The making of Mohamed Salah: “At no stage did I believe I didn’t belong at this level. Absolutely not”
The diamond point
Finishing off the ‘heavy metal’ counter-attacks so associated with a Jurgen Klopp team – goals against Arsenal, Stoke and West Ham particularly stand out, his first against former club Roma even more so – are all well and good, but they've been supplemented by stunning long-range strikes against Southampton and Everton at Anfield. Cutting inside from the right wing onto his wand-like left peg, the Egyptian's shots have so much power and precision that they are simply well-struck side-foots.
Then there's his winner in December’s 2-1 win against Leicester. Harry Maguire couldn't be any tighter as the ball's slipped into Salah’s feet. He controls it, turns and brushes off the England defender before rifling into the bottom corner. Such strength is a new addition to the Salah armoury. Compare photographs of him at Chelsea and he's now much stockier, with a gait reminiscent of another lightning left-footed playmaker who plies his trade in Spain. The ‘Egyptian Messi’ nickname is no longer fanciful.
“I’d like to show you all the scouting footage we had,” revealed Klopp after that Leicester victory. “A goal like this was not involved. He is so physically strong. One hundred per cent I’m surprised by his impact.”
Did Salah himself expect to have scored quite as many goals as he has? “I don’t want to sound arrogant but, yeah,” he laughs, resembling a boxer displaying his confidence for the world to see at the weigh-in. He adjusts his weight in his seat to tilt back his head.
“Come on, I know I’m good! I was comfortable at Roma, I had two great seasons there and I was very happy, but I’ve always been the sort of guy who takes a chance, to put myself under pressure.”
It's not just at Liverpool where the responsibility of being the main man rests on Salah’s shoulders. This summer, he carries the hopes of a nation into the World Cup finals, after his 94th-minute spot-kick against Congo in October sent Egypt to the tournament for the first time in 28 years.
“It’s great,” he smiles, looking ahead to Russia where the Pharaohs face the hosts, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia in June. “I’m so proud every time I pull on the Egypt shirt. When I step on the pitch I play to make people happy, whether that's for Liverpool or Egypt, but the flag and people of my country will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Salah’s fame extends beyond just Egypt. Voted African Player of the Year in January, he is a standard-bearer not only for the continent, but also the entire Arab world. The newspaper Al-Watan dedicated nine pages of its 16-page New Year's Day edition to the Liverpool forward, under the headline: “The Pharaoh: Joy of 2017 and hope of 2018.”
Salah pulls at Egyptians' heartstrings like no player since Mohamed Aboutrika, an attacking midfielder who won three Africa Cup of Nations titles and is generally regarded as the country's greatest ever player. When Roma visited Dubai for a warm-weather winter break in January last year, it was Salah – not Roman god Francesco Totti – who received the most adulation. It's no surprise that, when offered a week in an Egyptian businessman’s luxury villa after securing World Cup qualification for his nation, Salah instead asked for a sizeable donation to Nagrig community projects.
“I respect him a lot,” Mané said after the Senegalese winger came second to his Liverpool team-mate in the African Player of the Year vote. “And it’s not just me. You can ask my team-mates, too. Many footballers have multiple personalities. Mo's not like that. He's truly religious, he truly loves people, and the fact he's a good footballer makes it even better.”
Does Salah want to be seen as the best player in Egyptian football history? “Of course, yes!” comes the excitable, unequivocal reply. “We want to do our best at the World Cup. I don’t want to define what represents a good tournament, but we want to enjoy ourselves and we’ll see what happens.”
Before this summer, though, there's a Liverpool season to finish. Klopp's side will take a 5-2 advantage to Rome for the second leg of their Champions League final and, in all likelihood, a final against Real Madrid in Kiev will await.
“I’ve said before that we want to push ourselves to win something,” explains Salah. “For us, for the fans and for the club. That is and always will be our target. A trophy.”
Silverware. It's what motivates every elite footballer and Salah is certainly no different. If he leads Liverpool to their first trophy since the 2012 League Cup – or helps end their 28-year wait for a league title – the Egyptian King about whom the Kop sing with increasing fervour to James’s 1990 hit Sit Down will have earned his ascension to the Reds' throne.
So is the man who an hour earlier posed up a treat with a toy crown already the new King of the Kop?
“I don’t know if it’s up to me to say that, so maybe I’ll let the fans say that,” laughs Salah, faintly embarrassed. “I’m happy scoring goals for the club I supported as a kid – that’s all that matters.”
With that, Salah bids us a good day, bobbing to the Edgeley Park exit with a cheery “Thank you”. A Mercedes – not the bus he once used in Nagrig – awaits to transport Salah the 40 miles to training at Melwood. There are so many more journies to come.
The original version of this feature appeared in the March 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!