Few players in modern times have caused such a storm in English football as the Egyptian Mohamed Salah. He is already a living legend in Liverpool and draws admiration and praise even from his opponents. Some have called him the greatest footballer on the planet. Clayton Goodwin pays his own homage to the Egyptian King who has confirmed he will be attending the World Cup in Russia despite sustaining an injury in the Champions League final.
What do you do when you have run out of superlatives? It’s easy really. Just write the name Mo Salah. He has collected them all from his on-pitch artistry, his achievements, his personality and his status as a living legend.
His club records for this season alone have been exceptional. Now, within a short time – and on his 26th birthday – this outstanding football forward is due to perform centre stage at the World Cup, football’s most prestigious international championship, in Egypt’s opening match against Uruguay. (He will also shortly play for Liverpool in the Champions League final against Real Madrid, a club game of the greatest stature, taking place after New African has gone to press.)
Mohamed Salah Ghaly has come a long way quickly since he first saw the light of day at Nagrig in Egypt on 15 June 1992.
Salah is already a national icon in his native land, where his mere presence in a televised Liverpool game brings thousands of viewers to the coffee shops and shisha bars. The social media is awash with his pictures. It is said that no Egyptian has done what Salah has done.
His status as a symbol of hope and inspiration for a people living through difficult times and in a troubled economy resembles what boxer Muhammad Ali achieved for oppressed African-Americans in the 1960s, sprinter Usain Bolt did for the contemporary Caribbean, and cricketer Donald Bradman did for Australians of the Depression in the 1930s. Yet his influence extends beyond sport in that he brings pride to all Arabs and to Muslims generally. “I can really identify with him” is a statement often heard.
As to his qualities as a footballer – where do you start to describe them? Obviously the record number of times he has found the net, and his ability to create scoring opportunities for his colleagues, must feature highly.
He has achieved his goals and assists with his mastery of speed and mobility, tactical sense, dribbling and ball control. All are bound together by his exceptional flair.
Although he plays primarily on the right flank, Salah has the ability to be wherever there are chances to score and where he can create those chances. Even from early acquaintance with him, Didier Drogba said: “We all knew he had it in him … everywhere he has played he has carried himself well and always been great.”
Liverpool club record signing
“Everywhere he has played” started with El Mokawloon in local competition. During the two-year cessation of Egyptian domestic competition following the Port Said Stadium disaster of 1 February 2012, which claimed 74 lives and left over 500 injured, Salah was snapped up by Basel in the Swiss Super League, where he remained until 2014.
From there he joined Chelsea for some £11m, but after criticism from manager José Mourinho and time spent on the substitutes’ bench, his career seemed to have stalled. Salah’s prospects revived in the years in which he was loaned to Fiorentina (2015) and Roma (2016-17) in Italy, where he rebuilt his career. Then came his move to Liverpool for a club record £39m in early 2018.
By that time Salah’s reputation in playing for his country was secure. After experience with Egypt’s U-20 and U-23 sides, he made his debut with the senior team in the away defeat to Sierra Leone on 3 September 2011. The next month, he scored his first goal for his country against Niger and in June 2013, hit a hat-trick in the 4-2 away victory over Zimbabwe. Mohamed was in the team which reached the final of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon.
Nevertheless, his outstanding achievement came in the preliminary rounds of this summer’s World Cup competition. He scored both goals in the victory over Congo, including a decisive last-minute penalty, which qualified Egypt for the trophy’s final stages for the first time since 1990.
His success with Liverpool this year defies adequate description. This could be the most soccer-mad city in a soccer-mad world. Legendary manager Bill Shankly once famously said: “Some people believe that football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that!”
He scored against Watford on his Liverpool debut and then put four goals past the same opposition in the 5-0 victory later in the season. The latter performance brought his tally to 36 goals in all competitions, the club record for a debut year. By the end of the Premier League season, he had won the Golden Boot award for most goals, in a new record (32) for the competition.And his two goals against Roma, his former employers, in a scintillating performance which will be talked about for generations to come, put Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final for the first time in 11 years. Between them Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané scored 30 of the 40 goals in Liverpool’s European journey.
Yet his personality and example have been equally significant. As a port open to the world, Liverpool is a diverse city with a host of home-grown heroes – not only the Beatles – and a long-standing racially mixed population (think of former world light-heavyweight boxing champion, John Conteh).
Liverpool is described as being a ‘city of outsiders’. Its Muslim community is one of the oldest in England and its mosque was the country’s first. At a time of enhanced Islamophobia and frequent gratuitous violence against Muslims, Mo Salah is mobbed with salutation wherever he goes. Like athlete Mo Farah and cricketer Moeen Ali, he is adored because of, not in spite of, his overt devotion to his religion. For all citizens, whatever their faith, he is seen to be setting a ‘good example’, and as someone who can break down barriers.
Salah’s appearances for Liverpool have coincided with the club’s best performance over decades, bringing almost unbounded joy and pride to the city, which has had more than its fair share of economic and social problems. Fans have been unstinting in pouring out their love and gratitude for their new talisman.
Consider this song that reverberates wherever Liverpool plays: Mo Salah la, la, la; if he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me; if he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too; sitting in the mosque, that’s where I want to be.
Salah’s honours are too numerous to be itemised in this report. He has now won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year awards in the same year, and is only the second African, after midfielder Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City in 2016, to win the former. A year ago he was African Footballer of the Year, and …. the list goes on for as long as you would like, from being UAFA Golden Boy and also, the CAF Most Promising Talent of the Year in 2012. Do you remember what I wrote about the superfluity of superlatives?
Is Mohamed Salah the greatest footballer in the world? Ah, but there, as Shakespeare would have said, “lies the rub”. Some would say that greatness has to be proved over a prolonged length of time, as done by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Others would counter that greatness lies in the quality of the moment rather than in the extent of the period over which it has been achieved. Steven Gerrard, the former Liverpool captain, now a media pundit, didn’t hesitate to name Salah recently as “without doubt the best player on the planet right now”.
As for myself? I am content to observe that for a player who attracts such regal epithets as “the new Ramses”, and “Pharaoh”, genius creates its own majesty.