Running down the wing
Salah, la, la, la
The Egyptian King!“
During recent seasons the above ode to one Mohamed Salah has often been heard reverberating around Anfield as the little Egyptian weaves his magic on the pitch. Since joining Liverpool from Roma in the summer of 2017, Mo Salah has embedded himself as an Anfield hero as part of a fearsome attacking trio of himself, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino – and now boosted by Diogo Jota. By October 2020, he had already scored 100 goals for Liverpool in just 159 games, making him the third fastest Liverpool player to reach that mark and the first to score 100 goals since Steven Gerrard. He has scored more than 20 goals for Liverpool in all competitions for four consecutive seasons, ended fifth in the 2019 Ballon d’Or and was part of the Liverpool team that finally lifted the Premiership in 2020, their first for thirty years. In just five years, Mo Salah has already established himself as a Liverpool legend, and at this very moment there could be a reasonable
argument that he is the best player in the world, based on his recent superlative performances and goals.
But like stories of most great players, his success did not just suddenly happen overnight. It has been a long and sometimes tough path that has taken the magical Egyptian from the dusty streets of Cairo to the lush green turf of Anfield. So where did this journey to superstardom all begin? How did he first get noticed on the European scene? For the answer to that, we have to go back to 2012 and a city in northwestern Switzerland on the river Rhine, famous for its many museums and home to Switzerland’s oldest university – Basel.
Mo Salah’s professional career started in his home country of Egypt where he joined the Cairo based Al Mokawloon in 2010, a team playing in the Egyptian Premier League. His first season saw the league suspended on January 27, 2011 for three months due to the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution, which
saw the toppling of the Mubarak government and democratic elections. After resumption, Al Mokawloon finished bottom of the 16 team league but luckily did not suffer relegation due to the three month suspension.
The following season again saw the Egyptian league suspended on February 1, 2012, this time following on the Port Said Stadium disaster, when 74 people lost their lives following a massive riot during a game between Masry and Ahly. It was eventually decided to cancel the remainder of the season on March 10, with Al Mokawloon sitting 17th out of 19 teams.
Like many young Egyptian players in lower teams, Salah dreamt of playing for Ahly or Zamalek, the bigger Cairo teams. He was in fact close to joining Zamalek after Al Mokawloon but they felt it was too early for him to make such a jump.
So how did Salah end up moving from a struggling Cairo team to the Swiss canton of Basel-Stadt? It really began with a match played on March 16, 2012, shortly after the decision to cancel the remainder of the 2011/12 season. Basel organized a friendly game against the Egypt U-23 team, nicknamed The Pharoahs, to be played in Basel’s then home stadium; Stadion Rankhof. According to the Basel president, Bernhard Heusler, “the only reason we wanted this match was because of the chance to see Mohamed Salah play live”. Salah was a substitute for the game but came on at half-time to score twice in a 4-3 Basel victory, leading Heusler to purr “We were so impressed. It was freezing cold but he was amazing”. That second half performance led to an invitation to join the Basel team training, followed by a four-year contract commencing June 15, 2012. Salah’s European odyssey had begun.
Salah was lucky enough to be joining Basel during a golden period for the team. They had won the domestic double in the prior 2011/12 season as well as earning their third consecutive Swiss Super League championship, the “Title Hattrick”. The successful 2011/12 season had also seen Basel’s best ever Champions League performance to date, reaching the last 16 after finishing second in the group stage behind Benfica. They had been one minute away from a famous victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford in the group stage before a last-ditch goal from Ashley Young meant a 3-3 draw, but then defeated Manchester United 2-1 back in Basel, leading to their second place finish and Manchester United’s elimination. And this was still the Ferguson-managed Manchester United.
The big news at the start of Basel’s 2012/13 season was not the signing of Salah but the departure of two key members of the successful 2011/12 team; Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka. Both departed for Germany, with
Shaqiri off to Bayern Munich and Xhaka off to Borussia Monchengladbach – both for undisclosed fees. With Salah effectively being a replacement for the highly regarded Shaqiri, that immediately added a degree of pressure to his start.
Basel suffered a somewhat slow start to the Swiss League campaign, with three wins and three draws and it was the sixth game, a 2-0 win over FC Lausanne, that saw Salah score his first goal for the club. At the time, he was alone in Basel, unable to speak either Swiss German or English. He scored against the same club in round 11 of the season but by the time of the winter break, he still only had 2 league goals from 18 matches, although many of his appearances had been as a substitute. The first half of the season also saw Basel eliminated from the Champions League in the play-off round stage, going out 3-1 on aggregate to Romanian side CFR Cluj, with Salah not scoring in that round or the prior two. The defeat meant that Basel were flipped down into the Europa League group stages. A team-mate of Salah’s, Philipp Degan, remembers “he was very fast but he was not the best with his feet at the beginning”.
January 2013 saw Mohamed Elneny join Basel which finally provided Salah with a compatriot with whom to bond. Basel enjoyed a strong Europa Cup run, finishing second in their group with Salah starting in three of the six games, mainly as a right winger behind Frei and Streller in attack. From there, Basel eliminated Dnipro Pnipropetrovsk in the last 32, 3-1 on aggregate, with Salah playing in the second leg. They then eliminated Zenit St Petersburg 2-1 on aggregate with Salah starting in both matches.
This then led to Salah’s first exposure to Premier League fans. A quarter-final draw saw Basel play at Tottenham in April 2013, where Salah started and Basel were 2-0 up within 35 minutes. Adebayor pulled one back just before half-time before Sigurosson equalized in the second half, but Basel came away from White Hart Lane with an impressive 2-2 draw. Back in Switzerland, Dempsey opened the scoring before Salah equalized in the 27th minute. Basel then went 2-1 up before a Dempsey goal late on sent the tie into extra time followed by penalties, which saw Basel win 4-1. Salah had scored his first goal in Europa League competition.
The second half of the domestic season saw Basel take over the lead in the Swiss Super League before going on to claim their fourth successive title. They also came close to claiming a second double, denied on penalties in the Swiss Cup final by Grasshoppers.
Mo Salah ended the 2012/13 season with a respectable 48 appearances, albeit many as substitute, and 9 goals despite playing behind the two strikers. His typical brand of goal was to use his explosive speed to cut in from the right hand side before converting with his left foot. This in his first European season at the age of 20, far from his home of Egypt.
The 2013/14 saw a repeat of the previous year, with Basel again winning the Swiss Super League and again narrowly missing the double, this time losing the Swiss Cup final to FC Zurich in extra time. But European competition was once again where Salah was to draw attention from elsewhere.
The Champions League third qualifying round saw Basel suffer a scare when, after beating Maccabi Tel Aviv 1-0 at home, they took an early 3-0 lead in Israel, including a goal from Salah, only to watch Maccabi Tel Aviv pull the tie back to 3-3 leaving Basel hanging on for the second half. The tie did see controversy for Salah in that he appeared to deliberately avoid shaking hands with the Israeli players during both legs. A victory over Ludogorets Razgrad in the play-off round saw Salah bag another two goals. This placed Basel into the group stages where they were paired with their vanquishers from last year’s Europa League once again; Chelsea.
The opening game of the group saw Basel travel to Stamford Bridge and shock Chelsea with a 2-1 defeat, with the equalizer coming from Salah in the 70th minute. Salah had been giving Chelsea’s Ashley Cole a busy evening and, sitting out on the right as usual, he was unmarked as the ball came across to him and he side-footed a trademark left-foot shot past Petr Cech from the edge of the area. Streller then silenced the home fans with a late near-post header from a corner. The defeat represented Chelsea’s first in the Champions League group stage at Stamford Bridge since October 2003 and grabbed manager Mourinho’s attention. It was also the first win by a Swiss side in 20 competitive visits to England since 1995.
Basel then suffered two draws and a defeat before the re-match occurred in Switzerland in November. Clad in their traditional red and blue jerseys, it was a night when Salah destroyed Chelsea from start to finish. Playing on the right as usual, he used his speed to break through the Chelsea defence time and time again. Twice in the first half he forced Cech into great saves. Then, in the 87th minute, a long ball saw Salah break down the left where after one touch to control the ball and one touch to settle himself, he scored the only goal to do the double over Chelsea. Mourinho watched on impassively from the sideline.
Unfortunately, these were Basel’s only two wins in the group, meaning they finished third and dropped down to the Europa League while Chelsea topped the group. But Salah’s performances against Chelsea had definitely not gone unnoticed, especially by Jose Mourinho.
Once again, Basel enjoyed a strong Europa League run, this time being eliminated in the quarter-finals by Valencia after winning the first leg at home 3-0 before losing in extra time in Spain. But unlike the previous year, Salah was not to take part in this run. Having destroyed Chelsea during both legs of their Champions League games, Liverpool showed strong interest in him, only for Mourinho to decide that he had to have the player who had been such a thorn in his side. On January 23, 2014, Chelsea announced a five-and-a-half-year deal for Salah for an initial GBP11M. On signing, Salah commented, “I’m very happy to sign for Chelsea, such a big club in the world. I hope I can make the Chelsea supporters happy and have a good career at the club for many years to come.”
Unfortunately for Salah and Chelsea, the move did not work out. He was competing from the start with the likes of Oscar, Hazard and Willian and playing for a manager who valued defensive responsibility from his
attackers, something not natural to Salah. He made only 13 appearances for the Blues, scoring just twice, and was publically criticised by Mourinho after a League Cup tie against lowly Shrewsbury Town where one attempted shot by him went out for a throw-in. On February 2, 2015 he was loaned out to Fiorentina. From there he moved on to Roma where his redemption began in a team that finished second in the 2016/17 season, aided by 19 goals from Salah in all competitions, before the fateful move to Liverpool on June 22, 2017 for an initial GBP36.5M, a club record at the time.
The footballing world knows the rest of the story from then on as Salah has written himself into Liverpool folklore. The only unknown now is how long the fairytale will continue at Anfield and how many more songs Liverpool fans will compose about their Egyptian hero. But it all really started with three games for Swiss side Basel against Chelsea in the Champions League. They say one of the keys to success is to grab opportunities when they arise; Mo Salah certainly did so against the Blues. The rest, as they say, is history.
We bought the lad from Roma and he scores every game
He’s Egyptian and he’s brilliant and Mohamed’s his name.
Mo Salah, la, la la
Mo Salah, la, la la