Cairo (AFP) – On a perfectly manicured grass field in Cairo’s gated suburb of Madinaty, boys train in red football jerseys and dream of becoming the next Mohamed Salah.
At the Liverpool Academy, football players aged five to 18 train on the grounds of the British International School, nestled between brand new roads and development blocks.
“Here! Here!,” shouted Yehia Hammad to his teammates, waving his arms as they hurried around the field responding to directions given by coaches.
Yehia’s favourite player? “Mohamed Salah,” he answers with pride, sporting a thick mop of hair which resembles that of Liverpool’s high-scoring Egyptian international striker.
“I love football because it’s my favourite thing, my life, and my thoughts and everything,” said Hammad.
The young boy was accompanied by his father, Mostafa Hammad, a manager at a Danish pharmaceutical company, who also loves the sport.
– Emulating Salah –
Yehia Hammad’s dream is to be the next Salah, who rose to stardom in the English Premier League from humble beginnings in a village north of Cairo, in the Nile Delta.
“Even better than him,” said Hammad, cheekily.
To enrol him in the academy, Hammad’s parents pay a subscription fee of 8,000 Egyptian pounds (about $453, 371 euros) a year.
Counting in equipment, competition fees and sessions with a nutritionist, his parents spend more than 22,000 pounds per year, in a country where the average monthly salary is less than $250.
Mostafa Hammad said that previously there was a lack of international football academies in Egypt teaching children fundamental skills.
“With the presence of these academies, these values, this consistency, I think the coming period will produce excellent players in Egypt,” he said.
The Liverpool Academy is not focused on producing the next Salah, according to head coach David Ridler, a British former professional footballer who came to Cairo six years ago to run the Madinaty academy.
“Our programme aims to bring Liverpool to a (different) country.”
The academies are directly managed by the Premier League club, with the goal being to “develop (players) as people as well as develop their football skills, and life skills as well”.
Most of the children attend one of the international private schools, where English is the main language.
Like most of his teammates, Hammad speaks in a mix of Egyptian Arabic and English.
Some parents at the academy even brag about how well their children have mastered the language.
Although many Egyptian support either Real Madrid or Barcelona, Liverpool have gained popularity since Salah joined the club this season.
As well as leading the Premier League scoring charts, Salah helped fire Egypt to a first World Cup appearance in 28 years, in Russia later this year.
– Extremely respected –
His goals, speed and agility inspire Hammad and his teammates. But that’s not the only reason.
“He’s a good man,” said Hammad.
Salah is extremely respected in Egypt for his charity work.
Unlike Hammad, Salah never benefited from such upscale training facilities — nor, for that matter, did either of the world’s best two players, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Yet it is the talent of these football stars and their success that has led to the expansion of academies in Egypt, according to Mohamed ‘Beebo’ Khaled, the Liverpool academy’s technical director and coach.
“It will take the academy a long time to produce someone like Messi or Christiano or Salah,” Khaled said.
But the core of the academy’s “values” is to encourage children’s “ambition” to become the next Salah, added Khaled.
Beyond Madinaty, Liverpool have other academy branches in Rehab and New Cairo that are also new and affluent communities on the outskirts of the capital.
And while the setting for these academies is a world away from the dirt roads of Salah’s modest home village of Nagrig, it is his rise to the player who cost Liverpool £44 million (49.5 million euros, $60.8 million) from Roma in June that inspires them.