WITH a name like ‘Salah’ (‘wrong’ in Malay) you may think he will seldom ever get it right!
But Liverpool striker Egyptian Mohamed Salah this week is the talk of town after he was voted BBC African Footballer of the Year for 2017.
Following a record number of votes, the 25-year-old won ahead of Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Guinean Naby Keita, Sadio Mane of Senegal and Nigeria’s Victor Moses.
“I’m very happy to win this award,” he says. “”It’s always a special feeling when you win something. I feel like I had a great year, so I’m very happy.”
Salah, who is the English Premier League’s top scorer with 13 goals, is on the right path with a specially outstanding year for both club and country.
He was the central figure for Egypt as they finished runners-up at the Africa Cup of Nations early this year. He also had a hand in all seven of the goals that took the Pharaohs (Egypt’s nickname) to their first World Cup since 1990 – assisting two and scoring five, including the sensational stoppage-time penalty against Congo that qualified them for Russia 2018.
That Congo goal propelled from football star to national hero. Large photos of Salah headlined every newspaper in a country with a population of 80 million, his hometown school was renamed after him, and there were discounts in some Egyptian restaurants for anyone sharing his name!
Born in 1992, Salah has never even seen Egypt play at a World Cup, but he has changed that – almost single-handedly.
“Salah is the man behind our qualification to the World Cup,” says Hazem Emam, who won the 1998 Nations Cup and 87 caps for Egypt. “”When we qualified in 1990, it was more of a team effort. This time, Salah was the leader of the whole campaign.”
Salah had a hand in all seven of the goals that took the Pharaohs to Russia, scoring five and assisting two, as Egypt finally ended one of African football’s biggest mysteries.
Under Argentine coach Hector Cuper, who is known for his strict defensive approach, Salah has become Egypt’s primary goalscoring option, to the extent that fans have dubbed Egypt the ‘Pass to Salah’ team.
Emam says Salah’s exploits for Egypt and at the highest level in Europe make him his nation’s greatest ever player – above legendary figures as Hossam Hassan, Mohamed Aboutreika and Mahmoud El Khatib.
“Nobody in the history of Egypt has reached such a level in world football and been so successful with the national team,” he adds.
Hailing from the small town of Basyoun, more than 100km from Cairo, Salah had limited chance to join either of Africa’s two most successful clubs and instead signed for Arab Contractors at 18, making his debut in 2010.
“When I first worked with him, I told him that his ambition should have no limit because he had such great pace and, more importantly, he was highly committed to developing his abilities,” says former Egypt Under-20 coach Diaa El-Sayed. “He listened carefully to instructions and has dedicated his whole life off the pitch to becoming a world-class footballer.”
Now Salam is now on Cloud Nine and he is dreaming big.
“I want to be the best Egyptian ever, so I work very hard,” says Salah, who is the third player from Egypt to win the award and first since 2008. “I always follow my own way and I want everyone in Egypt to follow my way.”
Salah’s rise to form in recent years have been based on sheer hard work and perseverance. In Italy, he scored 15 goals and made 11 others as he helped Roma finish second in Serie A, their best league placing in seven years, prior to joining Liverpool and scoring 13 times in his first 16 league games.
“I would like to thank my Liverpool team-mates and I also had a good season with Roma, so I have to thank my team-mates there and my team-mates in the national team,” says Salah.
“Since I came here, I wanted to work hard and show everyone my football. I wanted to come back to the Premier League since I left, so I am very happy.”
There’s nothing stopping the free-scoring striker. Salah has taken the Premier League by storm this season, in contrast to a less impressive spell in the division with Chelsea between 2014-15.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who handed the trophy to the player at the club’s Melwood training academy, had superlative words. “I’m a really lucky person. I had the opportunity to work with a few outstanding players and I am happy that it is now with Mo,” he says.
“The good thing is that he is still young, there is a lot of space for improvement, a lot of potential still that we can work on, but that’s how it should be. It’s a big pleasure, to be honest, to work with him.”
In Russia next year, the diminutive Salah, who boasts 32 goals from 56 internationals, will have to shoulder even vaster expectations.
“Everyone will be talking about Salah’s side, not Egypt, which will be quite a pressure,” says Emam. “But if he is the same form then as he is now, he can lead Egypt to the second round for the first time.”
One thing is for certain: the whole country will be behind him, especially the millions of young Egyptians who – like Salah himself – have never heard their national anthem ring out at football’s greatest event.
There’s no more “wrongs” in his life now. Salah is now the new Pharaoh in Egypt. The new “wonder boy” who will rise to greatest heights if he takes Egypt to the second round of the World Cup in Russia 2018.
By winning the BBC African Footballer of the Year accolade, Salah adds his name to a list of legends including Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast) and Michael Essien (Ghana).
Previous winners: (2016): Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City & Algeria); (2015): Yaya Toure (Manchester City & Ivory Coast); (2014): Yacine Brahimi (Porto & Algeria); (2013): Yaya Toure (Manchester City & Ivory Coast); (2012): Chris Katongo (Henan Construction & Zambia); (2011): Andre Ayew (Marseille & Ghana); (2010): Asamoah Gyan (Sunderland & Ghana); (2009): Didier Drogba (Chelsea & Ivory Coast); (2008): Mohamed Aboutrika (Al Ahly & Egypt); (2007): Emmanuel Adebayor (Arsenal & Togo); (2006): Michael Essien (Chelsea & Ghana); (2005): Mohamed Barakat (Al Ahly & Egypt)