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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.
“FOR 90 MI nUTES HE U nITES THE nATIOn A nD MAKES US FORGET ALL THE CRAP WE’RE GOInG THROUGH – SALAH SCORES A nD WE’RE HAPPY”
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