Mohamed Salah sets the Premier standard for Arab stars

Liverpool's Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah scores their fourth goal, his third, from the penalty spot during the English Premier League football match between Liverpool and Leeds United at Anfield in Liverpool. (AFP)
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Updated 14 September 2020

Mohamed Salah sets the Premier standard for Arab stars

  • Mohamed Salah’s opening day hat-trick did not just give Liverpool a thrilling 4-3 win over Leeds United at Anfield on Saturday, it set the standard for fellow Arab stars

LONDON: Mohamed Salah’s opening day hat-trick did not just give Liverpool a thrilling 4-3 win over Leeds United at Anfield on Saturday, it set the standard for fellow Arab stars, such as Hakim Ziyech of Chelsea and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez, to follow for the rest of the English Premier League season.

Salah’s three strikes meant that he became the second-fastest player in the competition’s history to reach 50 goals at home, with only Alan Shearer making his half-century faster; needing 47 games to the Egyptian’s 63. Salah also became the first player to score in the opening fixture of four consecutive Premier League seasons while playing for the same club.

“He’s a very special player, a very very special player,” said relieved Liverpool coach, Jurgen Klopp. “He put three more goals on his score list but the performance around was absolutely exceptional in a game like this. He caused the opponent massive problems. With all the good performances Mo had for us obviously, this was, for sure, one of the better ones. Long may it continue.”

It will. As well as his German boss, fans of the English Premier League around the world have grown accustomed to Salah’s brilliance and consistency, but it is now time for Ziyech to show what he can do at Chelsea, once the winger recovers from a knock.

It may be difficult for Ziyech, or anyone else for that matter, to match Salah’s exploits in England, but the Moroccan’s first target has to be on doing something that even the Egyptian could not do — be a success at Chelsea.

Salah joined the London team from Swiss side FC Basel in January 2014, and made just 13 Premier League appearances for the Blues before moving to Fiorentina in Italy on loan just 13 months later.


READ MORE: Mohamed Salah stands alone as the greatest Arab footballer of all


Ziyech has already impressed at Stamford Bridge, however. He shone for Dutch team Ajax during last season’s UEFA Champions League’s 4-4 draw, convincing Chelsea boss Frank Lampard that he had the quality to perform in England.

In February he agreed to head to London at the end of the season in a deal reported to be worth around $50 million. Ziyech may miss Chelsea’s opening fixture against Brighton and Hove Albion on Monday, but is expected to feature soon.

Like most players who come out of Ajax, the Moroccan loves to attack. “He has the ability to make and score goals,” said Lampard. “He has the quality we have sometimes been missing with the final pass and also taking chances. He ticks lots of boxes.”

Chelsea have been the biggest spenders in Europe so far this summer, and there is pressure on the team, which finished fourth last season, to mount a serious challenge for the title.

If Ziyech can inspire the Blues to the championship, then the top three Arab players in England will all have a winner’s medal.

Salah helped Liverpool to the title last season, while Algeria’s biggest star, Mahrez, is one of a select group of players to win the Premier League with two different clubs: Leicester City in 2016 and Manchester City three years later.

The winger was one of the best performers last season for Pep Guardiola. But despite 11 goals and nine assists, Mahrez and the star-studded team had to watch a dominant Liverpool take the trophy.

It means that City are hungrier than ever this time around.

The Algerian’s pre-season has been an interesting one. In early September, the 29-year-old tested positive for coronavirus and is currently self-isolating. Not only that, but he has been linked with a move to Spanish champions, Real Madrid.

City will not want to lose one of the league’s premier attacking talents. Salah has also been linked with Barcelona, and Liverpool will fight hard to prevent any move for the Egyptian.

The early action from the 2020-21 English Premier League season shows they need him.

Leeds have demonstrated that, of the promoted teams, they are the least likely to sit back and lie down. Arsenal started strongly with a comfortable 3-0 win over Fulham, while Newcastle United picked up a valuable 2-0 victory at West Ham United.

On Sunday, Mahrez’s former attacking partner Jamie Vardy scored twice as Leicester defeated West Bromwich Albion 3-0, while Tottenham Hotspur lost 1-0 at home to Everton, thanks to a second half goal from Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

The opening weekend belonged, however, to Salah, and it leaves the likes of Mahrez and Ziyech with much to live up to.

How Roberto Rivelino raised the bar for Saudi football

Updated 20 October 2020

How Roberto Rivelino raised the bar for Saudi football

  • Roberto Rivelino was the highest calibre of footballed to be seen coming into the Kingdom
  • Rivelino raised standards on and off the Saudi pitch, opening the door for others to follow

LONDON: He arrived in Riyadh by Concorde from Rio to be greeted by thousands of Al-Hilal fans at the airport before being whisked to his hotel by Rolls-Royce. It was quite an entrance, but then in August 1978, Roberto Rivelino was quite a player, one of the best and most famous in the world. By the time the Brazilian left Saudi Arabia three seasons later, football in the country had changed and would never be the same again.

Fans of Al-Hilal and plenty of other clubs are accustomed to these days of watching exciting foreign talent in action in the league, but few have been as famous or as influential or - to put it in simple football terms -- as good as this Brazilian legend who made almost 100 appearances for the five-time world champions. He was the first big star in a season that was the first to feature foreign players.

Just weeks before, Saudi football leaders had watched Iran become the first team from Western Asia to compete at the World Cup, but there was already a determination to bring some serious talent to a professional league that had only just started in 1976. So in came the captain of Brazil, according to the influential World Soccer magazine, the 38th best player of the 20th century. 

Here was a star who stood out alongside Pele and Jairzinho in the 1970 World Cup winning team, hailed by many as the best ever. Fans in Saudi Arabia soon started to see just how good he was.

“It was almost amateur football at the time as football was really just starting there,” Rivelino said in an interview with Brazilian television in 2019, before Al-Hilal took on Rio club Flamengo at the FIFA Club World Cup.

“We trained at the same stadium in which we played the games. There were three teams in Riyadh and so we trained from 6 to 7 p.m., the next team from 7 to 8 and then the third from 8 to 9.”

The star had been part of the Brazil national team that played a friendly in Saudi Arabia ahead of the 1978 World Cup when conversations had started about a possible move.

“I talked to my family and then decided to go. It was my first time to play outside Brazil and though the culture and country was very different, it was a special time for me.”

Roberto Rivelino linked up with Tunisian striker Nejib Limam, and they were imperious as Al-Hilal marched to the league title. (Twitter)

Progress was already being made in a country that had at the time a population of just nine million. Rivelino enjoyed driving a Mercedes car in Saudi Arabia, owning one had been a lifelong dream, and also enjoyed the pristine condition of the artificial pitches in the country. He did, however, find the weather difficult to adapt to at first, playing with a wet cloth in his mouth to try and retain as much moisture as possible.

The Brazilian linked up with Tunisian striker Nejib Limam, and they were imperious as Al-Hilal marched to the league title. It was clinched by the Brazilian in fine fashion in the penultimate game against challengers and rivals Al-Nassr. Rivelino pounced on a loose ball well outside the area and lashed home an unstoppable half-volley to score the only goal of the match. The first and only defeat of that season came in the final game with the trophy safely in the cabinet. It was joined by The King’s Cup the following year. 

“He made it look so easy but he worked hard to make it look easy,” said Limam. “At first defenders were in awe of him and that gave me opportunities but he was consistently good and gave local players a taste of what you need to be a world-class player, it is not just about talent but mentality.”

Despite often playing deep in midfield, Rivelino scored 23 goals in fewer than 60 appearances for Al-Hilal. His set-piece skill has yet to be surpassed and he even thrilled fans by scoring directly from a corner against Al-Ittihad, but there was more to it than that. For foreign players, especially in growing leagues, impact can’t be measured by statistics.

Rivelino raised standards on and off the pitch. Being the first Brazilian to play professionally in the region, he opened the door for players from the South American nation to follow and Zico, another midfield legend from the country, almost arrived. Many did come, coaches too, and they have played their part over the years.



(YouTube video)

Few though could have the impact of Rivelino.  “It was a good place to play football and I played well. I trained hard and I worked hard and it was a good time,” he reflected.

He felt that by the time he retired in 1981, he still could have done a job for a hugely-talented Brazil at the 1982 World Cup even though he was in his mid-thirties.

“They should have come to see me play but today you can play in Saudi Arabia and the national team still remember you but it was different then. 

“But I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone. I gave everything to the club and the club, the players and the fans treated me with respect and Al-Hilal will always have a special place in my heart.”

The same should be the case for anyone with an interest in Saudi Arabian football. Rivelino was one of the first foreign players in the country and remains one of the best.