The making of Mohamed Salah: “At no stage did I believe I didn’t belong at this level. Absolutely not”
Mohamed Salah looks up and notices a football hurtling unexpectedly towards him. He immediately adjusts his body weight onto his tiptoes and kills it dead with his left foot. He lifts his head, with its mop of curls, already scouting his next move. A stunned silence greets the Liverpool winger’s outrageous first touch.
A second football is fired into Salah’s path. Again he moves adroitly to control it in an instant, and again the Egyptian star considers his options. Instead of hushed amazement this time, however, the gathered throng rises in delirious rapture.
Why the differing reactions? The latter prefaced Salah firing Liverpool 4-1 up against Manchester City, chipping keeper Ederson 68 minutes into the Reds’ win against the unbeaten Premier League leaders and sending 50,000 febrile fans into ecstasy at Anfield. The former had taken place 48 hours earlier – on a biting mid-January morning in front of no more than a dozen people – as Salah entered the 1980s chandelier-lined Sapphire Suite at Stockport County’s near-empty Edgeley Park for his debut FourFourTwo cover shoot.
FFT’s exclusive aperitif to the main course that would be served up two days later showcased his instinct. In full flow he barely thinks – he just ‘does’. Everything comes naturally to Mohamed Salah in 2018.
Three-and-a-half years ago, though, Salah’s situation in English football couldn’t have been more different. A shot 40 minutes into a 2-1 League Cup fourth-round win at Shrewsbury Town summed up the Egyptian’s Chelsea spell. Bereft of game time under Jose Mourinho, Salah attempted a shot on goal after cutting inside from the right wing onto his favoured left foot. It went out for a throw-in.
That goal against Man City was Salah 2.0’s 24th in all competitions in 2017/18, only six months after his return to the Premier League, having excelled at Fiorentina and Roma in Serie A. His £37 million transfer has clearly been the bargain of the summer. Recently voted PFA Player of the Year and likely heading for a Champions League final, his form has been such that Philippe Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona has barely affected Liverpool.
Pictures taken, errant footballs controlled and kick-ups completed back in Stockport, a smiling Salah is raring to sit down for his maiden major newspaper or magazine interview.
There’s plenty to discuss with a player about whom so little is known, relatively speaking. Unfinished Premier League business, Jurgen Klopp on an average day, Egypt’s first World Cup for 28 years and the pressure of succeeding Coutinho as Liverpool’s new king of the Kop are all on the agenda.
Just how good is Mo Salah? And just how good does Mo Salah think he is?
It’s 2008 and El Mokawloon Under-16s have just seen off ENPPI 4-0 in the Cairo Youth League. Despite the Mountain Wolves’ handsome victory, their left-back sits in the corner of the dressing room on the verge of tears.
Five times the teenager had dribbled from defence through the opposition to go one-on-one with the ENPPI keeper. Five times, shattered by his attacking exertions, he failed to score. Coach Said El-Shishini did two things. First, he gave the 15-year-old 25 Egyptian pounds to make him feel better. Second, he resolved never to play Mo Salah as a left-back again. If the promising defender’s starting position was further forward, the coach reasoned, he wouldn’t be too tired to apply the finishing touch by the time he reached the box. Salah would now play on the right wing.
“I told him that he would be the team’s top goalscorer in both leagues, the Under-16 Cairo League as well as the Under-17 Nationwide League,” El-Shishini, who managed the two sides, later recalled. “By the end of that season Salah had scored 35 goals combined, and since then he has never stopped scoring.”
Born in Nagrig – a farming village in vast, green open spaces 100 miles north of the capital – Salah has seldom been without a football. His cousin Abadah Saeed Ghali, who still lives in the village, remembers a “soccer addict” forever zipping around Nagrig with a ball in tow.
“I played out on the street with my brother and friends until I was about 14 years old,” Salah tells FFT, his keepie-uppie session with our photographer now concluded. “My earliest football memory was watching the Champions League matches. I always loved watching [Zinedine] Zidane, [Francesco] Totti and the Brazilian Ronaldo. It’s an amazing feeling when you hear that music now before kick-off.”
Inspired by the greats he would tune in to watch – one of whom, Totti, would later become a Roma team-mate – football became Salah’s life. In 2006, El Mokawloon, one of Cairo’s most prominent clubs with a history of producing promising talent (and also known as Arab Contractors), had heard about the little speedster in the Basyoun farming heartlands.
“That's when my career as a professional footballer really started,” explains Salah, who had been playing for amateur teams near Nagrig and Tanta, a larger town 90 minutes down the road. “Arab Contractors was four-and-a-half hours away on three or four buses to Cairo – a trip I had to make there and back five days a week.
“I missed quite a lot of school because it was the only way that I could get to training on time. Sometimes I’d spend just two hours at school from 7am until 9am and then have to leave. Becoming a footballer was always my dream – when we’re young, we dream a lot.”
Dream soon became reality. Freed from his left-back shackles, Salah evolved into one of El Mokawloon and Egypt’s most promising talents. He made his debut in May 2010 by coming off the substitutes’ bench in a 1-1 draw with El Mansoura.
“I was 16 years old and it felt great,” says Salah, beaming ever more with pride. “I was also surrounded by good players who had a lot more experience, and I felt protected by them.”
Within two years, Salah had made his full debut for Egypt, but his life changed during a March 2012 friendly with the Pharaohs’ under-23s, against Basel. Arranged in the build-up to that summer’s Olympics, after domestic football was halted in the aftermath of the Port Said Stadium disaster that February, Salah came off the bench at half-time and scored twice in a 4-3 victory against the Swiss side which featured Xherdan Shaqiri, Fabian Frei and Valentin Stocker.
Already on Basel’s radar, Salah was offered a week’s trial and penned a four-year contract shortly before guiding Egypt to the last eight at the London Olympics, netting against Brazil, New Zealand and Belarus.
Salah’s early months in Switzerland proved a challenge. Alone in Basel, and unable to speak English or Swiss German, the diminutive winger filled his days after training walking the city streets before returning to his hotel. Determined to make a success of his European adventure, however, his iron will came to the fore. Behind the ever-present smile, there’s a single-minded focus to everything Salah does. You will never get him to do anything he doesn’t want to do.
Helped by the January 2013 arrival of compatriot and future Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny, Salah grew into his opening Basel season. He scored to knock Spurs out of the Europa League at the last-eight stage and found the net again in defeat to Chelsea in the semi-finals, before the Rotblau won their expected Swiss title.
When he scored in home-and-away victories against the Blues in the following season’s Champions League group stage – a calm sidefoot past Petr Cech and a dink over the onrushing goalkeeper, both eerily similar to the goals that have so defined Liverpool’s current campaign – Stamford Bridge wolves circled. In January 2014, barely 18 months after Salah had arrived in Switzerland, Jose Mourinho forked out more than £11m to take him to London.
Featuring primarily from the bench, Salah adapted well to start with, scoring in March's 6-0 mauling of Arsenal before picking up a pair of man-of-the-match awards against Stoke and Swansea.
His personal highlight from that first Chelsea season, however, would come at his future home. In playing an hour as the Blues – assisted by that infamous Steven Gerrard slip on the stroke of half-time – defeated title-chasing Liverpool 2-0 in a classic Mourinho defensive masterclass, Salah completed a long-held ambition.
“Ever since I was a kid, I'd been a Liverpool fan, they were my favourite Premier League club,” he says.
“It was so special for me to play at Anfield, and the atmosphere was amazing that day. I remember thinking to myself that it would be a special place to play.”