Mo Salah’s star quality burnished by precious work ethic
A fascinating season moves towards its finale for the red brigade collective that is Liverpool
Mohamed Salah is part of a Liverpool team notable for their team work, not their star power. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty
There was an interesting story last year on the Al-Monitor website about Mo Salah’s home town of Nagrig. An Al-Monitor journalist had travelled the dust roads from Cairo to discover exactly how Salah’s rise had inspired hope, laughter and joy. And found . . . no joy, very little laughter and only a grudging amount of hope.
Instead the people of Nagrig wanted to talk about how nothing works, how they have no jobs and how all the people suddenly turning up looking for a kind of Scouse Bethlehem were quite annoying. As were the newspaper stories about beaming, Salah-crazed Egyptians capering in the streets like ham actors in a generic Indiana Jones bazaar scene.
“We do not slaughter sheep every time he scores a goal and he does not fund a sewage treatment plant,” said one young man. Some suggested the net effect of Salah’s rise had actually been negative. He helped to build a school. As a result the government shelved its own infrastructure funding. Parents who had previously insisted on education were committing the classic economic suicide of encouraging their children to become footballers instead, because, well, Mo Salah.
It made for a lovely non-heartwarming story, an example of sport failing to spread joy and love wherever it goes, and of how even success can be a little more difficult and more nuanced. Just as the next couple of months are the most interesting of times for Salah himself.
Liverpool play Tottenham at Anfield on Sunday afternoon. It is probably the most difficult of their remaining league games, the start of a six-week run when the perception of many things to do with Klopp-era Liverpool, not least the status of the man from Nagrig, will be settled on a series of marginal details.
“He looked really relaxed and in a good mood. Now, let’s go,” said Jürgen Klopp this week, referring to the fact Salah has just had his first real break since last summer. Klopp has been twitchy of late. He has always been sharper and less kindly than the gurning touchline Santa Claus the TV cameras tend to present. He is also clearly desperate to win the league, to find some decisive vindication for this fine fourth-season Liverpool team.
At which point, cut to Salah, who couldn’t have a better moment to find a spurt of his magic bullet form from this time last year, when he was busy scoring 11 goals in seven big-ticket games and when he seemed to be running on air, lost entirely in the moment.
Fast forward to the current title race and Salah has had 33 shots at goal since January 19th . Only one of them has gone in. He has zero assists in the Premier League this year and there has been a sense of punching down too. Since April last year Salah has one goal in 13 matches against Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and the Premier League top six, but plenty against Bournemouth and Watford.
There is a predictable response to this. But then, football loves a simplistic narrative. In a world of frauds and Goats [greatest of all time], of chokers and champs, the season’s end is set up as an obvious test of the real worth of all that surplus Salah brilliance.
Here it is, a chance to leave them dancing in the streets of Nagrig, goats leaping up on to the butcher’s block, throats bared hungrily; or to be dismissed by those who like to dismiss things as a chimera and a sham, a flawed entity, all promise but no edge.
Clearly this should be rested. It is a false dichotomy, a way of watching but still managing to miss the real beauty of the season’s end, and of sport generally.
For a start, as with any player, Salah’s contribution is more complex than those bare numbers. Opponents have plans for marking him now. Sadio Mané’s brilliantly productive run of form is not unrelated. This is not a case of Mané being better or braver than Salah, but of benefiting from the team having more than one threat, from being the player with space to move this time.
Moreover, Salah has found other parts of his game. In Munich this month it was striking how hard he worked for the team, ferreting back to cover, his speed and skill keeping Bayern always a little wary. No goats were killed in the making of this 3-1 win. But it was a hugely satisfying performance.
More to the point, Salah is only human. The existence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, brilliant players surrounded by brilliant players in steamrollering superpower teams, may have convinced us that a relentless, psychopathic goalscoring hunger is the norm for the best players.
But that kind of machine success is the exception. Just as Salah is something else too, a 5ft 8in north African from outside the traditional European club football hierarchies. It is a part of his charm that he has made his own way here, that for all his sui generis brilliance he can still have those moments when he looks like someone having a kickabout at an afternoon picnic, a wonderfully potent player who is still vulnerable to the ferocity and discipline of his opponents.
Above all Salah is a part of a Liverpool team notable for their collectivism not their star power. Like Manchester City, Liverpool are an uplifting team, their real strength is the way the players run for each other, finding other gears and deeper qualities. One of them has to come out on top. But nobody is choking here, nobody is throwing anything away. Just as Salah will remain a remarkable story and remarkable talent whatever the fine margins at the end of May. – Guardian