For Egyptians, Mohamed Salah is not just a footballer – he’s a national treasure, an ambassador, and more importantly, a man who carries the hopes of an entire nation.

When Salah sustained a shoulder injury in Liverpool’s Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid last month and walked off the field in agony, Egypt football fans feared the worst, even taking to social media to chastise Sergio Ramos, the defender who clashed with their hero. But those fears was allayed by national team coach Hector Cuper ahead of the team’s opener against Uruguay.

“I can almost assure you 100 per cent that he will play, save unforeseen circumstances at the very last minute,” Cuper told a news conference ahead of the match. Cuper’s words brought relief to Egyptian football fans who have been desperate for Salah to recover in time.

Salah, who scored 34 Premier League goals, led Liverpool to the Champions League final and guided Egypt to its first World Cup in 28 years, will take it all his stride judging by his past success. But even for Salah, a man who so often plays with a smile on his face as if he were running around in the schoolyard, the feeling of responsibility is palpable.

Nowhere was that sense of responsibility more evident than in Alexandria last October. Tied at 1-1 with Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt was awarded a penalty deep into stoppage time at the end of the contest. Salah, who had already scored earlier in the contest, walked forward to collect the ball and placed it on the penalty spot. With an entire country’s hopes upon his shoulders, did he feel at all nervous?

‘100 million people’

“Yes, that was nervy,” he says with a smile during an interview with CNN in April. “When I got the ball for the penalty I was just focused on the ball, I didn’t think about anything else. I didn’t think about the 28 years of not qualifying, I didn’t think about 100 million people, or anyone else. I felt the responsibility. You have 100 million people in Egypt relying on you and you’re the guy who can make the difference. But that pressure makes me perform better.”

Salah stood up and fired the penalty past the goalkeeper, sparking wild scenes of celebration inside the stadium and across all of Egypt. In a football-mad country that had not made the World Cup since 1990, this was a moment that so many have dreamed of.

His exploits with Liverpool, which earned him two player of the year awards as well as the African Player of the Year title, have made him into a worldwide sensation. There’s even a tribute to him at the prestigious British Museum in London, where his boots are proudly displayed alongside some of Egypt’s most precious and famous artifacts.

It’s a measure of his global status that a recent picture of Salah walking beside Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov has become a major talking point at the World Cup. Kadyrov, leader of Chechnya since 2004, has stifled any form of dissent, subduing the separatist movement that fought the Russian army for nearly two decades.

“Mohamed wasn’t aware or involved in any plans to meet with Ramzan Kadyrov,”a source close Salah said. He was simply woken up and asked to go down to meet someone. This was not arranged with Mohamed or his representatives.”

‘They love football’

“Football is the first thing for everyone,” Salah said ahead of the country’s first World Cup appearance since 1990 and only its second ever. “They love football. They love sport, but for them, football is number one. You can see that when the Egyptian national team plays any game. The Middle East is the same, all of the countries. They love football in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, everywhere. For us football is something huge that we can’t stop talking about or watching.”

Salah holds genuine hope of progressing through a group that also includes host nation Russia and Saudi Arabia. If achieved, it will be the first time in the competition’s history that Egypt has managed to make the knockout phase.

“We will qualify,” he says confidently. “Of course, you have a difficult group, but we go with the confidence. I’m sure we will qualify. If you ask me, I’m sure I’m going to do my best to help the national team and help the country to go through.”

It’s a bold prediction – but surely he feels some sense of pressure? He just smiles. “I don’t feel pressure.”