Mohamed Salah: The Prince of Egypt
By Peter Staunton
“Ramos is the public enemy!” thundered Al-Ahram newspaper on the front page of its early editions. The date read May 27, 2018.
Egyptians had gone to bed the night before united in contemplation of the Champions League final’s enduring image. Mohamed Salah – tears forming in his eyes – was clutching his weakened left arm and walking out of the biggest club game of his career.
They were then waking up to an uncertain reality; their World Cup hopes looked like they’d just been ripped from the socket by Sergio Ramos’s heavy tangle with their own ‘Liverpool Knight’.
“When he was injured, there was an atmosphere of sadness and worry among the fans,” Hamdi Nooh, Salah’s former coach at Al Mowakloon, now working as a consultant to the club president, tells Goal.
There are two kinds of football fan in Egypt. One side has traditionally been driven by the domestic game where giants like Al-Ahly and Zamalek reign supreme. Their players – at home at least – are every bit as recognisable as Salah and would be similarly descended upon if they ventured out into the streets.
On the other side there is a generation of fans who admire the European game. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea have been the big teams for those Egyptian fans but Salah’s transfer to Liverpool has upended that paradigm.
Some older fans – who previously had no interest in the game overseas – are advising their Europhilic counterparts of the kick-off times of Liverpool matches. And that club have now taken the mantle of Egypt’s most popular overseas team. Local broadcasts are making time for slots on Salah and the Reds.
And that Sunday morning, Egypt’s front pages bellowed about a football match between an English team and a Spanish one in the capital of Ukraine. That is the Salah effect.
Egypt have had great players before but they were local stars. They have supplied the odd major figure to the Arab region as a whole. But Salah is a star for these times, for the globe.
He is showing Egyptians that – aside from competing for domestic supremacy – their players can be good enough to go and get the job done against the best in the world.
He is a man who has revelled in the pressure that comes with being a team’s totem. He is a man that has brought Egypt back to the world stage and has his countrymen dreaming that one of their own might one day win the Ballon d’Or.
It goes without saying that Salah is Egypt’s most important player; his goals against Congo in October earned them passage to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. And in the immediate aftermath of that Champions League
injury, focus turned to Russia and what it would mean for the Pharaohs.
However strong the affinity between Egyptians and Salah’s club, it is nothing compared to how they feel when he slips on the No. 10 shirt for his country. And with his World Cup participation in jeopardy, anger began to take hold.
“Ramos assassinates Salah’s dream,” ran another Al-Ahram headline. There had of course been contact between the Real Madrid captain and Liverpool’s star forward. One came crashing down on the other and – in a flash – both Liverpool and Egypt lost hope.
“The People of Nagrig: We don’t forgive you Ramos,” roared the Al-Masaa newspaper. If Ramos was feeling the heat from Liverpool fans on the night it is small beer compared to the wrath of a nation of 95 million people.
“Salah figured out how brutal some other players can be,” says Nooh. “I think he may have learned from this incident that there's other players who don’t share his style of play and are willing to hurt other players.”
There were lawsuits filed against the Spain defender for a billion dollars. The country scrabbled around for information on the health status of their darling. If their chances of progress beyond the groups with Salah in the ranks were slim, then what would they be without him?
Egypt manager Hector Cuper’s football is not like Klopp’s. It does not get the heart racing and Egypt do not always want to get on the ball and play. They resist, they defend diligently and they pounce when they can. Mahmoud Trezeguet does a job on the counter from the left but Salah on the right is key to all that Cuper asks for.
So those first 24 hours were a living nightmare until confirmation finally came that he would be at the World Cup, the one Egypt had earned the hard way.
Although this is the first qualification that the team has had since 1990, few Egypt fans would put this side on the level of their recent predecessors; the ones who didn’t get there.
The era of Egypt’s greatest football generation and, perhaps, its greatest player did not coincide. Under Hassan Shehata, the Pharaohs won an unprecedented three Africa Cup of Nations titles between the years of 2006 and 2010.
That was the country’s strongest collective in history. But those teams – boasting regional icons like Mohamed Aboutrika, Ahmed Fathy and skipper Ahmed Hassan – could not break out and take their talents to a World Cup. A ‘derby’ playoff defeat to Algeria in Sudan before 2010 was the closest they got.
There followed a regression for a once-proud giant that cannot be separated from the chaos that descended upon the country in the years following 2011.
Two domestic league seasons were abandoned and not completed; one suspended campaign stemmed from the 2012 Port Said stadium disaster in which 74 people lost their lives.
Following that tragedy, many Egyptian players took the decision to strike out for Europe. Salah was among them after impressing for the national under-23 team in a friendly against Basel, who ended up signing him from El Mokawloon in Cairo.
“When I first arrived in Egypt I saw Salah play with his club team,” Bob Bradley, the former Egypt manager now coaching LAFC in MLS, recalls to Goal.
“He and Mohamed Elneny were on the same team. They were young players but you could see there was something there.
“After Port Said, we started having opportunities to bring young guys into the camps and immediately you knew that Salah was special.
“He was hungry, smart, he wanted to get better. He and Aboutrika formed an immediate connection and relationship that really paid off right from the start."
The next year the Premier League season was suspended on security grounds - after the June 2013 street protests. Egypt haven’t won an AFCON since.
It’s no coincidence that Egypt’s continental stock fell when its domestic league was in jeopardy.
Until then, national team players were familiar with each other and were largely drawn from a pool of three or four clubs. They could enjoy a couple of weeks together in international camps while their African rivals – many Europe-based – were often dragged together last minute.
Egypt were more coherent and better organised. Their talent could conquer south of the Sahara, but it could not cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Following the 2011 revolution, the national team failed to qualify for three AFCONs in a row before an unexpected run to the final against Cameroon last January hinted at better days to come. Even in defeat, that demonstrated that a new era could finally begin.
The teams who dominated Africa from 2006 to 2010 were drawn in the most part from Egypt’s finest clubs in Al-Ahly, Zamalek and Ismaily but this Egypt squad heading to the World Cup will for the first time boast plenty of talent based at European clubs. In fact, only eight players in the final 23 are Egypt-based. For the 2010 AFCON, only four were at overseas clubs.
Egyptians have of course come to Europe before – to decent effect – but previous stars appeared ill-equipped to deal with the demands of the game. The likes of Mido and Amr Zaki fell by the wayside despite being every bit as talented as their European or South American counterparts. For reason of culture or lifestyle, they couldn’t cut it.
But here is a squad with that crucial virtue; adaptability. Look around the squad and you’ll see plenty based in England. In the last half-decade, they have come in numbers and that has been to the benefit of the whole country.
“Different football experiences strengthen you and England is the best league in the world,” Sam Morsy, English-born but a full Egypt international, says to Goal.
“Playing in the Premier League is invaluable, you come across some of the best players in the world.
“A few of the lads were great this season. When you’ve got that sort of experience of getting out of your comfort zone and playing in those leagues it strengthens you and makes you better for the national team.”
It means Egyptians have the capability of facing opponents of a higher international calibre, conjuring answers to different tactical questions and of living to the professional standards of their peers in the big leagues. Salah, in Europe
since 2012, is leading the way.
“Momo is a very intelligent and talented player,” Marco Streller, a former team-mate now working as sporting director for Basel, explains to Goal.
“He also has a huge team spirit. He can adapt to a new situation extremely fast.
“It’s not always easy for African players to come to the western world and adapt quickly to a new culture. But Salah did it very fast and very easy. Meanwhile, he never lost or forgot his values or where he came from.
“He laughs and his positive behaviour is so friendly and so natural, it’s very contagious to his team mates.
“Plus, he was extremely focused and trained very hard. He subordinated everything to football and worked hard of course, while having great talent as well.”
For Salah there are no distractions; he lives for football and he is adept at dealing with setbacks. Failure to settle at Chelsea could well have been the death of his career in Europe. But he persisted; took it on the chin and set about rebuilding his career in Italy.
“I think the key to his success was that he took a step back after his big step from Basel to Chelsea,” says Streller.
“This transfer was huge for him and the step maybe a little bit too big. He realised that he maybe had to take a step back to progress. So he left Chelsea for Fiorentina where he learned a lot of the tactics and technical aspects of Italian football.
“At Fiorentina he got stronger and stronger and everybody saw his development. After this he went to Rome – again not a huge step – where he had his breakthrough.
“And now at Liverpool he has the luck that with Jurgen Klopp he met a coach whose game is the perfect match for his playing style. It’s fast and quick shifting from defensive to offensive football. That’s exactly what Salah likes.
“But I really think the key to his success is that he first took a step back and afterwards step by step made it.”
Gradually, bit by bit, he became the player he was destined to become. And by the time that qualifier in Borg al Arab rolled around last October, Salah wrote his name into the history books.
Failure to beat Congo would have necessitated Egypt going to Ghana in their following fixture and obtaining a result. That’s not always an easy ask for them. They shipped six goals there in the first leg of the 2014 play-off.
That failure – and other near misses – were beginning to play on Egyptian minds when Congo equalised Salah’s first goal with only four minutes left on the clock.
“There were so many different emotions through the game,” says Morsy, a substitute that night. “They equalised and then you think we’ve got to go to Ghana and try and get a result.”
But when the time came, Salah was on hand to deliver.
“It was amazing,” says Morsy. “There were over 80,000 people there. The atmosphere was electric. You could feel the passion on the pitch and what it meant. He came up with the magic. It was a really well-taken penalty kick.”
Salah’s rise to the top of the European game was watched from afar by his compatriots but here was the 25-year-old up close and personal in the national stadium. Roma and Liverpool fans – at the Stadio Olimpico and at Anfield – have long been used to Salah settling matches. And now he’s played a major role in one of Egyptian football’s most transformative moments.
“You’ve seen this season in the big games that he always delivers,” says Morsy. “He takes it in his stride. He keeps it simple. He tries his best and that’s all you can do in football.
“There’s a huge amount of pressure and expectation on his shoulders but all he can do is his best like any other player in the world.”
When it comes to football Egyptians are modest about their standing in the world. But Salah has begun to give them confidence and belief. The triple African kings demonstrated that Egypt could take on and beat the best the continent had to offer but Salah gives them something different.
He is their first breakout star; the first one to hold a mirror up to Egypt’s young players and say ‘come follow me’. After a club season in which he scored 44 goals, was named PFA and FWA Player of the Year and led Liverpool to the Champions League final, he is the first Egyptian to be in with even half a shout of the Ballon d’Or. “That’s what we all hope and pray for,” says Morsy.
It’s like nothing which has happened before. He’s raised the standard and raised the expectations. He is the reason that Egypt are going to the World Cup and his presence more than anyone else’s makes them feel like they belong there.
“It's a dream to see our player reach this level and become the best player in the English Premier League and a Ballon d'Or contender,” says Nooh. “This player is one of our sons whom we saw growing and we were working on his talent on a daily basis and taking great steps. It makes me proud.”
With additional reporting by Chris Wheatley, Ahmed Atta and Ives Galarcep