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Mohammed Elneny: Football, Fame and Family

On the eve of their big match against Liverpool, FC Basel's Mohamed Elneny opens up about his life, both home and away...

Originally published on Translated by CairoScene.

Following a shaky start after his move from El Moqawloon El Arab in 2013, Mohammed ElNeny is beginning to blossom into one of Switzerland's FC Basel's shining stars with some stellar performances in both the league and UEFA Champions League. With former compatriot and team mate Mohammed Saleh now at Chelsea, he's taking the pressure of a nation rooting him on to succeed in his stride. Ahead of Basel's biggest match in their history to date against Liverpool away that sealed their passage into the qualifying rounds following a 1-1 win, Philip Vlahos sat down with the midfielder to discuss life in Basel, avoiding fame, and finding his feet....

Words by Philip Vlahos

Photos by Stefan Bohrer

Mohamed Elneny, you were in the first selection of the nominees for Footballer of the Year in Africa. How disappointed were you not to have been amongst the last five?

I was indeed a little bit mad. However, I'm still very young so it is an honour to be nominated in the first place. And maybe I will win next year if I continue to perform well.

The nomination alone is already an award for a strong year you played at FC Basel...

Of course, I was very happy about that indeed. I've played so well in Basel, like never before.

How would you describe yourself as a footballer?

Self-assessment is very hard. I played way more at club level and gained more experience accordingly. Before that, thing's weren't going as well but I got to work on myself and got better the longer I tried.

And that resulted in you being on the field if there is an important game to be played. That was the case with Murat Yakin, and with Paulo Sousa; you earned the same trust.

And I return that trust to the coach.

It seems you assumed a secret leadership role in Basel's midfield or do you view that differently?

I never thought about that even though they say similar things about me in Egypt. Do you know why?

Because we see a strong Mohamed Elneny; someone who runs a lot, plays team friendly and prudently. But unlike Salah the Basel fans did not love you right away. Do you realise that you are being appreciated a lot more now?

Yes, of course. I also got better after Mohamed Salah left. But he isn't the reason for that. On the other hand, he was like a barrier between me and the other players. If I wanted to tell the club something, for instance, I told Salah first and he would pass it on. Now that I speak to the people in the club directly they know me better and that I'm a good guy. They are now more focused on me as well. They see what I do on the field, and thankfully I play well.

Are you aware Egypt is following your performance at FCB?

I see that on Twitter, for example. But I don't want to think about that. Sometimes they say bad things, too. When they say "Mohamed Elneny is the best in the world" that's nice, of course but I prefer concentrating on my actual life.

In this actual life Mohamed Salah is a big celebrity in Egypt. How big is your popularity?

I'm happy they know me as a footballer but I don't really like fame. It's not like I have anything against it but I don't feel like a big shot, unlike many others. Deep inside me I feel like people don't know who I really am.

Do you still talk to Mohamed Salah? How is he?

Of course. Things are tough for him at Chelsea because he's on the bench a lot.

Can he tell you why that is happening?

No. We are friends and don't talk about work. That's two different things.

Did you become friends during your time at FC Basel?

We had been friends for four years prior. He is like a brother to me.

What does it mean to you that the next Egyptian, Ahmed Hamoudi, has arrived in Basel?

Of course I was very happy. But not necessarily for myself. The fact the third Egyptian is playing in Basel is a good sign for football in our country. It shows that Egyptian players can develop very well in European clubs.

What kind of things could you tell Ahmed Hamoudi about Basel that you were amazed about when you were still new yourself?

A big difference is the climate! Here we have five months of warm weather and seven months of cold weather. That is not a problem for me, though, because I prefer to play when it's not that warm. Additionally, we don't eat everything they serve here. That's why it was important to tell Ahmed where he can find halal meat in Basel. And because he doesn't know Basel very well I go out with him and show him around. Otherwise he would just be staying in at his apartment.

In your home country major changes in society are happening, a general is in power, ex-President Mubarak was recently acquitted in a trial and a few days ago and 188 people were sentenced to death over an attack on a police station. How do you see current politics in your country?

I don't talk about politics.

Why not? What are you scared of?

I don't fear anything. I principally don't talk about politics much, whether it's in the media or in my private life. When you talk about politics in Egypt you tend to get carried away and drift off point and it always ends in trouble. I talk about everything but even with my father I don't talk about politics. I prefer talking about football. I don't even know exactly what's happening in Egypt because I don't keep up with the news and only watch movies on Egyptian TV. My life is in Switzerland now.

Can you tell us about growing up in Egypt?

I grew up in Mahalla, about an hour away from Cairo. My mother passed away six years ago. I have a brother and two sisters. My father is a football coach for Baladeya Club in Mahalla and it was him who trained with me exclusively.

Has your father seen you play at FC Basel already?

He witnessed the home victory against Liverpool on his first trip to Switzerland. And he was very happy.

How is your life different now from the life you lived with your parents?

Now I am married, I have a son and with that comes great responsibility. That's a big difference to living alone. I am responsible for a household and for my family in the sense that I want to make them happy. In Egypt I didn't have these tasks. My life has therefore completely changed. Thank God I play football in Europe, even in the Champions League, and that's why I'm much happier here in Basel.

On the national team, for which you have played 40 games already, you recently experience a big backlash as Egypt failed the qualification for the African Cup again and Bob Bradley was fired. What happened there?

In every team in the world you need a mixture of good and experienced players and some of our experienced ones have retired lately. There have been a lot of new players and then that's the way it is in Egypt: you can play lots of good games and if you lose once people start questioning the coach.

Your role in the national team is different from the one in Basel.

I play more defensively there.

The last game in the year is the showdown in the Champions League. Is there anything better for a football player than playing against a team such as Liverpool in a historical venue such as Anfield Road in an important match?

I used to watch Liverpool games on TV. Playing against them myself is a dream.