The 'Afcon Rise of' Series is a collaborative initiative between Goal and 3 Kilo featuring up-and-coming writers. 3 Kilo is a development agency that creates opportunities and skills development projects for the youth of South Africa.
After yet another successful season with Liverpool in the English Premier League, which saw him finish joint top goalscorer as well as being named in the Team of the Year, Mohamed Salah will be raring to go when Egypt locks horns with Zimbabwe in the opening match of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) at the Cairo International Stadium - a mere 4.1km away from where he made his professional debut for Al Mokawloon Al Arab in 2010.
Salah's early life
Salah’s journey to becoming one of Africa's greats didn’t start in conventional superstar fashion.
In 2012, during the Egyptian Revolution, disaster struck when the death of 74 fans in the Port Said stadium suspended the domestic national championship.
With all competitive club matches suspended, the only opportunity to put himself in the shop window came along due to a friendly organized by FC Basel against the Egyptian U23 national team in March 2012.
After netting twice, it was only a matter of time before the Swiss club approached him with a four-year contract.
Egyptians knew that Salah was a special talent given that he spent two seasons competing in the Egyptian Premier League prior to his move to Europe. Salah's transfer was an irregular occurrence, given the financial muscle of the Egyptian league and their dominance of African football.
As you would expect, his arrival at the Swiss-German speaking Basel club, was not short of complications for the Arab speaking Salah.
"It was very difficult. That’s what I can say, it’s very difficult to move to a club on another continent, especially at such a young age," Salah was quoted as saying by Liverpool's official website.
"I grew up in Egypt, I knew everything in Egypt… but I didn’t know anything in Switzerland. I couldn’t understand any language because I couldn’t speak English or Swiss-German. I didn’t know where I could pick up my food or anything.
"I went there and lived alone. It was a difficult time because I didn’t know what to do."
His desire to succeed and to be different from other Egyptian players would not let him give up on his aspirations.
In his quest to become 'different', he began English lessons to help him communicate better.
"I was there alone, but all the time I was thinking about improving myself and trying to become different to all the other players, or other Egyptian players," he added.
"That’s what was always in my mind and, as I said, that’s why I was able very quickly to change my mind.
"I started English courses and had some classes to help me communicate."
A soon as the communication got better, it also started to show on the field as Salah had made an impression in Europe after only two seasons with Basel. Premier League giants, Chelsea snapped him up after his glaring displays in the Champions League - 5 goals from 10 appearances - was enough to convince the London club of Salah's potential.
Salah's club career
At Chelsea Jose Mourinho had convinced the board to buy Salah - who had scored in Basel's 1-0 win over the London club in the Champions League in November 2013.
He added to a list of Africans at the side that already had Samuel Eto'o, Demba Ba and John Obi Mikel. The general feeling in North Africa was that the 'Egyptian Messi' Salah, was to set the Premier League alight.
But it wasn't to be as Mourinho's known belief and trust in older, more senior and experienced players was once again the case with Salah limited to just 10 appearances in his first season with the Blues. The arrivals of Cesc Fabregas and Jean Cuadradro the following season was a sign that Salah needed to go elsewhere to earn game time in Europe.
Roma made his stay a permanent one after impressing - 14 goals in 32 appearances - while on loan. After then yet another stellar season was produced at Giallorossi, 15 goals in 29 appearances and finishing as the clubs Player of the Season and top goalscorer. So, a move back to the English Premier League transpired, which saw Roma agree to a record club transfer fee of £50million (when additional targets were met), sending the player to the Reds in mid-2017, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Salah's international career
The 27-year-old recently retained his African Footballer of the Year award and it is no secret that the Pharaohs’ aspirations for Afcon 2019 directly correlate to the individual performances of their talisman.
Egyptian coach, Javier Aguirre omitted Salah from their training camp in March, commenting, “I wanted to watch other players who can be a part of the national team squad at the African Cup of Nations.”
He will be confident that Salah, the top goalscorer (4 goals) during the qualification rounds, will be well rested and ready to go when the tournament kicks off.
Aguirre added, “I feel the Africa Cup of Nations’ importance for the people in Egypt and I hope to prepare the team to win the title.”
The Uefa Champions League winner will have his eyes and dreams of the nation resting on his shoulders. As they enter the final stages of their preparations, Egypt’s number 10 will be excited at the prospect of helping his country win their eighth Afcon title.