With the emergence of soccer star Mohamed “Mo” Salah as Egypt’s most famous export, the Egyptian government is wondering whether there might be a few more "Mo"s in the country waiting to be discovered. One of the government's first actions of 2020 was the Jan. 1 approval of a cooperation protocol between the Ministry of Youth and Sports and Starlab, a Netherlands-based sports development institute to implement a project aptly called “Stars of Egypt.”
“The project aims to discover football talents at home with the expertise of specialists from England and the Netherlands,” Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Sobhy said at the signing ceremony. The program calls for the establishment of 16 independent football academies to identify talented children between the ages of six and 16 and to train and nurture them.
“This would … supply the national teams with players to achieve victories in international and global football competitions,” Sobhy said.
Soccer players enjoy great popularity in Egypt, not only due to their skills on the soccer pitch, but also because of their lifestyles, including their distinctive sartorial choices, and contributions to social projects. In addition to Salah — star forward with Liverpool FC in the English Premier League — other household soccer names in Egypt include Mohamed Aboutrika, the former Al-Ahly player knows as “The Magician”, Ahmed Hassan, who currently plays for the Portuguese team S.C. Braga, and Taher Abouzeid, who later served as sports minister.
Amro Mehanna, Starlab's representative and regional manager in Egypt and the Middle East, told Al-Monitor that the project will offer many young Egyptians new opportunities in the near future.
“The project will search for football talents among 2.5 million young men over a period of five years,” Mehanna told Al-Monitor. “We will screen 500,000 applications every year. Each year, some 500 people will be selected for training throughout the country. The goal is to have 120 fully skilled soccer players by the end of five years who can either go abroad like Mo Salah or play in the national league.”
Maher Abdel Halim, head of the sports training department at the Faculty of Sports Education at Mansoura University, said that in the search to identify new talents, Starlab would be taking on a job often assumed by high school physical education teachers in other countries. He noted that Egypt has not been very successful in discovering talented youths in sports, especially in soccer.
Abdel Halim remarked, “In Starlab, they will look at a number of factors — from physical fitness to psychology — to find and train talents. They will determine the most appropriate sport in which he might excel.”
Khaled Hashem, director of the African Stars Academy and Club, a small private outfit in Cairo, praised the government for the project, which he said will encourage boys with talent and drive to make a career in sports.
“More boys who want to play soccer apply to our academy every year, ever since we opened four years ago,” Hashem told Al-Monitor, suggesting that parents are increasingly open to allowing their children to be trained in sports. “The number of applications is around a thousand, from ages four to 19.”
African Stars accepts players of both sexes — soccer has become more increasingly popular among girls in recent years — unsurprisingly it is mainly the boys who hope to become the next Mo Salah. “Families hope their children will have a future in soccer and make a living from it,” Hashem said.
Mo Salah, who grew up poor in the village of Nagrig, in Gharbia governorate, has inspired millions of Egyptian youths with his rags-to-riches story. In an interview in 2017 with Sportbible, Salah said that he began his days as a youth by heading for training at 9:00 a.m., taking at least five buses to get to his destination. He would return home around 10:30 p.m. He quit school when he realized the impossibility of juggling training and schoolwork.
Mohamed Said, whose nine-year-old son attends African Stars, told Al-Monitor. “My son has been going to football training since the age of seven, when he started hearing the name of Mo Salah and began following news about him. He is my son’s greatest inspiration.”
Said believes his son is exceptionally talented and therefore invests in developing his talent. “I take soccer very seriously, and I am very interested in getting my son trained,” Said said. “He might become a famous player and achieve true success.”