Taiwo Awoniyi has backed Mohamed Salah as a future Ballon d’Or winner, insisting that his former Liverpool team-mate is on the same level as Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski.
Salah finished seventh in this year’s list, despite being widely touted as the world’s best player on current form.
The Egyptian was also a surprise omission from the 23-man FIFPRO XI shortlist, which was released this week.
The 29-year-old has made no secret of his desire to win all of the sport’s top prizes, both individual and team, and Awoniyi, who trained with Salah at Liverpool prior to his summer move to Union Berlin, believes his story serves as an inspiration to all up-and-coming African players.
What’s been said?
Speaking to GOAL as part of an exclusive, in-depth interview, Awoniyi discussed his experience of working with Salah during Liverpool’s pre-season training camp in Austria.
He said: “When I met with him and saw him in training, you see a guy who has everything.
“The experience is there. From where he came from, he has played for Chelsea, for Roma and now Liverpool. This guy is already at the top. He is on the level of Messi and Lewandowski, and the rest.
“He does everything, and everything is working together. His experience is coming into play now. He is a guy who always wants to do more for himself and for his club.
“It was something great for me to meet that kind of guy. He is really, really on the highest level of football for me.”
‘African players deserve more kudos’
Awoniyi, like Salah, is enjoying a fine season himself, with 14 goals for Union in all competitions, and a first senior cap for Nigeria in October.
He hopes to be part of the Super Eagles’ squad for the forthcoming Africa Cup of Nations, and discussed the importance of top-level African role models such as Salah and his Reds team-mate Sadio Mane.
“I sometimes joke with people that there are two different places,” he said. “Some are born abroad, some are born in Africa. It’s completely different.
“For the likes of Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Naby Keita, to see what they have achieved is special. I always say to people that if you know their background, if you know how they started, you have to give them more kudos.
“I’m not saying that the others [non-African players] would not reach that level, but you need more to reach the top if you are born in Africa.
“The likes of Sadio, Mo and Keita, to be playing for Liverpool on the highest, highest level, these are people that for a young player coming up, you look up to.
“You come from the same background, you know what you went through to get to this stage, and they show you that you have to keep on going, keep on fighting.”GOAL
‘Proud and grateful’
Awoniyi was a World Cup winner with Nigeria at Under-17 level in 2013, playing alongside the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho and Isaac Success.
But he has had to wait for his first senior appearance, eventually getting the chance in October’s defeat to Central African Republic.
“The truth with Nigeria is that the talent in that country is too much!” he said. “To get to the national team, you should be really, really proud.
“It took a lot of hard work and dedication. I played in every youth tournament, so they knew me already, and I think it was just a case that they were waiting for the best opportunity to see me reach my potential.
“Before my injury last season I think it was coming, and this season they decided to bring me in. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for years, to join up with my mates like [Wilfred] Ndidi, Iheanacho, guys I played with in the youth teams.
“For me, it was about putting in the work, and I knew it would come. I’m very proud and very grateful for it.”