How did Salah take the "next step"?
Ruthless, ferocious, vicious, prolific amongst many other vetted and approved superlatives, go a long way in describing the “Egyptian king’s” attitude in front of goal. As novel as it may sound, you just have to come to grips with the reality of it therefore. Mohamed Salah Hamed Mahrous Ghaly is the most prolific player ever in a single season, as far as the history of the English Premier League is concerned. The diminutive Egyptian’s record breaking 2017/18 season that saw him run down the wing, winging it and bagging 32 goals in 38 EPL fixtures ensured he surpassed the previous record of most goals scored in a single English top flight campaign by a single player. The record in question was once held by Alan Shearer, arguably the most famous Portuguese and Uruguayan on the planet, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez. Not a bad company to keep, or even more accurately, to leapfrog. But the soon to be 27-year-old wasn’t always a subject of discussion when it came to goal scoring, let alone be one of the most incredible human beings alive as recognised by the infamous Time Magazine. He is an Egyptian “miracle” whose story will echo in the corridors of history for an eternity, even as we relish it now.
Amongst the greatest comebacks in sports entertainment
In early April, 2019, Tiger Woods’ remarkable career sent chills down most people’s spine as he went on to win the 15th Masters title in the sport affectionately known as golf. This was after he had last won his major title in 2005. In that time period, Woods had gone through several highs and lows, on and off the pitch which included a divorce with his wife, admitted infidelity and even getting locked up for suspicion of driving under the influence in 2017. In light of all this and witnessing the 43 year-old rise like a phoenix from the ashes, the world could not help but come to a standstill; politicians, entertainers and sportspeople alike.
One notable reflection was by 23-time Grand Slam tennis champion, Serena Williams, who can relate in more ways than one. She tweeted:
“I am literally in tears watching Tiger Woods, this is Greatness like no other. Knowing all you have been through physically to come back and do what you just did? Wow. Congrats a million times! I am so inspired.”
Even the 45th President of the US, Barack Obama had words for Tiger. But of course, as enticing as it may be to explore Tiger Woods’ career, this piece is not about him. Looking at Mo Salah’s career under a more microscopic lense, we would learn that the North-African defied odds to reach the levels he now soars in. With a senior career that began in the Egyptian Premier League in the books of El Mokwaloon, transiting to EPL’s Chelsea via Swiss club Basel, a few loan spells in the Italian Serie A before returning to the Premier League in the colors of Liverpool, he has had to do it the hard way.
Chasing and beating the clock
When a footballer is bound to become one of the world’s best, it is usually easy to tell by the time they reach the age of 18. Most of them would have already made inroads into the dressing rooms of some of the biggest clubs in the world. The references are not too far off, the great Brazilian Pele won a FIFA World Cup title as a teenager and so did the highly rated Frenchman, Kylian Mbappe who just turned 20 but has been on everyone’s lips for as long as we can remember. The same applies for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo who started terrorising defences at the tender age of 18 in Manchester United colors and so did his foe, Lionel Messi. The Argentine magician was scouted by Barcelona when he was just 13 and made his debut for Barcelona at age 16. Salah does not fall into that category; he was definitely a late bloomer who had to chase the clock in the primitive years of his career. The potential was palpable, but the Liverpool forward was still playing in the Egyptian Premier League as late as the age of 20, quite a bit obscured from the rest of the world. At that time, his partners and age-mates in the infamous Liverpool trident forward, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were already at French Ligue 1’s Metz and Bundesliga’s Hoffenheim respectively. He first made contact with European football in 2012 after Swiss club, Basel FC, organised a friendly match with the Egyptian U-23 team for the purposes of getting a closer look at the young Mohamed. This was of course during the time when the Egyptian Premier League was suspended following the Port Said Stadium riot. In his two years with Basel, Mo Salah scored 9 goals in 47 appearances being deployed mainly as a winger and henceforth attracted interest from the London club, Chelsea, who won his signature for £11 million in January 2014. He was now 22, becoming the first Egyptian to represent the London Blues. It looked like he had finally made it, playing for a side that was strong enough to compete for the coveted English Premier League title.
However, the Chelsea episode became one that Mohamed Salah had to learn to forget quickly. He only managed a total of 13 appearances between 2014-16, being way down the Chelsea pecking order that was then headed by the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar. In fact, the diminutive Egyptian looked like a kid when compared to age-mates like Hazard. The then Chelsea boss who snubbed him, even remarked that he wasn’t ready to play at the highest level:
After it looked like stardom belonged to one of Egypt’s Pharaohs, at the prime football age of 24, the forward was let out of the Chelsea door and left licking his wounds. For the second time in his career, he had to chase the clock. Italy became his home and what happened next couldn’t have been in any script.
“Need for Speed Most Wanted”
If he was ever going to escape the less successful route of fellow Africans such as compatriot, Essam El Hadary, who had a brief stint in Europe before returning home to Africa, Salah needed speed, on and off the pitch. And speed is he what he got. He quickly became the most popular African in the whole of Italy as the European nation bowed down to the Egyptian King. He initially left Chelsea on loan to Fiorentina in the winter transfer window of 2015 where he went on to score 6 goals in 16 matches. The Italian Serie A club became keen on making the 18-month loan move permanent but the King had other plans, he was looking at a certain crown only he could see, and consequently marched on to Rome. It was at AS Roma where Salah established himself as a hot footballing prospect in the whole of Europe and eventually becoming a subject of transfer speculation. In his two seasons with the Italian giant, the winger bagged 14 goals in 34 matches before reaching a 15 goal feat in other 31 matches, in the 2016/17 season when he had made his Roma loan permanent. An AS Roma Player of the Season award in the 2015/16 campaign had warranted a permanent grab by the Italian club. It quickly became apparent that the Egyptian’s time in Europe was far from over. He won the 2016 Globe Soccer Best Arab Player of the Year to add to his boyhood accolades that included the 2012 CAF Most Promising Talent of the Year, 2012 UAFA Golden Boy and the 2013 SAFP Golden Player. It was at Roma where Salah kind of figured and started flourishing in what has become his best position. Under Luciano Spalleti, he established himself more as left-footed right winger, with a crispy first touch, slick dribbles and able to cut inside either to score or play-in his teammates. That period will forever go down in a history as a proper audition for the King’s global dominance and acquired ruthlessness in front of goal. Acquired because it was more than apparent that Salah didn’t have such a huge talent as Neymar Jnr or Messi. His first class work ethic and relentlessness were the ingredients that eventually took him to the very top.
Records come tumbling down in record times
Fatefully, Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool acquired the African in a then record fee for the club, £36.9 million and needed only one year to turn Chelsea’s prodigal son into football’s most priceless treasure. The simple instruction by the German gaffer, Jürgen Klopp, for Mo to occupy a more advanced central opposition from the right wing, ahead of Roberto Firmino and Senegalese Sadio Mane, opened a whole new world. In 365 days, Mo Salah silenced critics, gained new ones and won the favor of the entire world by running down a wing. Records set in summer, winter and all other seasons and times that have names, had no choice but to bow in the presence of the Egyptian King. His 32 goals ensured he eclipsed the record for most goals scored in single Premier League season, winning the 2017/18 Golden Boot in the process. He also became the fourth fastest player to reach 50 goals milestone in Premier League history, in only 72 games behind Andy Cole, Alan Shearer and Ruud Van Nistelrooy.
In fact, let’s just list down all his most important records lest they become obscured in these paragraphs:
Most goals in a 38-game Premier League season: 32 goals in 2017–18
Most goals by an African player in a Premier League season: 32 goals in 2017–18
Most Premier League Player of the Month awards in a single season: 3 (November 2017, February 2018 and March 2018)
First player to outscore three Premier League teams in a single Premier League season: West Brom (31), Swansea City (28) and Huddersfield Town (28) in 2017–18
Highest-scoring Egyptian in Premier League history: 50 goals in 72 games
Most goals by an African player in a UEFA Champions League season: 11 goals in 2017–18
Most goals in a debut season: 44 goals in 2017–18
Most goals in a season by a Liverpool player in the Premier League era: 44 goals in 2017–18
Most top-flight goals in a season by a Liverpool player: 32 goals in Premier League 2017–18 (shared with Ian Rush)
Most Liverpool Player of the Month awards in a season: 7 months in 2017–18
Fastest player to Score 50 Goals for Liverpool: 65 games in 2018–19
Fastest Liverpool player to Score 50 Premier League Goals: 69 games in 2018–19
Egypt's all-time highest scorer in FIFA World Cup history: 2 Goals in FIFA World Cup 2018 (shared with Abdulrahman Fawzi, 2 Goals in FIFA World Cup 1934)
Egypt's all-time highest scorer in CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualification: 14 goals
Egypt's third all-time top scorers: 39 goals (behind Hossam Hassan 69 goals, and Hassan El-Shazly 42 goals)
Highest-scoring Egyptian in Serie A history: 35 goals in 81 games
Made in Egypt, flourished in Merseyside
A befitting summary to coin Mo Salah’s career is one of an individual made in Egypt where he first tasted professional football but eventually flourished in the Liverpool part of Merseyside. One year, one club, one manager and one Red Liverpool inarguably handed him the biggest boost of his career so far. He entered the elite class of footballers on the backdrop of being sold by Chelsea. By the end of the 2017/18 season, he had earned a spot amongst the world’s best three best footballers as selected by FIFA, at the expense of five time Balon d’Or winner, Lionel Messi. The first time an African had been included in such a list since the days of Liberian President, George Weah. Mo Salah eventually finished 3rd behind Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo. He became a world favorite. The online community was outraged at Salah missing out on the FIFA Best Player of the Year Award as well as the FIFPro World XI to the extent that he was compensated with a FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal, which looked like he hardly deserved given the goals he contented with. The King earned new territories as England, especially Merseyside pledged allegiance. Songs such as “Mo Salah running down the winger” were composed in his adoration and he has never walked alone, since he wore the Liverpool Red.
“A better human being than he is a footballer”
Not least to his outstanding on-the-pitch achievements, Salah has been just as greater if not better off the field of play. The recent recognition by the Times Magazine as one of the 100 most influential human beings alive, even earning a place amongst the six cover stars of the magazine, crowns his exploits. He has been applauded for calling out the importance of raising the bar on women equality in his culture.
British Comedian and Liverpool fan, John Oliver who “absolutely” loves the footballer labelled him “a better human being than he is a footballer.” Even adding that “he’s one of the best football players in the world.”
The Times Magazine recognition comes after Mo Salah has grabbed many other headlines for humanitarian or advocacy work. In one infamous incident that occurred in Egypt, Salah reportedly helped a thief who had robbed his family’s home. He convinced his father to drop the charges, financially assisted the said thief and tried getting him a job. He has donated money to build a school and hospital as part of the regeneration projects in Nagrig, his hometown where 65% of the people live in poverty. It is reported that he has assisted more than 450 families to date by giving them monthly allowances and also chipped in to help the Egyptian government foot some bills in desperate times.
Still fresh to most memories, Salah went to “war” with the Egyptian FA for using his image as political capital and advocating for the dissolution of irregularities, some of which are believed to have indirectly contributed to their early 2018 FIFA World cup exit.
One of the most amusing incidents of all was when the close to 100 million North African nation went to the polls in 2018. A sizeable spoilt ballot papers which read “Mo Salah for President” were quite a joy to behold for all humorous souls. Even Vodafone Egypt once ran a promotion to add more caller minutes to their subscribers whenever the king scored.
Time won’t permit us to rediscover and celebrate graffiti of the Liverpool forward in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. All his remarkable achievements and influence becomes even more amplified in the knowledge that he is devout Muslim, almost to a level unprecedented in sports entertainment. He has slowly become a figure of inclusivity.
The King to welcome the rest of Africa
After being the main man in Egypt’s historic 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification, the first ever since 1990, by being the Pharaohs’ top scorer in the qualifiers, Salah returns for international duty in June 2019. He is expected to inspire the host nation to a record eighth Africa Cup of Nations title. After missing out on the 2015 and 2017 AFCON glory, the continent’s best player for the years 2017 & 2018 will be all out to capture a title that has deluded his illustrious career. There is no better motivation than to do it in his own backyard. With Liverpool in touching distance of the 2018/19 English Premier League and UEFA Champions League title, it could be yet another magnificent for the king. But rest assured, the African oppositions has never been intimidated by greatness, with them exuding such as well. The likes of teammate Sadio Mane, Wilfried Zaha, Ahmed Musa and Percy Tau will be worthy opponents on the road to glory.
In the opening 2019 AFCON finals match, Egypt will face the challenge of a tricky Zimbabwean Warriors before squaring off with DR Congo and Uganda.