You don’t need to be Egyptian, or a Liverpool fan, to admit that Mohamed Salah is extraordinary. The 29-year-old striker is breaking records for African footballers playing in the English Premier League with a cheeky smile and disarming confidence.
He plays, he says, with the understanding that he is the best player in the world. And his recent run of form, scoring 20 goals in a season that’s not yet reached its halfway mark, may well back him up. But the personal accolades haven’t always been in step with his self-belief.
When he was placed seventh in the announcement of the winner of the 2021 Ballon d’Or, he laughed it off. The Egyptian king, you see, is as deft with his public utterances as he is with a football in front of the goal. He’s been able to cultivate a brand that is principally about football.
While stories about his charitable endeavours in Egypt are legion — and many of them just legend — he’s never made political statements. He’s almost never said anything publicly that is not about the game he’s so darned good at. His agents and the management of Liverpool Football Club are haggling over the terms of a new deal to keep him at the English club, perhaps for the rest of his career.
In Egypt there is no need for negotiation. Salah has become a symbol of success, an icon of hard work and determination, an example of one way out of what is a hellish life for many Egyptians. But it nearly didn’t turn out this way.
In 2011, Mamdouh Abbas, a wealthy businessman who was chairman of Zamalek — one of Egypt’s leading teams — declined to sign Salah. He said, “Salah needs much more work.” That Salah has been able to build such a career despite being written off in Egypt, is remarkable.
He did it his way. What’s unclear however, is how many others in Egypt, and elsewhere on the continent, may be left to never quite realise their potential as the world’s best. Not because billionaire owners may sometimes miss a chance to spot an obvious talent, but because the systems that are meant to nurture that talent simply do not exist.
To make it on the world stage, Salah’s talent was not enough — he also had to overcome the structural barriers that stood in the way of him and others like him. And that’s what makes him truly extraordinary.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.