The Egyptian King: Mohamed Salah's boundary-breaking legacy
Mohamed Saleh has just started his fifth season at Liverpool and looks as good as ever. On September 12, the Egyptian scored his 100th goal in the English Premier League against Leeds United. Only four players in the competition’s history have reached that milestone playing fewer games and they are historically significant players: England legends Alan Shearer and Harry Kane as well as Thierry Henry of France and Argentine striker Sergio Aguero.
Few imagined that the 29-year-old would be in such esteemed company when he arrived at Liverpool back in 2017. His first spell in England with Chelsea was not a memorable one and, in January 2015, a year after arriving in London, Salah was loaned out to Italy.
On returning to England two years later, he seemed to have found his spiritual home in Liverpool. He has helped to inspire the Reds to the UEFA Champions League in 2019 and the English Premier League title the following year – Liverpool’s first domestic championship for 30 years.
"There are a lot of great Arab players, but I don’t think any of them can be compared to Salah"
His consistency since becoming a Liverpool player has been truly impressive. The least successful season in terms of goals was the 19 he managed in 34 league games in the 2019-20 season, a total that most forwards would love to have.
"Mo's record is crazy," Liverpool head coach Jurgen Klopp said earlier this month. "He is still hungry, and I don't know how many records he can break. Since he joined us he has been the perfect player – a top-class player."
Jamie Carragher was a legend at Liverpool as a player and is now a leading media pundit in England. He believes that Salah warrants an improved contract. “He deserves to be one of the highest-paid players in the Premier League for what he has done since he came to Liverpool, he really does,” said Carragher on television in September. “He is never injured and year after year he is a top goal scorer. He just is.” Carragher went on to say that Salah deserves a place in the all-time Liverpool team, heady praise when this is a club that has been champions of England 19 times and Europe on six occasions.
Salah’s exploits in England and Europe have made him an even bigger star back in Egypt and the Arab world in general where his every move is followed and every goal celebrated. Ahmed Hossam Hussein Abdelhamid, better known in the football world as Mido, played for some big clubs in Europe such as Ajax of Amsterdam, Marseilles, Roma and Tottenham Hotspur before retiring in 2013. Mido never reached the heights that his compatriot has managed.
“In my opinion, Salah is the best Arab player in the history of football,” Mido wrote on social media. “He scored more goals than any other Arab player in the Premier League, and he’s won the Premier League and Uefa Champions League titles. Salah has also scored in the Fifa World Cup, and he still has years to do more in football. There are a lot of great Arab players, but I don’t think any of them can be compared to Salah.”
Few would disagree. For Egypt, Salah has scored 45 goals in 71 appearances for the country. The injury he sustained in the 2018 UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid meant that he wasn’t fit at the 2018 World Cup but still scored both his country’s goals. Should he stay healthy then he is expected to lead his country to the 2022 tournament in Qatar, home to a significant Egyptian population, and a fourth appearance on the biggest stage.
At the peak of physical fitness, there is no reason why Salah can’t stay at the top of the European game for some years to come. Yet even if he were to retire at the end of this season, his status in the game would be secure and not just as a legend in England, Europe and the Arab World.
In 2018, The Atlantic said that he was “emerging as England’s – and arguably the world’s – most visible Muslim sports icon.”
After each of his many goals, Salah touches his head to the ground in an act of sujood, the act of Islamic prostration to God and then raises his index fingers to the sky. Liverpool fans love it, cheering his every goal to the rafters and inventing songs for the player including: “Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah, Mo Sa-la-la-la-lah, if he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me, if he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too.”
Seeing this video inspired Salem Mousa of Stanford University in 2019 to look at the effect that the player was having off the pitch in England at a time when general hostility towards Muslims in the country seemed to be rising.
“ [After watching the video], we started to take seriously the idea that Salah was reducing Islamophobia,” said Mousa. “To see football fans, make a chant-like that seemed like somewhat of a watershed moment, where Muslims were starting to become normalised.”
Stanford’s study looked at the period from June 2017 when Salah signed to June 2019 and it found an 18.9 percent drop in anti-Muslim crimes in the Liverpool area. It was the only one of 23 English regions that were analysed that did not see a rise in hate crimes, defined as being motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation or disability. Over the same time, anti-Muslim tweets by Liverpool fans had halved when compared to fans of other Premier League teams.
There have been other Muslim players in the English Premier League – in June, it was estimated that there were 250 on the books of teams in England’s top four divisions – but none have had the impact of Salah.
As well as his amazing record and achievements, Mousa puts it down, to the genial player being so readily identifiable as a Muslim. “There is no getting around the fact that Salah is a ‘typical’ Muslim – he prays on the field after scoring, his daughter’s name is Mecca, and his wife wears a headscarf,” said Mousa. “The salience of Salah’s Muslim identity helps people to change their views of Muslims more broadly.”
The longer Salah stays at the highest level of the world’s most popular game, the bigger the impact will be. Given his dedication and professionalism, there are more goals, celebrations and songs to come over the next few years.
John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden