Sports fandom is weird. Not bad weird or good weird, though, sometimes it can be one of those types of weird. No, this instance of sports fandom is neutral weird. It’s that part of sports fandom that draws us in via the various ways we can interact with athletes. That sense of intimacy that’s only somehow increased as access to our favorite footballers over time.
Mass media coverage. The 24-hour sports news cycle. Social media. We live at a time where fans can learn more about the best footballers in the world with very little effort. More, the things we learn are often proffered by the footballers themselves, only furthering the belief that we are, really, getting a bit of a behind-the-scenes look, a more intimate look, into their lives.
And, again, these things aren’t in and of themselves a bad thing. We wouldn’t get the video of Sturridge dancing with fans post-match without it. Or the amazing Instagram stories of the pre-training camp karaoke session. Or any number of MoLov photos/comments. Our lives as fans are certainly enriched by it.
But I also imagine that the increased scrutiny must be exhausting for the players at times. Doubly so when things aren’t going well. And entering this past week’s matches, one such player caught in the public eye was Mohamed Salah.
The past 4 and a half months for Mohamed Salah have been, in a word, weird. Though, this weird is probably the bad weird. After helping his nation qualify for the 2018 World Cup in dramatic fashion, Salah found himself in a geopolitical drama that no one could have scripted. Strong man politicians. Vague threats from the national team. A middling performance and early exit. The experience was not great.
Upon returning to Merseyside, Salah looked a step off. He wasn’t alone: nearly everyone involved in the World Cup came back looking a bit bedraggled. It makes sense when you consider the number of Liverpool regulars who represent their nation in international competition and especially so considering that Liverpool found their own season elongated by a couple of weeks thanks to an appearance in the Champions League Final.
The entire team looked a step off coming through a difficult September, but it was Salah who took up most of the room in the public eye. A victim, perhaps, of just how easy his football looked last season. More, because his effervescent personality looked a bit muted. Things just didn’t seem right.
It’s not a distinctly new thing in sports fandom to read deeply into the body language of athletes as they go about their job on the pitch or court or diamond. In fact, my hometown Los Angeles Dodgers spent the better part of the last few days wondering about the state of Manny Machado as he either loafed around the base paths or was conserving energy or was just being nonchalant in between rounds of taking it in the teeth from the FSG-owned Boston Red Sox. Questions of commitment - especially with free agency looming for the star shortstop - became the rage of hot takes across Dodger fandom.
Similarly, during the Red Star Belgrade match, I saw some Liverpool fans wondering about Salah openly. There were points to muted goal celebrations during that match and the old gears to anxiety began to open up. Is Salah happy? Is everything ok?
We all deal with difficult times in our lives differently. As an introvert personally choose to withdraw from the world. I need that space and time to reflect before moving forward. It usually helps to ensure that I’m not working from a place of frenzy, but one that is centered. Of course, it also serves to sometimes isolate and I’ve had to learn, with a lot of work, to let people into my world. To allow for the trust I’ve built in the relationships that matter to carry me throw the most difficult of moments. But my first instinct will always be to pull back.
And in the modern reality of footballers, especially those as popular and successful as Salah, that feels nearly impossible. That as much as fans like us wish to engage and be a part of their lives, they often have to take the most difficult moments of their own lives and live them out in front of the world. In a way that I know I would personally struggle with. A tradeoff that I would most certainly find to be a burden.
In the public profiles of Salah that have come since his big breakout at Liverpool, a thing that stands out is this rich streak of shyness that seems to run in him. That, yes, he takes great joy in performing and in representing his little town. But what has been often referred to as a bit of “aww shucks” in the way he works comes off to me as someone who still isn’t quite enamored with the trappings of celebrity.
And when all of those prickly parts of celebrity come knocking during one of the most trying times in your career? I can imagine things haven’t been great.
Salah smiled big and wide and celebrated a lot during Cardiff City. He had a goal and two assists and generally played in a way that made me half-expect he was gonna develop an aura of flames, NBA Jam-style. But I don’t think his celebrations were only rooted in finding the net. In fact, one of the enduring images from the match is how he flung his arms wide as Xherdan Shaqiri earned his first Premier League goal.
The thing I read in that moment was how a good performance can sometimes unburden someone, make them feel a little less alone, and help ease them back into a reconnecting with joy. That a person can, at once, be dealing with the complicated heaviness of life and need equally complicated forms of relief. And how that relief can also be as simple as finding a bit of success, knowing that the hard work is bears some kind of fruit. Sometimes, we need to become reacquainted to the ease and comfort of joy.