, affectionately teasing each other, creating a unique atmosphere that only a World Cup could produce.
Around 15,000 Egyptian fans roamed the outskirts of the stadium hours before the opening whistle and greeted each other with Eid Mubarak blessing, on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr and the end of the Ramadan month.
"I do not want him (Salah) to play the whole game, just give us 10 minutes and he'll be good," says Osama, an Egyptian fan who landed that day straight from Cairo via Moscow.
The days before the opening whistle were filled with news of the odds of whether Salah will play or not, but as expected, the Egyptian star opened on the bench.
It was clear that the Egyptians were excited by the status, but in the absence of their star, it seemed that each player was attached to the typical game of their coach - Hector Cúper of Argentina. Abdullah Said and Ahmed Hegazi were anchors on both sides of the field, which led to an organised standstill, tight marking and a stubborn defending of positions. After a colourful start and two huge misses by Luis Suarez (who had a very bad day), the Egyptians woke up and began to hold on to the ball, feel good, and even threatened the goal.
The half ended at 0:0, but it was an excellent half by Egypt. Maybe their best half in the past two years. The Egyptians managed to hold without Salah for 45 minutes against a team that was better than them in every position on the field. Cúper’s players have done their best. Still, every time the camera went to Salah on the bench, the audience forgot what was happening on the pitch and applauded their hero.
The second half continued with the same pattern. Everyone was waiting for Salah to enter on the 60th minute. The crowd began to call his name. The first substitute was Tarek Hamed who was injured and Sam Morsy took his place. Egypt was still strong and the singing of thousands of Egyptians echoed in the stadium. The feeling was that this nervous game would still provide a dramatic and historic moment.
Second substitute. Mahmoud Kahraba entered instead of Marwan Mohsen. The Egyptian journalists at the Press tribune caught their heads and asked “Why not Salah”?
Meanwhile Egypt became more dominant as the game progressed. Fathi with a great lob almost founded Abdalla Said but the Celesete defence stopped him.
Another sub - Ramadan Sobhi went up for Amr Warda. The sensed disappointment in the crowd was imminent. From that moment, Uruguay was unleashed.
A free kick by Edinson Cavani went straight to the post, and then, a minute later, it happened.
In the 89th minute Carlos Sanchez, who entered only 20 minutes earlier, picked up an accurate lob to Jose Gimenez, who scored a winning header. A goal exactly typical of the fighting and determined spirit of Uruguay - La Garra Charua.
For Egyptians it was a cruel result in the way the game developed. But this is also not a terrible result. Egypt gave a decent fight to an excellent world-class team. Cúper only mistake was the last sub. It’s either to put in Salah for ten minutes, or to keep the rivals irritated by the thought that he will come in. It was precisely when there was room to put him in to give a small bite that without him they simply couldn’t. Now, the Russia game is like a final for Egypt. Their most important game ever.
At the end of the game BabaGol asked the assistant coach of the Egyptian team, Gustavo why Mohammed Salah did not play. This was the scene:
Me: “Why Salah didn’t play?”— BabaGol (@BabaGol_) June 15, 2018
Egypt assistant coach: “He wasn’t supposed to”.
Me: “So why you said he is ready and was seating on the bench?”
Egypt a.c: “So you can ask this exact question, in this exact moment” #EGYURG
Salah, who "celebrated" his 26th birthday that day, left the stadium on a side door, just like Mohammed El-Neny. In the game against Russia Hector Cúper will have to put in his star.
When I left the stadium towards downtown Ekaterinburg, a thought broke to my mind.
Maybe it's all a show, and Salah is not fit at all to play in the World Cup and it is one big presentation in order not to lose public support? There are things that probably only happen in Russia. Or Egypt.