Mo Salah is laughing.
And well he might. His club, Liverpool, sit imperiously at the top of the Premier League having won all eight games this season, a streak extending into the back end of the previous campaign, leaving them one win short of Manchester City’s record of 18. But that’s not the reason.
In the last 24 months, Salah has transcended the game he loves so dearly. He’s become a generational talent with influence sprouting way beyond the confines of the football pitch. There’s a case to say that the Egyptian King, the name Liverpool fans bestowed upon him, could well be the most loved Arab in the world. But that’s not it either.
The reason for Salah’s belly laugh is a story we’re telling him about his first GQ Middle East cover shoot. It goes like this: It's February and a man is standing at the immigration desk in Cairo International Airport, his passport being checked by a woman behind the counter. As she scrutinises his photo, looking from passport to man and back again, her phone pings into life with a shirtless Mo Salah from his GQ shoot taking pride of place as the screensaver. Cue much embarrassment, her scrambling to hide the phone under the desk and the man in question being ushered through into the country very quickly.
“Seriously?” Salah enquires. “That happened? That’s so funny.”
There’s something very disarming when Salah laughs. He loosens up, relaxes, is almost child-like. But then that’s how he plays the game. The non-stop energy, the absolute passion, the anger when it doesn’t go his way and the toothy grin when it does – which is more often than not. Despite the plaudits, despite the spot on the Time 100 Most Influential People list for 2019 – Salah being one of six special covers alongside Dwayne Johnson and Taylor Swift – he just wants to play football. He’s still the boy playing at left-back for Egyptian side El Mokawloon, getting a little teary when he misses a chance to score and win the game.
“When did I want to play again after winning the Champions League final?” He asks. “The next day. The very next day.” Salah says this without hesitation, his connection with football is on a metaphysical level. Days later, from the confines of Dubai’s HotCold Studios, legendary photographer Peggy Sirota and her team are rolling footballs across the set at Salah and fellow cover star, the supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio (not a line we ever expected to write). Even with Salah’s injured ankle you can see he’s drawn to the ball, an unstoppable magnetic force pulling them together.
“My ankle is feeling ok now,” he offers over the din. “I’m moving a little better and maybe training within a week.” He says this, you feel, out of hope more than anything else. Just a couple of days earlier, Salah had hobbled out of the last minutes of Liverpool’s laboured win over Leicester City, scythed down from the side by Leicester’s Hamza Choudhury. Cue 70,000 hearts in mouths. None more so than GQ's, fearing the man they would days later crown Man of the Year might actually end up in a hospital bed as opposed to accepting his award at Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Salah is used to the weight of expectation by now, of course. He might only be 5ft 9ins, but under the brushy mop of dark hair lie broad shoulders. How else do you remain calm enough to take the last-minute penalty that will take your country to its first World Cup Finals in 28 years?
Twenty-four years earlier, Italian superstar Roberto Baggio missed a penalty in a shoot-out in the World Cup final against Brazil – a game they would go on to lose. After ballooning the ball over the bar from 12 yards, Baggio dropped off the radar for months, utterly crushed by his failure. The pressure lies heavy like a stone tablet on the chest. But Salah took it in his stride.
“The World Cup penalty for Egypt was probably the hardest,” he says, picking between that and his spot kick for Liverpool in the Champions League Final. “It was late in the game, it was 28 years since we had qualified, it was hot... yes that was definitely the toughest.”
The burden of responsibility for both Egypt and Liverpool could crush a lesser soul, but Salah takes it all rather calmly, at least on the surface.
“I try to visualise the game each time,” he explains, letting GQ into his pre-match routine. “I think about the whole thing ahead of the match. Once you’re in the game it’s easier after that – it's like you’ve played it already.”
After around five minutes of talking to him, you realise the thing Salah hates talking about most – himself. You can feel the agony in his voice when you push on something that doesn’t involve a football.
In his Time cover interview, John Oliver opened his piece by saying he felt Salah to be a “Better human being than he is a football player,” and he’s probably right. Which is quite a thing indeed.
Salah famously refuses to celebrate a goal against a former club and has done much to help the village of Nagrig, the place he was brought up. There’s also a story that, while playing in Alexandria, a man robbed Salah’s family home. Instead of pressing charges, Salah gave the man money to help turn his life around. The 27-year-old would never talk about any of this, of course. Even explaining what he does away from football (“I stay home, I go to the cinema, sometimes dinners, too”) seems like a huge step away from his comfort zone.
Turtleneck, $360, Dunhill. Trousers, $1720, Tom Ford. Loafers, $5260, Santoni. On her: Dress, $8795, Valentino. Heels, price on request, Dolce & Gabbana
Which takes us back to that original GQ cover shoot. A shirtless Mo Salah with what looked like a bodyfat percentage in the minus column. His torso actually sparked something of an angry debate on GQ’s Insta feed, with people arguing it was impossible to look this way. That it was photoshopped. It wasn’t, incidentally.
Did his teammates like the shoot? “Yes, it was like a big party in the dressing room,” he laughs. “It was nice, though, I think I’m the first player there to do something like that. It was fun. There were a lot of jokes.”
A lot has happened in the 10 months or so that followed, but you feel the rest of this season is clutch for Salah. Help Liverpool to its first league title in 30 years and become an untouchable alongside the likes of Keegan and Dalglish. Come unstuck and who knows?
You won’t see any signs of pressure coming from the Egyptian, though. Like his famous T-shirt from Liverpool’s thrilling Champions League semi-final comeback against Barcelona said, Never Give Up.
And if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. Salah moves on to the next one, the next game, finding just one thing that will motivate him to be better than the man marking him
Whatever happens this season - and beyond... Mo Salah is laughing.
Photography: Peggy Sirota
Styling (Mo Salah): Keanoush Zargham
Styling (Alessandra Ambrosio): Kate Hazell
Grooming (Mo Salah): Carmelo Cannata
Makeup: Carolina Gonzalez
Hair (Alessandra Ambrosio): Frankie Foye