In late 2019, towards the end of another relentlessly hot day, as he scrambled across the concrete desert of Cairo in search of new information about Egypt’s most famous footballer, one of his former team-mates found it easy to explain why Mohamed Salah had managed what only one Chosen from his country could achieve this.
Ali Fathi had shared five years of his teenage life with Salah when the two were signed at El Mokawloon. In a block of flats east of Cairo, they spent their evenings playing games where, at FIFA, Salah would always be Barcelona – the club he had always dreamed of.
Salah has always had ambitions to move to Europe. A future at Al Ahly or Zamalek, the two Cairo clubs where the best Egyptian footballers end up, didn’t seem particularly motivating for him. It cannot be overstated how unusual this was, as passion for football runs at a religious level in Egypt, where players are paid well enough to make it easier for them to stay home when offers come from abroad.
Fathi, a left-back whose career had briefly taken him to the Portuguese island of Madeira before returning to the wild womb of Cairo, was injured at the time and was attempting to return to the side at his last club El Entag El Harby.
Looking across the training pitch, he commented on the height and form of his current team-mates, comparing them to Salah, who was thousands of miles away trying to negotiate a British winter during a season in which he would end up as Premier League champion.
It was simply Salah’s independence that made him different. He could think for himself and that meant he took care of himself. Every day after training, he would go to the gym unaccompanied and lift weights for at least half an hour. He later enrolled in a private high school, where he told a coach that he needed to improve his stamina and acceleration, despite having dazzled as an extremely fast footballer early in his professional career.
Fathi pointed out that Egyptian footballers’ diets are generally not particularly healthy due to their meat consumption. However, Salah took the conditioning incredibly seriously – “more seriously than any Egyptian footballer I’ve ever met”.
He had not been guided in this pursuit by any of his trainers. Indeed, he might have been a Barcelona fan, but from afar he had spotted Cristiano Ronaldo without a Real Madrid shirt after he scored and realized the direction the game was going. “Mo realized he had to become a machine,” Fathi concluded.
Last month marks a decade since Salah left Egyptian club football. A new three-year deal at Liverpool will see him become the Egyptian player who holds the records for longest career in Europe within three seasons.
But maybe Salah’s path would have been different if he had listened to the 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 would have advised him to wait.
Instead, he moved to Europe from North Africa via Switzerland, where his performances in 18 months at Basel resulted in an offer from Liverpool. Had he agreed to move to Anfield in 2014 instead of joining Chelsea, it also makes you wonder where he might currently be on the club’s all-time goalscorer list.
Perhaps for the best, his time at the club coincided entirely with Jurgen Klopp, a manager who suggested on Friday that the player’s “best years are yet to come” after Liverpool made Salah the highest-paid player in club history at that age from 30
This business is not risk-free.
It has been claimed Liverpool followed a similar path to Arsenal two years ago when they renewed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s contract at 31 before his influence quickly waned.
However, these are different footballers with different mindsets, representing different clubs in different health conditions and managed by different managers at different stages in their relationship with the players in question.
After all, Aubameyang seems to have regained his composure since joining Barcelona in January. For Salah, perhaps, the risk is more related to his own game: how he, Klopp and his Liverpool team-mates are adjusting to him aging. Each party must ensure that their results during this process justify the investment.
Liverpool made an exception for Salah in that agreement but that doesn’t mean the decision is unprecedented.
While Fenway Sports Group pursues all of its sporting interests, including the Boston Red Sox in baseball, it has seldom awarded major contracts to athletes who reach a stage in their careers that is typically beyond the physical peaks of many.
However, Liverpool clearly don’t think that’s the case for Salah – nor for James Milner, who the club recruited as their highest-paid player when he was about to turn 30 on that day seven years ago.
Milner ticks well all the time, of course, and with the players returning to pre-season training on Monday morning it would be a surprise if he and Salah weren’t at the front of the pack as they race across the track in the otherwise dreaded kilometer- Interval sprints in the following days.
However, when comparing the 2015 Milner and the 2022 Salah, there is a difference of around £200,000 a week.
Ultimately, Salah’s stay at Liverpool always came down to money, no matter how the club, the player or his agent Ramy Abbas try to organize it now that all parties are happy with the result.
When Kevin De Bruyne, a month before his 30th birthday, agreed to a two-year contract extension in May last year to keep him at Manchester City past his 34th birthday, Salah, with Abbas’ guidance, thought they should aim for something similar . That’s about what they got – although there were concessions from both sides because part of his £350,000-a-week is performance and achievement motivated.
Despite fears that this information could cause problems with team-mates and their representatives, who now know there is always room to maneuver in future negotiations, Klopp is particularly confident that the humility and intelligence in the Anfield dressing room mean it is not the case will be problem.
Liverpool’s other players see Salah more as the captain of the team and see how committed he is because he takes care of himself – as he always has – and therefore there is recognition that he deserves what he gets.
There are no obvious signs of Salah slowing down, but there were also no obvious signs of Sadio Mane slowing down before he was sold to Bayern Munich last month.
Sometimes the future can be about a player’s will.
While Salah always wanted to stay as long as the money was right, Mane had made it clear to Liverpool that he would not sign a new deal to replace the one that expired in the summer of 2023. That’s why Luis Diaz was bought as a replacement in January.
Mane, the player and personality that he is, managed to re-define himself in a different position in the final months of his Liverpool career, a time when Salah was recovering from his mid-season travails at the Africa Cup of Nations and struggling with the double disappointments in Egypt, losing the final of that tournament and failing to qualify for the World Cup in March. Liverpool understood the emotional impact of all of this but were supportive. A summer of rest is believed to have done him good.
It will be fascinating to see how Liverpool use Salah from here.
He has been the left-footed forward on the right side of a Front Three for five years, but there are signs that changes are afoot as Klopp successfully adjusted the shape of his midfield and attack towards the end of last season.
Maybe he needs more No 10 options in this development. Perhaps Salah is one of the players who can help him with that.
He was almost always available for Liverpool. Physically, his body would certainly be able to handle the responsibilities of a more central role. He has become more selfless in the last 18 months and serves those around him.
Despite being a far more thoughtful footballer than the one who left Cairo for Switzerland as well as the one who joined Liverpool from Roma, Klopp has to think he remains basically the same machine.
(Top Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)