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The incredible story of how Mohamed Salah went from wasteful winger to Ballon d’Or favourite

How did the Egyptian King's pre-Liverpool career seed the blooming legend we see today?

Mohamed Salah is a phenomenon.

What started as a purple patch of scoring to mark his first weeks in a Liverpool shirt has turned into one of the most brilliant individual seasons in recent memory.

We’re witnessing something truly special

Getty - Contributor
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We’re witnessing something truly special

Few deserve to mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

But Merseyside’s ‘Egyptian King’ is now not merely in contention to finish first behind the two La Liga superhumans in the next Ballon d’Or, he could well win it.

Here we revisit six moments from days gone by that contributed to the moulding of a sensation.

Tears of a future hero…

You may have to squint but that’s him

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You may have to squint but that’s him

In his current role as a devastating right-sided forward, Salah has brought his fair share of left-backs close to tears.

But many years ago he played a few games as a full-back himself, and once cried his eyes out after an Under-16 game for El Mokawloon.

Not because he was given a torrid time by the opposition’s winger, but because he had missed five one-on-ones.

Journalist Lars Sivertsen relayed the story on the Guardian Football Weekly podcast and said that Salah’s coach at the time consoled him and refused to criticise him for his wastefulness.

Presumably because he recognised the unique talent it takes to engineer five one-on-one situations from left-back.

Salah at the Under-20 World Cup

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Salah at the Under-20 World Cup

Salah’s pace and dribbling ability were apparent from an early age.

But where did he learn to score?

Lessons from an experienced gunslinger…

Cult hero status achieved

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Cult hero status achieved

Salah joined Swiss side Basel in 2012 and though he immediately became a key player, there was one aspect of his game that was conspicuous in its absence.

The standard of his finishing was worryingly below par for a professional footballer marketing himself as a winger.

He squandered scoring opportunities on a weekly basis and earned the nickname ‘Chance Killer’ among his team-mates.

The nickname hasn’t stuck

Reuters
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The nickname hasn’t stuck

And so the coaches put him on a special training regime to improve his efficiency in front of goal.

Salah trained with veteran striker Alexander Frei and learned how to place his shots in the corners.

“When he arrived he was clearly a great talent but was very cavalier,” Frei told World Soccer magazine.

“I put him on special shooting sessions and it did make him more effective in front of goal. I know he appreciated it.”

A wily and predatory poacher, Frei can at least claim partial responsibility for Salah’s metamorphosis into the ravenous goalscorer we see today.

A taste of a green and pleasant land…

Look what you had

News Group Newspapers Ltd
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Look what you had

Jose Mourinho has been widely mocked for failing to recognise Salah’s world-class potential during the Egyptian’s spell at Chelsea.

And while perhaps the Portuguese manager’s patience was a slice too thin, few protested the club’s decision to offload a winger many thought more frustrating than fantastic.

However, despite what your memory may suggest, Salah did have his moments in Chelsea blue.

On his first Premier League start (at home to Stoke) he scored, won a penalty, and provided an assist.

He scored the sixth goal as Chelsea spoiled Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game in charge of Arsenal with a 6-0 thrashing at Stamford Bridge.

One of the boys

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One of the boys

But perhaps the most defining moment of his first Premier League spell came on a fateful day for his future employers.

Salah started for Chelsea against Liverpool when Steven Gerrard slipped and allowed Demba Ba to score a goal that would prove crucial in the title race.

While he would have been happy on the day to be part of a winning effort, we may never know how much a first-hand experience of one of Liverpool’s most infamous moments shaped his relationship with the club.

It’s a funny old game

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It’s a funny old game

Salah would have seen the anguish Gerrard’s eyes that day — he saw what a Premier League crown would mean to Liverpool.

Perhaps next season, he’ll deliver them one.

A gasp-inducing goal…

Salah wore No74 at Fiorentina in honour of the victims of the Port Said Stadium disaster

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Salah wore No74 at Fiorentina in honour of the victims of the Port Said Stadium disaster

Having been confined at Chelsea, Salah was let loose on loan at Fiorentina.

Under the guidance of Vincenzo Montella, he fuelled an enigmatic team which also featured the likes of Micah Richards, Marcos Alonso, Alberto Aquilani, Mario Gomez and Giussepe Rossi.

This unpredictable mob of misguided mavericks finished fourth in Serie A and Salah’s uncomplicated brand of breakneck attacking turned more than a few heads.

Perhaps his greatest individual moment came in the 2015 Coppa Italia semi-final first leg.

Fiorentina shocked Juventus with a 2-1 smash-and-grab in Turin.

Salah scored both goals and his first was, dare we say, Messi-esque in its brilliance.

Juventus GIF

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The pace, the nutmeg, the finish… we should have all known there and then what he would become.

Trips to the cash machine…

“Running down the wing…”

Corbis
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“Running down the wing…”

His days of crying over missed chances were long gone.

Suddenly Salah became one of the most confident one-on-one finishers in Europe.

He swapped Fiorentina for Roma in 2015 and continued to torment some of Serie A’s best defenders.

Edin Dzeko was the focal point and the team was set up to serve the Bosnian target man.

Salah assisting Dzeko became a common occurrence but often the rapid winger would find himself through on goal with the former Man City forward lagging behind.

In such instances, he would simply help himself to a goal.

What better way than to mourn Francesco Totti’s retirement than with a breath of fresh air?

EPA
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What better way than to mourn Francesco Totti’s retirement than with a breath of fresh air?

However, coach Luciano Spalletti resorted to desperate measure in order to encourage Salah’s selflessness in the final third.

“We told him if he didn’t pass to a better-placed colleague, he would have to pay for the squad’s dinner,” he told World Soccer Magazine.

“He would have to go to the cash machine!

“He’s an extraordinary player. Markers need a motorbike to catch him.”

Taking a penalty for a 100million people…

Poster boy

Reuters
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Poster boy

“Salah is now considered the most famous person in Egypt,” a Cairo doctor told us.

“He has now become an idol for the people… we now wait for any match for Liverpool and you can’t imagine the happiness that occurs when he scored.”

Hatem Kadous, of the Oild Field Index, told the Sunday Times last year: “For 90 minutes he unites the nation and makes us forget all the crap we’re going through.

“You don’t have to worry about revolutions, about Islamic Brotherhood, Isis, any of that.

“He scores, we’re happy, we forget. And that echoes round the Middle East.”

So imagine the pressure on Salah’s shoulders when he placed the ball on the penalty spot in injury-time against Congo in October 2017.

Riding the wave

AP:Associated Press
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Riding the wave

Having given Egypt the lead just after the hour mark, he fell to the ground in despair when Congo equalised in the 87th minute.

Egypt, a country fanatical about football on an unimaginable scale, had not qualified for the World Cup since 1990 and only a win would end the agonising wait.

It seemed their dream had slipped away.

And then, a lifeline in the form of a penalty — but by no means a formality.

Weaker men would have crumbled under the sheer weight of expectation.

But not Salah, not the Pharaoh of the Pharaohs.

He converted the spot-kick and sparked rapturous scenes across Egypt, proving himself worthy of the throne upon which was he has been placed.

From wasteful winger to a blooming legend.

Salah’s place in history is expanding by the day.


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