In late 2019, towards the end of another relentlessly hot day scrambling across Cairo’s concrete sprawl in search of fresh information about Egypt’s most famous footballer, one of his former team-mates found it easy to explain why Mohamed Salah had managed to do what only a select few from his country have been able to achieve.
Ali Fathi had shared five years of his teenage life with Salah when the pair were signed to El Mokawloon. In an apartment block to the east of Cairo, they would spend their evenings gaming, where Salah, on FIFA, would always be Barcelona – the club he dreamed of joining.
It had always been Salah’s ambition to move to Europe. He didn’t seem particularly motivated by a future at Al Ahly or Zamalek, the two Cairo clubs where all of the best Egyptian footballers tend to end up. It cannot be overestimated how unusual this was, because the passion for football is on a religious level in Egypt, where players are paid well enough to make it easier for them to stay at home when offers come from abroad.
Fathi, a left-back, whose career had taken him briefly to the Portuguese island of Madeira before he returned to the wild womb of Cairo, was injured at the time and trying to get back into the team at his latest club, El Entag El Harby.
Looking across the training field, he commented on the size and shape of his current team-mates, comparing them to Salah, who was thousands of miles away and trying to negotiate a British winter during a season where he would end up as a Premier League champion.
Simply, it had been Salah’s independence that made him different. He was able to think alone and this meant he looked after himself. After training every day, he would go to the exercise hall unaccompanied and lift weights for a minimum of half an hour. Later, he enrolled at a private gymnasium where he told an instructor that he needed to improve his stamina and acceleration, even though he’d already dazzled in his early professional career as an extremely fast footballer.
Fathi suggested that the diet of Egyptian footballers generally wasn’t particularly healthy because of their meat intake. Salah, however, took conditioning incredibly seriously – “more seriously than any Egyptian footballer I’ve ever met”.
He had not been guided by any of his coaches in this pursuit. Indeed, he might have been a Barcelona fan but from afar, he’d seen Cristiano Ronaldo with his Real Madrid shirt off after scoring a goal and realised the way the game was heading. “Mo realised he had to become a machine,” Fathi concluded.
Last month made it a decade since Salah’s departure from Egyptian club football. A new three-year contract at Liverpool will take him to within three seasons of the Egyptian player who holds the records for the longest career in Europe.
Yet perhaps Salah’s path would have been different had he listened to that same player; Hany Ramzy, a defender who represented their country at the 1990 World Cup, before he became a scout in Germany.
Ramzy spent 11 of his 16 years in Europe with Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern. This meant he had a good understanding of the Bundesliga, which is where Salah could have gone first when he left Egypt had it not been for the intervention of Mohamed Amer, his manager at El Mokawloon, who advised him to wait.
Instead, he stepped from North Africa into Europe via Switzerland, where his performances in 18 months with Basel led to an offer from Liverpool. Had he agreed to move to Anfield in 2014 instead of joining Chelsea, you also wonder where he might be positioned currently on the club’s all-time goalscoring list.
Perhaps it worked out for the best that his time at the club has coincided entirely with Jurgen Klopp, a manager who suggested that the player’s “best years are still to come” on Friday after Liverpool made Salah the highest-paid player in the club’s history at the age of 30.
This deal is not free of risk.
It has been claimed that Liverpool are treading similar ground to Arsenal two years ago, when they renewed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s contract at 31 before his influence wilted quickly.
These, however, are different footballers with different mindsets representing different clubs in different states of health, led by different managers at different stages of their relationship with the players concerned.
Aubameyang, after all, seems to have found himself again since moving on to Barcelona in January. For Salah, the risk, perhaps, relates more to his own game: how he, Klopp and his Liverpool team-mates adjust to him becoming older. Each party will need to ensure his output during this process justifies the investment.
Liverpool have made an exception for Salah in this agreement but it does not mean the decision is unprecedented.
While running all of its sporting interests, including baseball’s Boston Red Sox, Fenway Sports Group has rarely handed out huge contracts to sportspeople who are reaching a stage in their careers that normally would be beyond the physical peak of many.
Clearly, however, Liverpool do not believe this is the case with Salah – just as they did not with James Milner, who the club recruited as their best-paid player when he was soon to be 30 years old on this same date seven years ago.
Milner, of course, is ticking along just fine all this time later and after the players return for pre-season training on Monday morning, it would be a surprise if he and Salah are not at the front of the pack when they hurtle across the track in the otherwise dreaded kilometre interval sprints in the days that follow.
When comparing the Milner of 2015 and the Salah of 2022, however, there is a difference of around £200,000 a week.
Ultimately, Salah’s stay at Liverpool has always boiled down to money, no matter how the club, the player or his representative Ramy Abbas try to frame it now that all parties are happy about the outcome.
When Kevin De Bruyne, a month short of his 30th birthday, agreed a two-year contract extension in May of last year to keep him at Manchester City past his 34th birthday, Salah, with guidance from Abbas, figured they should be aiming for something similar. That is roughly what they got – although there were concessions from both sides because some of his £350k a week is incentivised around performance and achievement.
Despite concerns that this information might cause problems with team-mates and their representatives, who now know there is always wiggle room in any future negotiation, Klopp is particularly confident that the humility and intelligence in the Anfield dressing room mean it won’t be a problem.
The other Liverpool players tend to think of Salah as the side’s main man and see how dedicated he is because of the way he takes care of himself – as he has always done – and therefore, there is a recognition that he deserves what he’s getting.
There are no obvious signs of Salah slowing up, but there were no obvious signs of Sadio Mane slowing up either before he was sold to Bayern Munich last month.
Sometimes, the future can be about a player’s will.
While Salah always wanted to stay providing the money was right, Mane had made it clear to Liverpool that he would not be signing a new contract to replace the one expiring in summer 2023. That is why Luis Diaz was bought in January as his replacement.
Mane, being the player and personality he is, managed to redefine himself in another position during the final months of his Liverpool career, a period when Salah struggled after his mid-season exertions in the Africa Cup of Nations, and the twin disappointments of Egypt losing that tournament’s final and, in March, failing to qualify for the World Cup. Liverpool understood the emotional impact in all of that but backed him. It is thought a summer of rest will have done him the power of good.
It will be fascinating to see how Liverpool use Salah from here.
For five years, he has been the left-footed striker on the right of a front three, but there are indications that changes are afoot given the way Klopp successfully tweaked the shape of his midfield and attack towards the end of last season.
Maybe he’ll need more No 10 options in this evolution. Maybe Salah will be one of the players who can help him with that.
He has nearly always been available for Liverpool. Physically, his body would surely be able to deal with the responsibilities of a more central role. He has become more unselfish over the last 18 months, servicing those around him.
Though he is a much more thoughtful footballer compared to the one that left Cairo for Switzerland, as well as the one that joined Liverpool from Roma, Klopp must think that he fundamentally remains the same machine.
(Top photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)
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