World Cup Journeys: Can the young Pharaoh, Mohamed Salah, make history with Egypt?
African football has had some serious stars on the world stage — George Weah, Didier Drogba, Roger Milla, among others.
Right now Mohamed Salah has joined them, already lionised in his native Egypt and recognised around the world thanks to his performances for a number of European clubs.
He is looking at a potential shortlisting for the Ballon D’Or, he has the Premier League single-season goals record and an opportunity to make history with Egypt at the World Cup.
However a nasty shoulder injury picked up in the Champions League final — courtesy of Real Madrid’s (and Spain’s) Sergio Ramos — threatens to shorten the final chapter in a compelling storyline.
When Liverpool splashed out a then-record fee for a winger whose last Premier League stint had ended in failure, the critics were quick to pounce.
Twelve months on, they are eating their words as the Egyptian has taken England and Europe by storm.
Is this a one-year wonder? Or is this the start of something really special? The next six weeks could start to give us an answer.
Mohamed Salah’s home village of Nagrig is a long, long way from Liverpool — it lies more than 120km north of the capital, Cairo, in the hot desert climate of the Nile Delta.
The young boy started training when he was eight, then playing for a team in nearby Basyoun before joining the El Mokawloon (Arab Contractors) club in Cairo when he was 14.
Salah was still going to school in Basyoun, but his club commitments meant he had to trek to Cairo’s Nasr City district most days, spending hours in transit, training or playing.
He made his senior debut at 18 and played two seasons for El Mokawloon before signing for Basel.
The young Egyptian quickly showed he had pure pace and the ability to use it effectively.
He would win two Swiss Super League titles at Basel, but it was Salah’s games in Europe which helped burnish his reputation.
Mohamed Salah’s goals against Chelsea in the Champions League soon earned him a ticket to the Premier League. (Reuters / Action Images: Tony O’Brien)
Salah faced Chelsea twice in the group stages of the 2013/14 Champions League, and he scored in both games as Basel did the double over the Blues.
The coach who had been burned twice by Salah was Jose Mourinho, and in February of 2015, Chelsea announced Salah’s signing for 11 million pounds.
He scored twice in 10 games in his first season, but was left languishing on the bench the following season under Mourinho, leading to a loan to Fiorentina — his stint in Serie A proved much more successful.
Salah scored six league goals, helped the Viola get to the Europa League semi-finals and was part of ensuring the club had Champions League football the following season.
But Salah then blocked Fiorentina’s move to make his move permanent, forcing a move to Serie A rivals Roma.
The Egyptian backed up by top-scoring for his new club with 14 league goals, and was named Roma’s player of the season.
Salah, now permanent, rewarded Roma with another 15 goals in the league the following season — but things were about to change.
Liverpool had been eyeing Salah for a while and, with Roma now facing Financial Fair Play trouble, the Giallorossi sold him for 34 million pounds.
If Roma had held off a couple of months, until after Neymar’s mega-sale changed the football world, who knows what he would have cost.
Given subsequent events, this now appears like Liverpool’s best business in decades.
Playing largely as a winger, Salah has been banging goals in from every angle for Liverpool in the Premier League. (REUTERS: Andrew Yates)
Jurgen Klopp wanted more pace and agility from Liverpool’s attack, and Salah definitely brought that to Merseyside.
Despite the cost, there were no real expectations of the Egyptian becoming a top scorer, more a cog in the machine alongside Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and others.
But from his goal on debut against Watford — even though there were a fair few missed chances early on in the season — Salah’s scoring at Liverpool quickly outpaced anything he had previously produced.
When he hit the net against Bournemouth in December 2017, Salah reached 20 goals for Liverpool in all competitions in just 26 games.
Whether playing on the wing, or driving through the centre of the ground, teams still found his pace, control, vision and general technique very hard to stop.
By now he was a huge cult hero at Anfield, and his honouring of his Muslim faith after every goal was something new for the club.
Mohamed Salah’s amazing first season with Liverpool has led to many celebrations, as the Egyptian star honours his Muslim faith after every score. (AP / PA: Dave Thompson)
The fans made up a song for Salah — it wasn’t top-40 stuff, but it caught on.
Fittingly, it was at Anfield that the “Egyptian King” had the best half-hour in his career in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Roma.
The Salah show started after 35 minutes — a shoulder dip, a step in and a left-foot curler into the top corner, then another finish to make it 2-0 at the break.
Within 16 minutes of the restart, he had slid two balls square across the goal for Mane, and then Firmino to tap the ball home.
That glorious half-hour essentially sealed the Reds’ Champions League final spot, prompting talk of a possible Ballon d’Or for Salah.
At international level, Egypt had won the African Nation’s Cup seven times, but only made the World Cup finals in 1934 and 1990.
Salah made his senior debut for Egypt in 2011, and was part of the 2014 qualification process where the Pharaohs got to the final playoff before being smashed 7-3 on aggregate by Ghana.
By the time of Russia 2018 qualifying he was definitively his country’s main man.
Mo Salah’s late penalty against Congo enhanced his hero status, ending Egypt’s 28-year wait for a return to the World Cup finals. (REUTERS: Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
He scored five goals out of Egypt’s eight in qualifying, including the vital double in Egypt’s 2-1 win over Congo, capped by the dramatic stoppage-time penalty that sealed qualification.
He was already a household name in his home country, but as soon as his penalty hit the net, Salah’s fame exploded.
The school he had graduated from in Basyoun was soon renamed in Salah’s honour, and the Mo-ification of Egypt went to the next level.
His image can now be found on everything from billboards to murals and every kind of merchandise.
Reportedly more than a million voters in this year’s Egyptian presidential elections crossed out the two main candidates to write in Mohamed Salah.
Salah’s fame within Egypt makes him one of the most recognisable faces in the country. (REUTERS: Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Now Egypt has drawn hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay in Group A.
The $64 million question is whether he will be fully recovered from shoulder surgery in time for Egypt’s opening two games against Uruguay and Russia.
If he’s not right until the final game against Saudi Arabia, then Egypt might already be out of the running before the young Pharaoh makes his World Cup bow.
But none is in world-beating form and if Salah can somehow get on the park from the start of the Cup, a first-ever match win is achievable, and a trip past the group stage for the first time could be on the cards.
If Salah can achieve that for his country, his star will rise even further.