Beat­ing Brazil 7-1 Felt Strange!

Will Mats Hum­mels do it again?

Australian Four Four Two - - CONTENTS -

Five years ago, you’d have got long odds on the man pos­ing the big­gest threat to Lionel Messi and Cris­tiano Ron­aldo’s du­op­oly of the Bal­lon d’Or hail­ing from Egypt. Yet ever since Mo­hamed Salah burst onto the scene by scor­ing his first se­nior goal for El Mokawloon against the top team in Egypt – and in­deed Africa – Al Ahly, it was widely ac­cepted across the North African na­tion that this kid was some­thing spe­cial. Salah prob­a­bly re­alised it too, which was why he did what few young Egyp­tian play­ers would – spurn­ing the ad­vances of Cairo’s heavy­weight clubs, Al Ahly and Za­malek, and im­me­di­ately set­ting his sights on a move to Europe. In an in­ter­view given shortly after sign­ing for Swiss side Basel in 2012, Salah in­sisted he didn’t see it as an im­pos­si­ble task to fol­low in Messi and Ron­aldo’s foot­steps and one day fea­ture for Real Madrid or Barcelona. Nat­u­rally, Liver­pool fans will hope that’s one thing he’s got wrong. He might be the Egyp­tian king on Mersey­side, but back home Salah’s fast ap­proach­ing god-like sta­tus. Salah first tasted in­ter­na­tional foot­ball dur­ing 2011’s FIFA Un­der-20 World Cup where, de­spite his cur­rent sta­tus as Egypt’s star name, he was only one of the sup­port­ing cast. In a squad that also in­cluded fu­ture Premier League play­ers Ahmed Hegazi and Mo­hamed El­neny, it was Mo­hamed Ibrahim who ran the show for the young Pharaohs, scor­ing a hat-trick in the 4-0 win over Aus­tria that se­cured a place in the knock­out stages. Salah’s only goal was a penalty in their last 16 de­feat to Ar­gentina. Seven years later, as Salah was steer­ing Liver­pool to the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal and smash­ing Premier League scor­ing records, Ibrahim was strug­gling for game time at Za­malek. Salah has al­ways cited 105-times capped Egypt le­gend Mo­hamed Aboutrika as his role model. He got his first chance to play along­side his hero at the 2012 Olympics in London – but this time it was Salah who stole the show, scor­ing in all three group matches. His stand­out per­for­mance came in the opener against Brazil, when he tor­mented Real Madrid left-back Marcelo for the full 90 min­utes. Although Egypt lost that game 3-2 and were elim­i­nated by Ja­pan in the last 16, the one pos­i­tive taken was that this could be the man to lead Egypt back to the World Cup. Salah’s show­ings alerted clubs across Europe, but Basel had al­ready tied the speed­ster down to a four-year deal weeks be­fore the tour­na­ment be­gan. His break­through ar­rived at a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult time for Egyp­tian foot­ball, with do­mes­tic matches sus­pended fol­low­ing the Port Said riot in Fe­bru­ary of that year, which killed 74 peo­ple. With many play­ers only get­ting game time in friendlies, the na­tional team faced an up­hill strug­gle to reach the 2014 World Cup – a fi­nals that would be the last chance for Aboutrika and Egypt’s most-capped player, Ahmed Has­san, to shine on the big­gest stage. It was all go­ing to plan. Salah scored six times in Egypt’s qual­i­fy­ing group to set up a two-legged play-off against Ghana. Egypt trav­elled to Ku­masi for the opener, aim­ing to end their 24-year wait for a World Cup fi­nals ap­pear­ance. In­stead they were handed a 6-1 thrash­ing and even­tu­ally lost 7-3 on ag­gre­gate. The Pharoahs’ Golden Gen­er­a­tion – who’d won the Africa Cup of Na­tions in 2006, 2008 and 2010, would re­tire with­out ever play­ing at a World Cup. This was a par­tic­u­lar wrench for young Salah, who knew he wouldn’t get to play with his boy­hood idols again. And it was now clear that the star­let was car­ry­ing his coun­try. If Egypt were go­ing to reach Rus­sia in 2018, he’d be the one to drag them over the line. The last team they wanted to see in their qual­i­fi­ca­tion group, then, were Ghana, but a 2-0 vic­tory in Alexan­dria – in which Salah con­verted a penalty – helped to banish the ghosts of 2013. In fact, by the time of the re­turn fix­ture in Cape Coast – the sixth and fi­nal group match – Egypt had al­ready booked their World Cup berth (the play-off round since scrapped) and the Black Stars were out. The scorer of the goal that ce­mented Egypt’s place at the fi­nals – a 94th-minute penalty at home to Congo with the score locked at 1-1 – was, of course, Salah. The 25-year-old was the calmest man in the El Arab Sta­dium – some fans were in al­ready in tears as he placed the ball on the spot, but that was noth­ing com­pared to what fol­lowed. . As the ball hit the back of the net, there was a re­lease of emo­tion so great it could have been heard at An­field. . And it was all Salah’s do­ing. “There’s no doubt Salah is one of the most im­por­tant play­ers for us,” Egypt boss Hec­tor Cu­per tells FourFourTwo. “How­ever, I al­ways say that be­hind a great player there must be a good team. I’m not sure how good a team we are at the mo­ment, but we are try­ing to give him the best con­di­tions pos­si­ble in or­der to get the most out of him. It’s been work­ing well so far. We man­aged to get some good re­sults. Now we e need to repli­cate it when we face top-level op­po­nents.” When asked whether Salah has the tools to be­come the best player on the planet, , Cu­per re­sponds with guarded con­fi­dence. “He’s a spe­cial player and I think he’s al­ready among the best in

the world to­day,” he claims. “Can he be­come the best one day? Well, I pre­fer to say that what he’s been do­ing so far is amaz­ing and I think he de­serves a lot of credit for it.” Re­gard­less of whether Salah can be crowned the best in the world, there can be lit­tle doubt he’s al­ready sur­passed the achieve­ments of any­one from his home­land. “I never thought I’d see an Egyp­tian win the PFA Player of the Year award,” for­mer Tot­ten­ham front­man Mido, who once crit­i­cised his fel­low coun­try­man for lack­ing charisma, said of the Liver­pool marks­man’s suc­cess in 2017-18. It was an in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment, though per­haps not his great­est. Salah’s im­por­tance to Egypt on the pitch is now self-ev­i­dent. What is per­haps harder to quan­tify, but ar­guably more im­por­tant, is what he means to the Egyp­tian peo­ple. A hum­ble, re­li­gious man, Salah’s mantra is that in or­der to get, you have to give – and that’s ex­actly what he keeps do­ing. From help­ing to ren­o­vate schools and hos­pi­tals in his home­town of Na­grig, to pay­ing for a child’s bone mar­row trans­plant, Salah has built a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing will­ing to do what­ever he can to aid his fel­low Egyp­tians, with­out a mo­ment’s hes­i­ta­tion. Salah is also the face of Egypt’s largest anti-drug cam­paign. In April, a state­ment from so­cial sol­i­dar­ity min­is­ter Ghada Waly re­vealed that a helpline the 25-year-old had been pro­mot­ing en­joyed a 400 per cent in­crease in calls dur­ing the first week of Salah’s lat­est ef­fort to raise more aware­ness. Mo­hamed Abd El­bas­set, a res­i­dent doc­tor in a Beni Suef hos­pi­tal, made it clear Salah’s work was hav­ing a tan­gi­ble im­pact. “I will not speak about Mo­hamed Salah the player and how much he’s achieved [on the pitch],” he ex­plained, “but I will only say that I watched a young man ad­mit­ting him­self to the emer­gency room at four o’clock in the morn­ing, look­ing re­ally sick, ask­ing for help get­ting cured from his drug ad­dic­tion be­cause of the cam­paign and his love for Mo­hamed Salah.” In a coun­try, and in­deed a re­gion, that has suf­fered more than its fair share of trou­bles in re­cent times, Salah’s suc­cesses in the Premier League and Cham­pi­ons League is af­ford­ing fans some much-needed es­capism and be­lief. “He has man­aged some­thing that no politi­cian has ever done – he has man­aged to unite the Mid­dle East,” Egyp­tian-born Hatem Kadous of the Oil Field In­dex, a pod­cast for Ara­bian Liver­pool sup­port­ers, told The Sun­day Times in De­cem­ber. “Moroc­cans, Tu­nisians, Saudis, Oma­nis, Kuwaitis, Emi­ratis – ev­ery­one wants a Salah shirt. “In Egypt, he’s car­ry­ing the hopes of 90 mil­lion peo­ple. We’re hav­ing ter­ror­ist at­tacks every week, eco­nomic trou­ble – he’s the only thing keep­ing Egyp­tian peo­ple happy. Go to any cof­fee shop in Cairo when Liver­pool are play­ing. It’s amaz­ing.” He’s not wrong. Footage of Egyp­tians cel­e­brat­ing Salah’s Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal strikes against Roma as wildly as any­one at An­field un­der­lines the for­ward’s sta­tus back home. “For 90 min­utes he unites the na­tion and makes us for­get all of the crap we’re go­ing through,” added Kadous. “You don’t have to worry about revo­lu­tions, about Is­lamic Broth­er­hood, or Isis. He scores, we’re happy, we for­get. And that echoes round the Mid­dle East. “Messi doesn’t unite a na­tion or a re­gion, and Ron­aldo doesn’t unite a na­tion. They don’t have the same so­cial di­men­sion.” Bear­ing that in mind, it per­haps comes as no sur­prise to hear that a re­ported one mil­lion Egyp­tian peo­ple spoiled their bal­lot pa­pers at this year’s elec­tion by writ­ing the name of their foot­ball icon on them. “Salah’s given us so much that I thought vot­ing for him was the least I could do,” said one Cairo cit­i­zen, Ab­dal­lah Hani. Salah for pres­i­dent? Now that would be pop­u­lar.


Above Left

Clock­wise from above Mo rose to promi­nence at London 2012, giv­ing Brazil de­fender Marcelo a tor­rid time; and then lev­el­ling in a 1-1 draw against New Zealand; cel­e­brat­ing his opener in last year’s Africa Cup of Na­tions semi-fi­nal

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