Egyptian fans turned out for the Pharaohs' second Group A game in the hopes not just of seeing them clinch a berth in the round of 16 but also of seeing a goal from their biggest hero. Mo Salah didn’t disappoint.
Nothing could dampen the mood of the 73,000 fans who filed into the Cairo International Stadium on Wednesday evening. Neither the scorching 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) heat, nor the fact that they'd been instructed to arrive hours before kickoff and gone through no less than four security checks. Not even the controversy surrounding midfielder Amr Warda, who was sent home after Egypt's opening match due to allegations of online sexual harassment, could dampen the atmosphere.
Casting a gaze across the stadium you could see fans taking selfies, making videos, or enjoying face time with friends who weren't among the privileged few in this 19-million-strong metropolis, who had a ticket to Egypt's second group-stage match.
Only the privileged 73,000 would have the opportunity to openly display their deep love for the "Pharaohs" – and offer their support to Liverpool star striker Mohamed Salah.
"His performance in the first game was bad," said Reham. "He was a bit selfish. He set out to do a lot, but achieved almost nothing," added the young woman, who was in a forgiving mood, despite her criticism.
"Everything Salah does is for his country. He loves Egypt, and Egypt loves him. That is why he will always be the No. 1 in our hearts,” she concluded.
"Salah is a diesel. It wasn't his game against Zimbabwe, but today he's going to score," promised Adam, a 40-year-old man who brought his daughters to the match.
By the time the earlier match between Uganda and Zimbabwe kicked off, the stadium was almost half full. Both Emmanuel Okwi's goal in the 12 minute, which put Uganda up 1-0, and Khama Billiat's equalizer just before the break were both cheered loudly.
A passion so strong you can reach out and touch it
But the real enthusiasm came when the Pharaohs took to the pitch for the warm-up – with Salah in particular being greeted like a rock star. It begged the question: Who was the last player to be so revered, so loved in his native land? Maradona? Cristiano Ronaldo or Zinedine Zidane also come to mind. They were the faces of of their nations. But their relationships with their fellow countymen weren't as electrifying. The passion for Salah is so strong; you can almost reach out and touch it.
When Mo wrapped up the warm-up by knocking the ball into the net, the entire crowd sensed that Adam's hunch about Salah opening his account at this AFCON was on the money.
It took until the 43rd minute for this collective premonition to come true: Salah got on the end of a long through ball out on the right, dropped a couple of shoulders on Wolfsburg central defender Marcel Tisserand and finished tidily past DR Congo goalkeeper Ley Matampi. That made it 2-0 for the Pharaohs – and punched their ticket for the Round of 16.
On a still warm, but pleasant evening as the fans filed out of Cario International Stadium, the talk among many of the fans was all about Salah and how happy they were to see him finally arrive at this AFCON. With him and Mahmoud "Trezeguet” Hassan in their in the squad, there is reason for the Egyptians to hope for a few more nights like this in Cairo International Stadium this summer.