DUBAI: Egypt’s Mohammed Aboutrika is arguably the strongest challenger. There are strong cases for Tunisian Tarak Dhiab and the Algerians Rabah Madjer and Riyad Mahrez. Also in the conversation could be Saudi Arabia’s Majed Abdullah and Sami Al-Jaber, as well the Kuwaitis Jasem Yaqoub, Fathi Kameel and Faisal Al-Dakheel.
But it’s hard to argue that Mohamed Salah now stands alone as the greatest Arab footballer of all time.
On Thursday night, without even having to lace up his boots, the Liverpool forward became a Premier League champion thanks to Chelsea’s 2-1 defeat of Manchester City. His growing, and glowing, medal collection already included gold from the UEFA Champions League, Club World Cup and European Supercup.
But it’s that desperately coveted English league title that has sealed his immortality among adoring Liverpool fans, and the rest of the world.
Since walking into Anfield with that effervescent, beaming smile on June 22, 2017, he has helped transform the club from challengers to champions (or, initially, as his manager Jurgen Klopp demanded, “from doubters to believers”). After 30 years of false dawns and broken promises, Liverpool are champions again.
If the signing of center back Virgil Van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson Becker in the winter and summer following Salah’s arrival proved the final pieces of the jigsaw for Klopp, then Sadio Mané’s transfer from Southampton in the summer of 2016 could be said to be the first piece.
Salah, to switch metaphors, has proven to be the team’s catalyst to greatness.
After a couple of poor Premier League seasons either side of Klopp’s appointment in October 2015, Liverpool had just scraped into the 2017-18 Champions League by finishing fourth when the club paid Roma 35 million euros for Salah’s services.
In his first year at the club, Liverpool — playing some staggering high-energy football — finished fourth again. However, they stormed to the Champions League final in Kiev, where they lost 3-1 to Real Madrid in a match predominantly remembered for Salah’s tears after a first-half shoulder injury forced his substitution — and, of course, for Liverpool’s then-goalkeeper Loris Karius’ two awful mistakes.
Despite that disappointment, the season was a personal triumph for the man the Liverpool fans had nicknamed the ‘Egyptian King.’ He scored on his debut against Watford. And then didn’t stop scoring.
Early on in the season he scored his “road-runner” goal against Arsenal, in which he ran the full length of the Anfield pitch before finishing with ice-cool precision past Petr Cech. There was the brilliant curling effort in the snow against Everton that won the FIFA Puskas award for best goal of 2017. Against Leicester he scored a superb game-turning double, and against Tottenham a stunning last-minute solo strike to rescue a draw.
There were further goals against Arsenal and Chelsea. In a storming 4-3 win against eventual champions Manchester City he chipped the advanced Ederson from what seemed an implausible distance. In March he netted four against Watford and on the last day of the season his strike against Brighton meant he was crowned top scorer in the Premier League with a record 32 goals. He also turned in a barely believable man-of-the-match display as Liverpool annihilated Roma 5-2 in the Champions League.
In all, Salah scored 44 in all competitions that season and was named the PFA Player of the Year. He was now being spoken of in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Despite the Champions League heartbreak, and Egypt’s disappointing World Cup showing (in which he still scored twice), Salah would be back to his old tricks the following season.
The goals continued to flow as Liverpool lost just one Premier League match yet somehow still finished second behind Pep Guardiola’s brilliant Manchester City. For the second season running Salah won the golden boot, this time sharing it with Mané and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Redemption came, in spectacular fashion, in the Champions League.
In a second successive final appearance, Salah banished the previous year’s misery by scoring an early penalty as Liverpool overcame Tottenham 2-0 in Madrid to win the top European club trophy for the sixth time. Salah was the first Egyptian footballer to win club football’s greatest prize.
But it is the current season that has confirmed Salah’s and his teammates’ status as Liverpool legends. An astonishing 28 wins from 31 matches has seen the Premier League title wrapped up with seven matches still to play. After 30 years of disappointment, it was Salah’s last-minute goal against Manchester United in a 2-0 win in January that prompted a hysterical Anfield to finally sing “We’re gonna win the league.”
Not surprisingly, Salah is currently Liverpool’s top scorer again and could — by the end of the season — win the golden boot for a record-equaling third time, as well as score his 100th goal for the champions. Few of his predecessors can claim such a period of devastating excellence combined with team and individual prizes.
Aboutrika — Salah’s boyhood hero — was a balletic dream of a footballer whose control, movement and passing evoked the great Zinedine Zidane at his finest. Madjer scored historic goals for Porto as they won the European Cup and the Intercontinental Cup in 1987, and was one of the architects of Algeria’s sensational 2-1 win over West Germany at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Mahrez is one of only 10 players to win the Premier League with two clubs and could yet taste Champions League glory with Manchester City. The aforementioned Gulf quintet, meanwhile, all represented their countries at the World Cup, but were beloved heroes closer to these shores.
But Salah is an international phenomenon who has transcended the boundaries of sport. From painted murals in New York City to ubiquitous advertising posters in his native Egypt and fashion magazines across the world, his irrepressible smile has made him one of the world’s most recognizable athletes.
And, with a priceless Premier League medal in the bag, he is now the Arab footballer all others look up to.