The rise of Mohamed Salah from four-hour bus journeys to a career spent proving his critics wrong

The rise of Mohamed Salah from four-hour bus journeys to a career spent proving his critics wrong

A FOOTBALLER CAN ONLY JUSTIFY their transfer fee on the hallowed turf. The rationale behind their expenditure exceeds well beyond their remit, which in any case is a hollow argument. They can only answer the scathing criticisms of fans and journalists with their performances. That is easier said than done, though, with many signings failing to demonstrate their ability due to a mixture of incongruent tactics, pressure, and a lack of confidence. There are those who hit it off from the start, and then there’s Mohammed Salah, who’s taken the definition of a sublime debut campaign to new levels.

When Liverpool announced the transfer of Salah in June 2017, the €42m fee – that could rise to up to €50m – was not deemed exorbitant, but there were critics from some quarters who questioned the logic of the purchase, claiming he was not worth such a sum after his previous stint in England. While that claim should’ve been rubbished long ago, it had a modicum of truth.

Salah’s first tryst with the Premier League was short but not so sweet: he arrived in the winter window, never the ideal time to join a new club, and was hardly afforded a fair chance. It was a time when Chelsea bought right wingers, then moved them on to finance deals for another right winger. André Schürrle flattered to deceive and was moved on in the winter of 2014/15 to finance Juan Cuadrado’s arrival. That was the most-talked about moment of the window, but Salah himself slipped through the back door, finding himself in Fiorentina.

It was José Mourinho’s title-winning season, and many cast aside those dealings; they were merely cosmetic, and while the lack of continuity may have been viewed as worrisome, the presence of silverware dispelled that in the short-term. Salah has not been the first, nor the last, talent that Chelsea, and Mourinho, have failed to develop. The more popular example remains Manchester City’s sublime orchestrator Kevin De Bruyne, but Salah is fast finding himself in the same company.

It was not his fault that he failed at Chelsea, but it was still a stick to beat him with as he arrived on Merseyside. Liverpool fans were encouraged by highlights of his performances at Roma. He was excelling in Rome, but Serie A is still not widely watched by the English population, and so he remained an unknown quantity of sorts.

The critics came out of their bunkers: “another Juan Cuadrado” was one phrase used to describe Salah, one that has been the butt of all jokes in light of what has transpired. Liverpool were not Chelsea, though, and Anfield is clearly more suited to Salah, who hails from a country of such passion and vigour. But even the most ardent Kopite couldn’t have expected Salah to set alight the Premier League the way he has done.

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This season just rewards for a man who has been determined to make it to the top level, one with a never-say-die attitude. Many prodigies have fallen by the wayside after failing at Chelsea, but Salah has emphatically bounced back.

Born in Basyoun on 15 June 1992, Salah fell in love with football when he was seven, honing his skills with his brother as well as his friends. It was at 14 that he first signed with Arab Contractors, also known as El Mokawloon. But with reward came the need for sacrifice and hard work.

Salah was first playing for a club 30 minutes away from his village; that soon became 90 minutes, and eventually a whopping four-and-a-half-hour journey, five days a week, just to get to training. He would spend just two hours at school, reaching training by 2pm. He had an official letter allowing him to do so. In essence, he had to sacrifice his education, but it was the cold-blooded drive to make it as a footballer that kept him going.

His daily routine consisted of school, walk, train, travel, eat, sleep, repeat. Considering the distance, it is no surprise that Salah had to switch between several buses just to get to training and back. But he had a dream and he had the belief. That provided him with the inspiration to get through the difficult times as a 14-year-old. It was only after his first-team debut that the belief started to materialise into something tangible.

One anecdote, as reported by Bleacher Report, from head coach Said El-Shishini reveals Salah’s Gareth Bale-esque transformation from a curtailed left-back to a marauding right winger. In the under-16 Cairo League, Salah once had five one-on-one chances from left-back, but wasted them all due to the energy expended from charging down the flank. His coach gave a crying Salah 25 Egyptian pounds, pushed him forward, and told him he would become the top goalscorer in both the under-16 local league as well as the under-17 Nationwide League. Thirty-five goals later, his coach’s belief was vindicated.

Salah has risen from humble roots, a testament to his character and personality. He has remained grounded, even after becoming a world star and a national icon in Egypt’s. After scoring the goal that sealed World Cup qualification, Salah turned down the offer of a luxury villa from a businessman, instead choosing to convert that into a sizeable donation for his village. He continues to return to Egypt when he is able to, the sign of a man who appreciates his good fortune. In that sense, he is a role model in more ways than one.

He made his first-team debut in the 2009/10 season, becoming a regular during the following campaign. He was fast becoming the star of the side but, after the Port Said Stadium disaster in 2012, the Egyptian Football Federation cancelled the remainder of the season. That was then when Basel organised a friendly with the Egypt Under-23 team, and despite Salah playing just the second half, he scored a brace in a 4-3 win. That prompted the Swiss side to invite Salah for a week’s worth of training, which was enough to convince them to make it a permanent four-year contract.

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Basel was the perfect place to make the step-up: Switzerland was not as competitive as the bigger European leagues, but Basel still featured in the Champions League with regularity, affording a young Salah exposure to a higher quality of football. It was at St Jakob-Park that he truly impressed, helping Basel defeat Tottenham in the 2012/13 Europa League quarter-finals, with his goal taking the tie to penalties.

He then faced Chelsea, a calibre of opposition that was by far the best he’d even seen. The first leg saw Ashley Cole restrict Salah, largely due to the gulf in experience and Salah’s own lack of confidence. But he managed to regain belief in the second leg at Stamford Bridge, nutmegging Cole once while bagging a goal on the big stage. While Basel lost, it was an education in itself, especially for Salah.

Fate would decree that Basel be drawn with Chelsea in the Champions League the following season. That came after Salah’s decisive brace in the playoffs against Ludogorets, which gave them the advantage going into the second leg.

In a group also containing Schalke and Steaua Bucharest, many expected Basel to find it tough against the English giants. Salah, however, managed to showcase his talents on the big stage with a 40-metre spring to receive Fabian Schär’s long ball and then slot it in for the winner. Basel found themselves the victors in both Chelsea ties, but lost both Schalke ties as well as drawing both Steaua games, a strange paradox in itself.

Their failure to go forward contributed towards Salah’s desire to leave in the winter window, and while Liverpool were in pursuit of the winger, Chelsea swooped in and got their man. Twenty goals and 17 assists in 79 appearances was a strong, promising return from the Egyptian.

Chelsea, however, didn’t know how to use their new man. They knew what he was capable of – after his displays against them – but were Chelsea willing to go the long mile and develop Salah into a world-class winger? They weren’t. Salah did well in the remainder of 2013/14 season, with his opening of the scoring in a 6-0 derby win over Arsenal a highlight. But he was not ready for the pressure, especially from back home. Egyptians tend to have a large social media presence and it showed. 

However, 2014/15 saw that progress stunted by Mourinho’s reluctance to use Salah, contributing to the winger’s jitteriness and willingness to try too much in order to curry favour with his manager. That extra effort was counter-productive, and even as Salah continued to hone his game, Chelsea was not the best place for game time. Cuadrado and Salah swapped places, as the Egyptian took his game to Fiorentina.

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He hit the ground running in Florence, seemingly with the desire to make amends for lost time, even though time wasn’t really lost. He was magical, a real beacon of hope, and an upgrade on Cuadrado. In essence, Salah has goals to his game and is more decisive than the Colombian will ever be. It is churlish to compare the two.

His brace against Juventus in the first leg of the Coppa Italia that season took the media’s hysteria to new levels. Indeed, Gazzetta dello Sport had him on the front page with the headline, “Sim Salah Bis”. That was a nod to the 1960s American cartoon Jonny Quest, whose character Hadji’s catchphrase was that. It meant something similar to abracadabra – magic. It described Salah’s impact perfectly.

The fans loved him, but he had other plans. He never planned to return, but Fiorentina believed Salah’s future was legally with them. Amidst a flurry of contractual issues and complaints, the Egyptian was deemed to be free to choose his next destination, and duly found himself at Roma. It was not the smoothest of arrivals, but Fiorentina’s desperation to retain the winger was well justified, and Roma were naturally ecstatic.

It was a downer to La Viola’s fans, who serenaded him at home games with choruses of ‘Siam venuti fin qua per veder segnare Salah’ (we came here to see Salah score). He took selfies with fans, professed his love for them, along with productivity that read nine goals in 26 appearances. But Salah wanted a better shot at the Scudetto, so he packed up and moved to Rome.

His immediate return to the Stadio Artemio Franchi was not as warm. He was jeered as he stepped up on to the pitch, but Salah answered the only way he knew: ending Fiorentina’s unbeaten run with a beautiful goal. It was written in the stars, and Salah celebrated the way he usually does, raising his hands to the sky with a prayer. 

He was always a goalscorer, but his two seasons at Roma took that to another level, with 15 from 42 appearances in 2015/16 followed up by 19 in 41 the following season. He was their Player of the Season, vindicating Roma’s masterstroke of a deal to get him in. There was no Scudetto, but Salah’s game was taken to a whole new level. He took up the responsibility of driving the team forward. His game also improved tactically, a common consequence of playing in Serie A. With such progress saw clubs circle around him, and it was Liverpool that gave him his second shot at the Premier League.

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This season has been a blur for him – he’s taking the top tier by storm like few others have done. The myth that Salah was a speed merchant, another lazy comparison to Cuadrado, was dispelled quickly. People desperate for him to fail were themselves ignorant of Salah’s progress at Roma. The pre-season provided evidence to the same, his goal against Hertha confirmation of that.

That has been just one of a diverse portfolio of goals scored this season. He’s scored tap-ins, long-distance screamers, made runs in between the defenders and curled balls in from absurd angles. He’s shown it all, and it’s only January. He is an explosive winger and a poacher with a striker’s instinct rolled into one.

Liverpool’s system is similar to Luciano Spalletti’s Roma, and given Salah’s prior experience of England and knowledge of English, the base was there for a smooth adaption. He is now more experienced and has greater strength and balance, both reasons for his success. As a result, he’s become the joint-second-fastest player to reach 20 goals for Liverpool, only behind George Allan’s 19 games in 1895. It is a stunning achievement for a player in his debut campaign.

This season has been a roller-coaster for other reasons too. He has assumed responsibility not only on the domestic front but for Egypt too. Almost everyone has seen the frenzied celebrations after Salah stepped up to score a 95th-minute penalty that clinched a 2-1 win over Congo and qualification for the World Cup. He became a nationwide hero, and rightfully so: he scored five and assisted two of the eight goals scored by Egypt. He took a country that has been dominant continentally to the biggest stage there is.

The world is his oyster, and if Salah can continue his red-hot form, records will continue to tumble this season. In 2017, he was both the BBC and CAF African Football of the Year, as well as Arab Player of the Year. 

The shoulders of the nation will be carried by Salah in the coming summer. Expectations will be sky-high, as highlighted by their odds for the 2018 World Cup, with many dubbing Egypt dark horses to qualify from their group. It has become Salah’s Pharaohs, rather than just Egypt, an achievement in itself. He’s united many a partisan fan in his country, and they will all stand with him as the national anthem rings out in Russia. In a country with such passion as Egypt, Salah is the binding glue.

The ‘Egyptian Messi’ is a moniker that has never rung truer, but he is just Mohamed Salah, an inspiration for children all over. He’s a terrific footballer and humble individual, making it to the top through sacrifice and hard work. In some ways, he is the perfect story. From four-hour bus rides to global awards, all hail the Pharoah of Egypt, ready to be anointed as one of the best in the world. 

By Rahul Warrier  

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