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VOLGOGRAD, Russia – Egypt's disappointing World Cup run plunged a nation already fatigued by economic hardship and political woes deeper into misery.
The one man who appears to be easing the country's frustration and heartache is Mohamed Salah, who seems to be getting unconditional love from back home.
For months, Salah has been at the heart of Egyptian hopes — and not just because of the striker's energy and efforts on a soccer field. Egyptians often talk about his charity work, his professionalism and his seemingly constant optimism and cheeriness and point to him as a rare bright spot in their country. So there was a wave of support for him in his dispute with the Egyptian soccer federation.
The hashtag "I am with Salah" topped Twitter on Monday in Egypt. Some posted photos of him smiling brightly with his Liverpool teammates while looking grim and stony-faced with the national team in memes that decried "the Egypt Effect."
Salah was the Premier League's player of the season and top scorer with 44 goals, with Egyptians and the government hoping that he could replicate that success at the World Cup. But Salah came into the tournament in Russia after being injured in the Champions League final.
With the high expectations before the World Cup, the outrage was even greater after Egypt lost all three of its group matches and were eliminated.
Much of the anger was directed at the government and the country's soccer federation over what is widely perceived to be their abuse of Salah's global stardom. Salah said this week he was considering retiring from Egypt's national team, and rather than accuse him of a lack of patriotism, many Egyptians instead urged him to do it, showing the depth of their despair over their country's government.
This week, Salah said he was considering retiring form international soccer because he believed he was being used for political reasons while the Egypt squad was based in Chechnya.
The federation's choice of Chechnya raised many eyebrows because it meant huge distances to travel to matches and because of the poor human rights record of its leader, former rebel Ramzan Kadyrov.
Salah was said to have been particularly annoyed with a dinner banquet hosted by Kadyrov for the team Friday, when he granted the 26-year-old Egyptian "honorary citizenship."
Salah has yet to publicly say anything about the team's stay in Grozny, the Chechen capital, but he looked visibly upset during the team's training in Volgograd on Sunday and didn't celebrate his goal against Saudi Arabia in the final group match Monday. In a post-match interview, he somberly apologized to the fans who traveled to Russia to support the team.
The Pharoahs' poor showing in Russia hit the public even harder, coming at time that constant price increases are being introduced as part of an austerity program to overhaul the economy.
The depth of the World Cup disappointment was to be expected from a society in crisis that has been searching in vain for a glimmer of hope, political analyst Abdullah el-Sennawy said.
"It is unusual for a sports-related disappointment to expand into all other fields at once," he wrote this week in the independent Al-Shorouk newspaper, "unless it's a society without hope."
Associated Press writer Samy Magdy contributed to this report from Cairo.
More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup