By David Onjili
In an era littered with pure athletes and raw specimen samples, it is the artists of the football game that separate themselves from the rest. They’re the ones who dictate matches; every game is played at their inspiration once they have ball at their feet; they’re the ones who make their teams tick and, frankly, the ones the fans pay to watch.
Egyptian born Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah best fits the above description. He is a player who has and continues to enchant crowds at club and national levels. He has eclipsed goal-scoring records in the process, and continues to do so.
There is a simple brilliance in Salah, from his magical touches to the balletic pirouettes to his defence-destroying passes. His diminutive stature gives him a very low centre of gravity, allowing him to shield the ball away from opponents. His curling goals into the back of the net using opposing teams’ defenders as a screen reminds many of Arjen Robben’s gifted left foot.
The tiny kid from Nagrig village with a dream to play football
Born on June 15th 1992 in Nagrig Village of Basyoun City in Egypt, Salah honed his skills playing in the streets alongside his many friends and elder brother whom he admits was not very good at football. His footballing idols were Brazilian striker Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Francesco Totti. As fate would have it, years later, he would be teammates at Roma in Italy with Totti, a footballing god adored by not just his faithful i Giallorossi of Rome but the world as a whole, for his genius with the ball.
Life was not easy juggling between school and playing football, but Salah had set his sights on being a top footballer from an early age, and when Cairo-based Arab Contractors came calling when he was just fourteen years, he eagerly signed his first contract with them; this was to be one of his most trying times as a young boy. Leaving home 9 a.m. for school, where he spent two hours, with special permission granted, he would take the train to Cairo or connect buses so as to be with his club in time for training at 2p.m. The day would end with another long journey back home where he would arrive at around 10.30p.m., jaded, have supper and then sleep. For a young boy, this regimen, five days a week, in a routine that included taking four buses, travelling for four or five hours, was torture. But he did it.
Giving up was not an option either, especially that he had chosen the path of being a footballer and had sacrificed on schooling. Salah personally admits that his current life would have been tough had he not made it as a footballer because he sacrificed all other things (education) to become one. Despite all this, his talent was exceptional and all those around him knew he would not only make it as a footballer, but would be a superstar at it.
At the age of seventeen, he made his debut for Arab Contractors and two years later, he made his debut for the Egyptian national team in August 2011 against Sierra Leone and in September of the same year, he would open his goal scoring account for the national team against Niger.
From Egypt to Europe’s elite leagues
Unlike his former country man and cult footballing figure, Mohamed Aboutrika, who is regarded as the greatest African footballer never to play in Europe, Salah had always set his eyes on playing in Europe, despite the fact that he had grown in Egypt and could not speak any other language. He was open to this challenge to rise to the footballing heights that his idols had taken.
Salah’s breakthrough came at the London Olympics in 2012. The games gave him an international platform where the world took note. He scored a goal in each of the group games against Brazil, New Zealand and Belarus, enabling the Pharaoh’s advance to the quarterfinals where they were eliminated by Japan. As fate would have it, Salah’s two goals against New Zealand and Belarus came from passes from Mohamed Aboutrika: the gods had conspired for this moment. At club level, he had already signed for Swiss side, FC Basel and this performance in London endeared him to his new fans who knew that they had signed a proven goal scorer.
The move to Switzerland was a tough experience for Salah; he could not speak English or Swiss, or German. Despite all this, giving up was never an option. Young Salah chose to adapt and be flexible rather than sulk up to the fact he was away from home. Playing in the Champions League and the UEFA Europa Leagues was also a huge motivation. Here, he was able to showcase his brilliance against the best teams in the world.
His returns for FC Basel in the European competitions were lovely, playing a total of sixteen games in two seasons (2012/2013 and 2013/2014). He scored a total of four goals and provided three assists. This attracted the attention of many bigger European clubs, which occasioned his move to Chelsea. His stint at Chelsea was very uneventful with limited play time. Moving to Italy and Fiorentina and Roma respectively would, as it proved later, be a wiser career move.
Salah singles out Luciano Spalletti, his coach at Roma, for being one of the men who truly developed him both as a player on the pitch and as a man. Spalletti would help him develop his game as a forward; he advised him on the importance of tracking back to defend when off possession a characteristic his current manager, Jurgen Klopp would later speak off fondly. It is interesting how Salah omits mentioning Jose Mourinho who coached him at Chelsea. The silence explains the feelings the Egyptian has towards Mourinho who seemed not to favour or trust him much if at all.
Egypt from football wilderness to Russia 2018
Apart from Messi’s hat trick against Ecuador to secure Argentina’s place at the world cup, there was not a most memorable footballing moment like “Egyptian Messi”, Mohamed Salah’s 95th minute penalty at a packed 86,000 capacity Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria against Congo to seal a 2-1 win and earn a World Cup slot. With both teams tying at one goal apiece, he took the penalty that earned Egypt’s World Cup place.
Salah’s humility and level head was evident when former Zamalek FC president and billionaire, Mamdouh Abbay gifted him a luxurious villa for helping Egypt qualify for the World Cup in Russia. Salah politely declined the offer, instead asking the billionaire to make a donation to his village of Nagrig.
To crown his exploits, on January 5, Confederation of African Football (CAF) presented him with the trophy of Africa’s Player of the year (2017) at an awards gala in Ghana. On the night, he amassed 625 points to win and was followed by Sadio Mane (507 points) of Senegal and Gabonese forward; Pierre Emerrick Aubameyang (311 points) came in third. This was a fitting night for a player who has continued to light up the soccer stage with his brilliance.
As the entire world awaits the FIFA World Cup in Russia this year, Egypt and neutral soccer lovers from the African continent and world at large can pray that he stays injury free and, in his rich vein of form, lights up the tournament. Currently, for his club, Liverpool FC, he leads with 18 goals and 6 assists and is only second on goal scoring charts after Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur who has 20 goals. ^