At the end of 2019, towards the end of another incessantly hot day scouring the concrete sprawl of Cairo in search of fresh information on Egypt’s most famous footballer, one of his former teammates found it easy to explain why Mohamed Salah managed to do what only a privileged few in his country were able to achieve.
Ali Fathi had shared five years of his teenage life with Salah when the pair were signed to El Mokawloon. In a building east of Cairo, they spent their evenings playing, where Salah, on FIFA, would always be Barcelona – the club he dreamed of joining.
Salah’s ambition has always been to move to Europe. He didn’t seem particularly keen on a future at Al Ahly or Zamalek, the two clubs in Cairo where all of Egypt’s top footballers tend to hang out. How unusual this was cannot be overstated, as the passion for football is on a religious level in Egypt, where players are paid well enough to make it easier for them to stay at home when offers come in from abroad.
Fathi, a left-back, whose career took him briefly to the Portuguese island of Madeira before returning to the wild underbelly of Cairo, was injured at the time and was trying to re-enter his last club’s squad , El Entag El Harby.
Looking across the training ground, he commented on the size and shape of his current team-mates, comparing them to Salah, who was thousands of miles away trying to negotiate a British winter in a season where he would end up in the Premier League. champion.
Simply, it was Salah’s independence that made him different. He was able to think for himself and that meant he took care of himself. After training every day, he went to the exercise room unaccompanied and lifted weights for at least half an hour. He later enrolled in a private gym where he told an instructor he needed to improve his stamina and acceleration, even though he had already dazzled early in his professional career as an extremely fast footballer.
Fathi suggested that the diets of Egyptian footballers were generally not particularly healthy due to their meat consumption. Salah, however, took conditioning incredibly seriously – “more seriously than any Egyptian footballer I have ever met”.
He had not been guided by any of his coaches in this pursuit. Indeed, he may have been a Barcelona fan, but from afar he had seen Cristiano Ronaldo in his Real Madrid shirt after scoring a goal and realizing the direction the game was headed. “Mo realized he had to become a machine,” Fathi concluded.
Last month marked ten years since Salah’s departure from the Egyptian football club. A new three-year deal at Liverpool will put him less than three seasons behind the record-holding Egyptian player for Europe’s longest career.
Still, perhaps Salah’s path would have been different had he listened to this same player; Hany Ramzy, a defender who represented his country at the 1990 World Cup, before becoming a scout in Germany.
Ramzy spent 11 of his 16 years in Europe with Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern. This meant he had a good understanding of the Bundesliga, where Salah could have gone first when he left Egypt had it not been for the intervention of Mohamed Amer, his manager at El Mokawloon, who advised him to wait.
Instead, he moved from North Africa to Europe via Switzerland, where his performances in 18 months with Basel led to an offer from Liverpool. Had he agreed to move to Anfield in 2014 instead of joining Chelsea, you also wonder where he might be positioned currently on the club’s all-time goalscoring list.
Perhaps it worked out for the best that his time at the club coincided entirely with Jurgen Klopp, a manager who suggested the player’s ‘best years are yet to come’ on Friday after Liverpool made Salah the player highest paid in club history. at the age of 30.
This agreement is not without risk.
It has been claimed that Liverpool were treading similar ground to Arsenal two years ago when they renewed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s contract at 31 before his influence quickly waned.
They are, however, different footballers with different mentalities representing different clubs in different states of health, led by different managers at different stages of their relationship with the players concerned.
Aubameyang, after all, seems to have found himself since joining Barcelona in January. For Salah, the risk may be more about his own game: how he, Klopp and his Liverpool teammates adapt to his ageing. Each party will need to ensure that their output during this process justifies the investment.
Liverpool have made an exception for Salah in this deal, but that doesn’t mean the decision is unprecedented.
While managing all of its sporting interests, including baseball’s Boston Red Sox, Fenway Sports Group has rarely awarded huge contracts to sportspeople who reach a stage in their careers that would normally be beyond the physical peak of many.
Clearly, though, Liverpool don’t think that’s the case with Salah – just as they didn’t with James Milner, whom the club signed as their highest-paid player when he was soon to turn 30. years on this same date seven years ago. .
Milner, of course, is performing very well all this time later and after the players return for pre-season training on Monday morning, it would be a surprise if he and Salah aren’t ahead of the pack when they rush through the follow in the otherwise dreaded mile interval sprints in the days that follow.
Comparing the 2015 Milner and the 2022 Salah, however, there is a difference of around £200,000 per week.
Ultimately, Salah’s time at Liverpool has always come down to money, no matter how club, player or representative Ramy Abbas tries to frame it now that all parties are happy with the outcome.
When Kevin De Bruyne, a month shy of his 30th birthday, agreed to a two-year contract extension in May last year to keep him at Manchester City after his 34th birthday, Salah, with advice from Abbas, thought they should aim for something. similar. That’s pretty much what they got – although there were concessions on both sides because part of his £350,000-a-week is incentivized for performance and achievement.
Despite concerns that this information could cause problems with his team-mates and their representatives, who now know that there is always leeway in any future negotiations, Klopp is particularly convinced that humility and intelligence in the dressing room from Anfield mean that won’t be a problem.
Other Liverpool players tend to see Salah as the team’s main man and see how dedicated he is because of the way he takes care of himself – as he always has – and by therefore, it is recognized that he deserves what he gets.
There are no obvious signs of Salah slowing down, but there were no obvious signs of Sadio Mane slowing down before he was sold to Bayern Munich last month.
Sometimes the future can depend on a player’s will.
While Salah still wanted to stay provided the money was fair, Mane had made it clear to Liverpool that he would not sign a new contract to replace the one expiring in the summer of 2023. This is why Luis Diaz was bought in January to replace him.
Mane, being the player and personality he is, managed to redefine himself in another position during the final months of his Liverpool career, a period where Salah struggled after his mid-season Cup efforts of African Nations, and the double disappointments of Egypt. losing the final of this tournament and, in March, not qualifying for the World Cup. Liverpool understood the emotional impact of it all, but backed it up. We think that a summer of rest will have done him good.
It will be fascinating to see how Liverpool use Salah from here.
For five years he was the left-footed striker on the right of the front three, but there are indications that changes are afoot given the way Klopp has managed to fine-tune his midfield form and attack towards the end of last season.
Maybe he will need more #10 options in this evolution. Maybe Salah will be one of the players who can help him with that.
He has almost always been available for Liverpool. Physically, his body would surely be able to handle the responsibilities of a more central role. He has become more selfless over the past 18 months, serving those around him.
Despite being a much more thoughtful footballer than the one who left Cairo for Switzerland, as well as the one who joined Liverpool from Roma, Klopp must think he remains basically the same machine.
(Top photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)