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Mohamed Salah – Egyptian football’s beacon of hope
This piece originally appeared on Just Football.
Mohamed Salah Ghaly, a name most non-Egyptians were unfamiliar with just over a season ago when the young Pharaoh arrived in Basel from Egyptian Premier League side Arab Contractors, is now proving how Ghaly – precious in Arabic – he really is, as the 21-year-old continues to make the headlines in European football.
Salah was dubbed the ‘Egyptian Messi’ in recent years, although he wasn’t exactly an immediate success in Egypt. In fact, his career could have ended long before it even started, as his father – a former footballer himself – contemplated with his wife on whether or not to allow Mohamed to continue playing football, or have him focus on his studies instead. It is safe to say they made the right decision: “We said we will leave it to God and keep him in the game,” Salah’s father said in a recent interview with Erem News.
A versatile left-footed winger who can play on either flank, as a number 10 or even as a shadow striker, Salah first made his debut for Cairo-based side Arab Contractors as a substitute at the age of 17 towards the end of the 2009/10 season, under the helm of coach Mohamed Amer.
He started to feature regularly the season after for Hamza El Gamal – who promoted Salah’s current FC Basel team-mate Mohamed El-Nenny to the starting XI – but it was only after Serbian-French boss Ivica Todorov took over when Salah got his first handful of starts, and eventually his first professional goal.
Todorov was later replaced that same year by Mohamed Radwan; meaning the Contractors went through three different coaches that season – which could be the main reason why the Egyptian starlet struggled to really shine that year. However, there was one game where he managed to score a brace against Smouha, and his four goal tally that season was enough to convince recent Egypt national team assistant coach Diaa El-Sayed to make him a crucial part of his plans ahead of the 2011 U-20 World Cup in Columbia.
Salah didn’t stand out as a class above the rest in Columbia, and many would agree he was outshined by the likes of Zamalek duo Mohamed Ibrahim and Omar Gaber, Al Masry goalkeeper Ahmed El-Shennawy and also Ahmed Hegazy – now of Fiorentina – but he did score Egypt’s lone goal in a controversial 2-1 loss in the round of 16 against Argentina, albeit from the penalty spot.
The Egyptian’s natural ability still managed to attract the interest of Newcastle United, but the Magpies refused to pay the €500,000 loan fee which was demanded by Arab Contractors, according to Al Ahram. A fee which is now a minor fraction of his current market value, which Transfermarkt estimates at €8.5 million.
It was the season prior to his move to Europe where Salah really shined in Egypt; although his team-mates were already convinced he was destined for greatness. “Salah has always been an extremely talented player. His unbelievable speed has been his strongest weapon; however, he has managed to couple that with improving his finishing abilities,” former Arab Contractors team-mate Aly Mazhar told KingFut.com recently.
“He’s a great team-mate on and off the field. One of my closest friends from the football world and I have always thought he was going to make it big. This is not the end of his potential. Salah is still developing as a player and I am positive he will make it to the top European teams. He has the desire to continuously improve his game and work on his weaknesses. He is also a modest player that accepts criticism which is very important,” he concluded.
Mohamed Radwan continued with the Contractors during the 2011/2012 season, and Salah scored an excellent seven goals while assisting three in 15 appearances before the cancellation of the league due to the Port Said tragedy.
Move to Europe, and Basel
Egypt’s biggest clubs suffered financially following those tragic events, but it wasn’t their lack of funds which stopped Salah from transferring to one of the Cairo giants: Al Ahly or Zamalek. In an interview with Egyptian TV after Salah’s move to Swiss champions Basel finally materialised – for a fee of €1.5 million – following a successful trial, the winger, 19 at the time, said he was on the verge of joining Zamalek but the Whites didn’t believe he was quite ready for the step up. Boy were they wrong.
Salah in action for Basel
It’s a shame that Egyptian clubs usually have the mentality where they are ‘overprotective’ and reluctant to field youngsters within their senior teams – although this looks to be changing in recent years, slowly – but in the case of Salah the snub seemed to have give his career an early boost.
Before linking up with Basel, Salah headed to London for the 2012 Olympics after helping Egypt secure their qualification for the first time in 20 years – winning bronze with Hany Ramzy’s side at the CAF U-23 Championship in Morocco. The rising Egyptian star guided the Pharaohs to the quarter-finals after scoring in each of Egypt’s group stage fixtures – against Brazil, New Zealand and Belarus.
It was his performance against the Seleção which really caught the eye. During the second half, as Egypt trailed 3-0, Salah looked a man possessed as he tormented Real Madrid left-back Marcelo throughout, while almost engineering a come-back following goals from Abou-Treika and himself. The Pharaohs were knocked out by Japan in the next round, however, by a shocking three goals to nil.
Mohamed Salah – most promising talent
Salah was under a lot of pressure with Basel as newspapers referred to him as a direct replacement for star midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, who left Basel for Bayern Munich that summer. This didn’t stop Salah from settling in quickly with the Swiss champions, despite being brought into their starting eleven almost instantly.
The young Pharaoh was named as Man of the Match in his first two Swiss Super League games after being involved in all three goals on his league debut, while scoring his first goal for the club the week after. That year Salah also was awarded CAF’s Most Promising Talent of the Year in December before going on to score 10 goals while assisting nine – excluding penalties won – as Basel retained the Swiss League title and managed to reach the semi-finals of the Europa League for the first time in the club’s history.
Salah’s performances in the latter rounds forced European pundits to take note, especially after his and Egyptian compatriot Mohamed El-Nenny’s remarkable showing in both legs against Tottenham, while also managing to get on the score-sheet in the return leg against Chelsea – who went on to win the Cup.
In an interview with FIFA.com, Salah reflected on his first season with Basel: “It was not easy for me. I did not know how it would be like in Europe and whether I would adapt to the atmosphere there. But the first year went well, and I did not really suffer from any homesickness.”
“My priority was to achieve my primary target of succeeding there. As long as I’m playing well and achieving my goals, there is no point being concerned about any off-field issues. I hope I can play a role in changing the view that some people have about Egyptian players abroad,” he said.
Defying the Egyptian stereotype
And Salah has done exactly that, so far. Egypt has never been short on talent, but the unprofessionalism displayed by some of the country’s stars who’ve made it to Europe – Mido, Zaki, Ghaly and others – has managed to dilute the international perspective of Egyptian players’ mentality.
So far, Salah has managed to cope with the overwhelming media attention and also deal with some extremely controversial situations, including travelling to Israel to face Maccabi Tel Aviv in the second leg of the third round of UEFA Champions League qualifying. Although, Salah said prior to making the trip: “I consider myself going to play in Palestine, not Israel,” and he opted to fist bump the opposition during pre-match handshakes.
The ‘future of Egyptian football’…soon on the move?
Arguably, Salah has guided Basel to the group stage of the UEFA Champions League single-handedly this year, and had them on the brink of reaching the round of 16 after leading the Swiss champions to two wins over Chelsea with a goal in each fixture against Jose Mourinho’s side. He was recently named player of the season in Switzerland for 2012/13.
Mohamed Salah is still an unfinished product, however, with many noting there is room for improvement with his finishing in front of goal. Although he was the joint top scorer in African World Cup qualifying with six goals for Bob Bradley’s Egypt, the Pharaohs failed to reach Brazil 2014 after losing 7-3 on aggregate against Ghana.
Then national coach Bradley labelled Salah as ‘the future of Egyptian football’ and the 21-year-old already has 17 goals and 10 assists (including penalties won) in 27 appearances with the senior national team, 25 of those coming under the American’s reign as head coach. Deservedly, Salah was a nominee for CAF’s African Player of the Year.
It is still unfair to compare the ‘Egyptian Messi’ to the Argentine, but there are a few things Salah has accomplished which the four-time Ballon d’Or winner has yet to: score a hat-trick during a scorching hot afternoon in Zimbabwe, irritate Gareth Bale by the touchline, and score against Chelsea, thrice.
In Salah’s first interview with FC Basel’s official website, he was asked what Egyptians expected from him. He giggled and said: “A star in the Swiss League.” Whether or not he thought that would happen, or if he ever imagined he’d be linked with a host of top English and German clubs within a year of that moment, it’s safe to say Egyptians are expecting much, much more from their new beacon of hope.