A modern day icon: Mohamed Salah

There’s something ironic in the fact that, at Liverpool, Mohamed Salah’s song is based on a tune called ‘Sit Down’.

Because from the moment the Egyptian walked through the door at Anfield, he’s done nothing but get people out of their seats.

What a remarkable love affair it has been. What a majestic 22 months or so. Liverpool knew they were buying quality when they splashed out almost £37million (€43m/$48m) to bring Salah from Roma in June 2017, but even they could not have predicted the impact this smiling, softly-spoken wideman from the tiny village of Nagrig would have on their club.

The numbers, quite simply, are staggering. In 94 games, Salah has netted 64 goals. In his first season on Merseyside, he scored 44 times in all competitions, breaking the Premier League scoring record for a 38-game season with 31.

It earned him not only the Golden Boot, but both the PFA and Football Writers’ player of the year awards too. He became the first African player to score 30 goals in a Premier League season, the first player to find the net in 24 different league games in a campaign, and the first player since the great Ian Rush to bag 40 or more in a single season for Liverpool. Should he score in any of his next three league games, he’ll become the quickest player in Reds history to 50 league goals.

Those goals have come in big games and smaller games. They’ve come at home, away and abroad. There have been headers and penalties, tap-ins and screamers. He’s electrified Anfield with his pace, dazzled with his dribbling. Defenders remain terrified by the thought of what he could do to them. His goal output has dropped in his second season, but he still has 20. Only Sergio Aguero has more in the Premier League.

With Salah, Liverpool have gone from pretenders to contenders, tantalisingly close to a first English league title since 1990, and strong favourites to beat FC Porto and reach the semi-finals of the Champions League for the second season in a row. The giant has been awoken.

As for Salah, he has become the face of this revamped, reinvigorated team, the poster boy for its success. The 26-year-old’s transformation has been from that of a very good player into a world-class one, from a football name into a household one.

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In Liverpool city centre, around three miles south of Anfield, stands a street mural. It was painted by a local artist, Guy McKinley, and features lines from a poem written by Musa Okijonga.

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah

The Muslim maestro

Cairo’s hero

The golden smile of the Nile

The world’s swiftest Egyptian

Blink…you’ll miss him

His scoring rate is one a game

So once a match

Anfield becomes his prayer mat

It’s a remarkable tribute considering this is a man who has been on Merseyside for less than two years. Steven Gerrard never got this treatment, nor Jamie Carragher. Rush’s face, nor Robbie Fowler’s, Luis Suarez’s nor John Barnes’, never stared back at shoppers like this.

Last July, Salah posted a photo of himself in front of a similar mural, this time in New York’s Times Square. His smiling, bearded face is recognisable the world over these days.

Back home in Egypt, his brand, built on humility, decency and goals, has gone global since his switch to Liverpool. “He is a symbol, like Tutankhamun, like the pyramids,” says Mohamed Farag Amer, head of the country’s parliamentary youth and sports committee. Politicians, of course, know the value of aligning themselves with the nation’s most famous figure.

In a footballing sense, it is Salah who carries Egypt’s hopes on his shoulders. It was he who scored the goal which took them to last summer’s World Cup in Russia, their first since 1990. “A special moment for me and all Egyptians,” he says, before stating that “I want that to become the norm, not something that happens every 28 years.”

Salah’s World Cup was eventually ruined by the shoulder injury inflicted by Sergio Ramos at the Champions League final last May. His tears in Kiev were shared by his 98 million countrymen and women. In Egypt, as on Merseyside, Ramos remains public enemy number one.

Away from the pitch, stories of Salah’s generosity and social conscience have spread like wildfire. Many are exaggerated, but in Nagrig he has helped pay for a religious school, an ambulance station and a food market. He has set up the Mohamed Salah Charitable Foundation, which provides financial support to hundreds of Egyptians each month. He may be a star, but he remembers where he came from. That small farming village, around 80 miles north of Cairo, will always be his home, and he will always be its hero.

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In England there are similar tales of compassion, of humility, of generosity. No Liverpool player gets more requests than Salah, according to Reds staff, but not many are more accommodating either. “Right, what can we do?” is his default response, according to one source.

When a supporter, Sean Cox, was attacked by Roma fans outside Anfield ahead of the Champions League semi-final last April, Salah immediately donated a signed shirt to be auctioned at a fundraising evening. It fetched more than £1,000 for Cox’s family. It will not be forgotten.

Or what about the story of Sean Brown, whose 13-year-old daughter Lucy suffers from cerebral palsy? Last May, as Liverpool prepared for the Champions League final, Sean posted a video on Twitter of Lucy in her wheelchair, singing Salah’s song.

A week later, completely out of the blue, a signed No.11 shirt was delivered to the family’s home. Salah had seen the video and taken it upon himself to get something over to the Browns.

“Lucy wouldn’t take it off,” Sean says. “I had to prise it off her!

“People may say it’s a small gesture, but to me it’s not – it’s huge. So many people talk about footballers and the salaries they earn, that they’ve lost touch with the fans and all that. But to me, what Salah did shows what sort of human being he is. To take the time to have a look at the video, then to send a shirt over, it’s class, and it means an awful lot to a family like ours.”

Salah’s journey is a remarkable one, a testament to not only talent but to dedication, resilience and self-belief. Like many top-level footballers, he’s had to graft and to scrap for his success. Nothing has been handed to him.

salah egypt

As a teenager, he would complete nine-hour round trips on public transport just to get to training with El Mokawloon, a professional club based in Cairo, some 80 miles south of his home town.

"For five days a week, every week for three or four years, I would make this journey,” he says. “I was leaving at 9am in the morning, then I would arrive at the training ground at 2pm or 2.30pm. Training was always at 3.30pm or 4pm. I would finish training at say 6pm, then I’d go home and arrive at 10pm or 10.30pm. Then it was eat, sleep and then the day after the same thing.”

Salah made his debut in the Egyptian league at 15, and signed his first professional contract at 16. He would play as a left winger or even a left back, where that familiar speed and dribbling ability was already in evidence.

“He was the only one who dreamed of professionalism, of playing outside of Egypt,” says former team-mate Ahmad Saad. “Most of us only thought of playing for Al-Ahly or Zamalek.”

“All my dreams and goals were to become a well-known professional,” Salah says. “But I couldn’t imagine I’d reach the level I’m at now.

“Every kid dreams of being on television, but then when I first made it, my targets changed. I wanted to become a professional abroad, and after that I wanted to be the best.”

In 2012, aged 19, he would move to Europe, joining FC Basel. The Swiss club had arranged a friendly with Egypt’s under-23 team, partly to help them prepare for that summer’s OIympic Games in London (the Egyptian league had been cancelled following the Port Said stadium disaster), but mainly to have a look at Egypt’s skinny, lightning-quick winger.

Georg Heitz was Basel’s sporting director at the time, and remembers that freezing March day well.

“Mo played the second half and he scored twice,” he said. “That was when we decided we had to sign him.

“After the friendly game we had the player here for one week to train with us. We could get an impression about his character and his will.

“It was very clear that he was so ambitious. He wanted to be successful in Europe. We did not have any doubts.”

Salah spent almost two years at Basel, and might have joined Liverpool in January 2014. A deal was close, but it was Chelsea who eventually signed him. Salah’s time at Stamford Bridge, though, would be difficult.

He would play 19 times before being loaned to Fiorentina in Italy, where he regained his confidence and his form. Another loan move to Roma followed in the summer of 2015, and was made permanent the following year, with Salah impressing immediately in the Italian capital. His two seasons with the Giallarossi brought 34 goals.

By that time, Liverpool were ready to make their move again. Their extensive notes from his Basel days had been supplemented by glowing reports from Paul Goldrick, their Italy-based scout, while Reds sporting director Michael Edwards and his recruitment team pushed Klopp to forget other targets, such as Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt, and focus on Salah. “He will score goals, trust us,” was the message.

They were right. Salah netted on his Premier League debut at Watford and hasn’t looked back. Liverpool have worked on his strength, his off-the-ball work and his positional play. His link-up with Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane has created one of Europe’s most potent attacking line-ups. Between them those three scored 91 goals last season, and they have 54 this time around. Unstoppable.

Mohamed Salah Liverpool Watford

Now, the hope is that the goals and the assists and the thrills and the spills can be turned into something tangible; trophies.

“Last season for me it was of course a fantastic, historic season which I’m very proud of,” he says.

“But I’m looking for another one like it. I’m not going to live off it. On the contrary it made me more excited and determined for this season.”

With Liverpool well placed both domestically and in Europe, Salah will get his shot at glory. He appreciates and understands the attention his goalscoring exploits have brought, but his personality, according to those who know him, has never changed. He remains, away from the pitch, a dedicated family man, unaltered by the glitz and the glamour of his new, media-driven world.

“Few people who aren’t close to me know the real me,” he says. “I try and keep my family away from the media and spotlight, so they can enjoy their private life and they can enjoy not being known everywhere they go.”

Salah, of course, has no such luxury. The King of Liverpool, and of Egypt, Salah is mobbed at every turn. His profile is huge, and is only getting bigger.

And if he can help end Liverpool’s long, painful wait for a Premier League title, he’ll be assured of legendary status at Anfield.

For a skinny kid from Nagrig, that would really be something.