Trench coat, hoodie, price on request, Burberry.

Trench coat, hoodie, price on request, Burberry.

The Unstoppable Rise Of Mo Salah

By Ali Khaled
16 December 2018
Each time he steps on a pitch, Mohamed Salah balances the expectations of a nation – and one of the world’s most famous football clubs. It’s the kind of pressure that can make or break a man…but this much we know: Salah won’t be stopped

It’s October 2017 and Mohamed Salah is slumped in a heap on the ground. Face buried in the turf, body lifeless, he’s temporarily crippled by a late equaliser from Congo. Around him, a World Cup qualification seemingly up in smoke. For a moment, he’s unable to move. Then, slowly, he rises. He pulls himself to his knees and then awkwardly onto his feet. He turns… you see his face, an expression twisted and contorted in agony. This pain isn’t physical – it’s much worse than that. He screams and howls, the cries of a man who has just had the most important thing in his life ripped from his grasp. His pain is visceral. It’s shared by a nation.

This was Egypt’s big chance. Beat Congo and they would qualify for their first World Cup in 28 years. Draw or lose and they would face a tough final match against Ghana.

“When the equaliser went in, I could hardly comprehend what I saw,” says Salah. “I was thinking of the 80,000 fans in the stadium. It was hard to accept that we would not qualify in that match. I was totally crushed, I fell to the floor, I just couldn’t help myself. But as soon as I hit the ground, I thought to myself that if the other players saw me like that then it was not going to help.”

He forced himself up.

“But even as I was doing it, I was still burning inside. It was tough. I was shouting for them to lift their heads, but it was so hard to keep control of my own emotions. I felt I was losing control of everything. It was probably the most difficult moment of my life.”

What followed was perhaps the greatest moment of his life. Almost incredulously, Egypt were awarded a penalty in injury time. Play back the footage and you can get a real measure of Salah. As the stadium erupts and players celebrate as if a goal was guaranteed, one man stood alone. Quietly, on the edge of the madness was Mo Salah, a man now tasked with making history. (No pressure then.)

Mo Salah

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“I wasn’t thinking. Those seconds before the penalty, I was not thinking,” he recalls.

Much in the tradition of vital spot kicks, Salah already had a plan. “I had decided earlier that if I got a chance I was going to hit it as hard as possible, there was no other option. I had not thought of placing the ball in corner, I just knew that I was going to hit it as hard as possible, and that’s it. I had taken that decision already.”

Salah had spent the previous seven days imagining every possible scenario in his head. When the moment came, he rewarded the faith of his 98 million countrymen. Seconds later, he was being carried on the shoulders of delirious supporters inside Borg Al Arab Stadium in Alexandria. Disaster and triumph all played out in seven minutes. For Salah, this was for the people.

“We hadn’t qualified for the World Cup in 28 years. It was a special moment for me and for all Egyptians. But to qualify in that manner…” he pauses. “The world’s greatest film director would struggle to come up with an ending like that. I want that [qualification] to become the norm, not something only experienced every 28 years.”

These highs and lows are familiar to Salah. Football is, now and forever, a results business: win and you’re a tabloid darling, lose and online vilification is as swift as it is merciless. But even by his standards, the past week or so has been transcendent. A hat-trick to take Liverpool to the top of Premier League; a sublime solo effort to slay Napoli and ensure his club’s qualification to the round of 16 in the Champions League; winning the BBC African Footballer of the Year award for second year running. Life is good. Mo Salah is happy.

Mo Salah

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“I wouldn’t say just the last week,” he explains. “I’d say the whole year has been great.” The man is not one to forget his good fortune, because he knows what life is like at the other end of the scale.

Stories of the obstacles the young Salah had to overcome as a youth player are already legend. Four hours on buses and cars to get to training, and then a similar return journey in the early hours of the morning for the exhausted teenager.

“All my dreams and goals were to become a well-known professional, but I couldn’t imagine I’d reach the level I’m at now,” the 26-year-old says. “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.”

The fiercely ambitious Salah that the world has fallen in love with is, in every way, a product of those early days at Basyoun, Tanta and finally Al Mokawoloon, where an embryonic career began to take shape in 2008. At 16, Salah was offered the chance to sign a contract with the club. It was the moment that changed his young life.

“In that period, I decided that I must become a professional footballer,” he says. “It was an opportunity I wasn’t going to waste. That was one of my first big decisions: don’t let this slip from your hands.”

Before that, things hadn’t exactly clicked. At 14, Salah was being overlooked at Al Mokawoloon’s age group teams, and it was an omission that led to tantrums from the youngster who recalls his “spirit being crushed”. Today, Salah credits his father for his unwavering support.

“I would complain that I didn’t want to travel to training. But he stood by me and told me that all great players go through this. The price for him was very high, and I’ll never forget the role he played in my career.”

It’s an image of frustration and perseverance that we don’t often associate with the toothy grin of Salah; but then again, once thriving, a career has a habit of becoming a glossy highlight reel – one conspicuously missing the slow steady effort that gave birth to it.

Mo Salah

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The hardships for father and son would pay off spectacularly when Salah was bought by Swiss club Basel ahead of the 2012 Olympics. It was at that tournament where the world got its first glimpse of the fresh-faced Egyptian, then minus the now trademark bushy hair and beard.

“I wanted to portray the best image possible so when I returned to Basel, people there would realise that they are getting a good player, not some unknown from Egypt,” he says.

Three goals, including one in a famous match against Brazil ensured his new employers were more than pleased with their purchase. But this was a two-way street, and a culture shock awaited the young Egyptian.

“For me to go to Switzerland… everything was different,” he says. “The food, the lifestyle the organisation. Everything was very tough to get used to. The language too. At the time I didn’t speak English. But slowly I started to communicate, I started to understand. The biggest thing that helped me throughout my career is that I always want to learn. If you want to succeed you have to be willing to learn everything.”

It was an attitude that kept Salah in good stead. A move to Chelsea, and England, led to another in Italy where Salah enjoyed productive years with Fiorentina and then Roma.

“The culture, again, was very different,” Salah says. “But with everything I do, I want to learn more. It’s something I enjoy. I was happy at Fiorentina, and I was happy at Roma. It was great to experience different leagues. To change lifestyles, to embrace a new culture and see different things is a beautiful thing.”

Mo Salah

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December 2017, just two months after he prospered in Cairo with the national team. This time, Salah scores a miraculous goal for Liverpool in his first-ever Merseyside derby against Everton. The crowd at a snowy Anfield break into a raucous rendition of “The Egyptian King”, a song that had echoed around football grounds across England and Europe for months. But this time, its intensity feels different. In the freezing night air, there is a sense that the crowd has found an idol for the first time since the departure of club legend Steven Gerrard. Once more, Salah was thrust into greatness by an adoring public.

“Of course that makes me feel great, and makes me want to work harder and to continue performing,” he says. “Because after that if your standards drop, people will not accept it. It’s a great feeling, but I don’t see it as more pressure.”

The strike went on to win the FIFA Puskás Award for the most “aesthetically pleasing” goal of the year.  And, although Liverpool would narrowly miss out on winning the Champions League – losing 3-1 to Real Madrid in the final – and Egypt would endure a tough World Cup, for Salah as an individual it had proved to be the greatest year of his career yet.

Mo Salah for GQ Middle East

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“For me it was of course a fantastic, historic season which I’m very proud of, but I’m looking for another one like it,” he says of the 2017/18 campaign. “I’m not going to live off it. On the contrary it made me more excited and determined for this season.”

It’s a typical answer for a modern day footballer: safe, positive, humble. But with Salah comes a genuineness, a wide-grinned authenticity that disarms you. Away from football, his impact as a person is felt across continents – his is the kind of personality that’s embraced by disparate cultures. But you only know him as well as he wants you to.

Mo Salah

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“People see a lot of me on social media, whether I’m posting comedy clips, or jokes, or having fun with my friends,” he says. “But few people who aren’t close to me know the real me.

“This is not a bad thing – you don’t really know someone well until you actually meet them, right? So, you give an honest impression of yourself, anything that comes from the heart. But people are not so close to me that we engage every day.”

Salah is private when it comes to his family, though his best laid plans were beautifully blown away by his daughter on the final day of last season. As Salah received the Premier League Golden Boot, four-year-old Makka, decked in her father’s Liverpool shirt, ran on to the pitch and proceeded to show off her own football skills in front of a besotted, cheering crowd.

“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,” says Salah. “But when Makka came onto the pitch… the way the crowd responded to her, that's something I keep going back to watch because it made me happy to see my daughter received in such a way. I’m very proud of that.”

Mo Salah

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The funny thing about being thrust into greatness is that, should you have the desire and wherewithal to accept the invitation, then a different type of fame is in the post. A fame that takes you on to an entirely different level. In the summer of 2017, Salah was a football superstar. A year later, he was a cultural icon.

Graffiti murals in Times Square. Chants on YouTube. Statues in Liverpool. Comic books in Cairo. Few areas of popular culture are Salah-less these days.
“Of course I’m happy that people see me in a positive light. To see your image painted in America, I don’t know many other players that have had that, but it makes me so proud,” he says. “I’m only 26 so hopefully there’s lot more to come.”

Salah the person is now Salah the footballer is now Salah the worldwide phenomenon. Thanks to social media, which he has embraced via his Twitter and Instagram accounts, fame and constant attention are not things that one of the world’s most recognisable sportsmen can switch off away from the glare of a football pitch.

“It’s a positive thing but has to be used in the proper way,” he says.

Mo Salah

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And the burden of becoming a role model for young Arab footballers hoping to make it big in Europe? “It all depends on the person’s ambitions. If you’re comfortable at home and in your own league, that’s fine, that’s what you want. But if you want to try something different then you have to be prepared to sacrifice many comforts.

“For me, nothing was going to come easy… nothing good ever does. I went through every possible stage a footballer could go through. Moving from an Arab country to Europe, you feel the difference in everything from standard of living to food, to communication. You don’t know what to do. After that you become organised because you want to reach your goals. If you don’t try then you will always stay at home. I’m not belittling that at all, if that’s what you want, then that’s okay too.”

No one is happier about Salah’s ambition and wanderlust than Liverpool fans. On social media, the club’s supporters have a hashtag that is used after their team’s victories, #wtrwwaw; “When the reds win, we all win”.

Wins have been so plentiful since the arrival of the Egyptian King, perhaps they should adopt a new hashtag in his honour – a slogan that better encapsulates the Mo Salah moment we’re living in: When Mohamed Salah is happy, we are all happy.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Buzz White at One Represents
STYLING: Olivia Harding

GROOMING: Tyler Johnston at One Represents
PRODUCTION: Shiny Projects