Sunday,22 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Sunday,22 April, 2018
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The Egyptian who might win the Premiership scoring title

Mohamed Salah has fallen behind but there is enough time to conceivably do what no Arab or African player has ever achieved, writes Alaa Abdel-Ghani

Mohamed Salah
Mohamed Salah

Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane. Of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur respectively, currently the top two scorers in the 2017-2018 English Premier League season. With 18 games remaining, Kane has 18 goals to 17 for Salah whose team has played one more game, at the time of writing. For either, there are plenty of matches left to either hit a scoring drought or become the best marksman of a league deemed the world’s most famous.  

To no one’s surprise, Kane is so far the top gun in the league, having won the last two scoring titles. But it is Salah who is creating a stir. While Kane has the advantage of growing up in the British ranks, Salah learned his trade on the streets and alleyways of Egypt’s Gharbeya governorate, 90 kilometres north of Cairo, in the city of Basion, in the village of Najrij. The last two specks would need an electron microscope to spot them on the map.

On the dirt and on cracked concrete, Salah honed his skills to become a quick, mobile, hard-working and tactical player, with good technique and an eye for goal. Salah is known predominantly for his speed, dribbling skills, first touch and ball control, as well as his ability to use both his pace and flair on the ball in order to beat opponents, and create scoring opportunities for himself or his teammates. And he always plays with his head up.

A quirk of fate, some luck and much irony were mixed into Salah’s stratospheric rise. It took a disaster of calamitous proportions for him to arrive at where he is. In the absence of domestic football in the wake of the 2012 Port Said tragedy in which 72 fans were killed in a soccer riot, Egypt’s U-23 team, of which Salah was a part, were invited to play a friendly match against Basel in Switzerland. Despite Salah only playing during the second half, he scored twice. Basel subsequently invited Salah to remain in the city for a week’s training, after which he signed on the dotted line.

Most peculiar, Salah was plucked from the Arab Contractors, a below-par Egyptian squad. He never played for Ahly or Zamalek, Egypt’s two powerhouse teams used by many of their players as their springboard to fame. From a very ordinary team Salah emerged a very extraordinary player.

Salah has without question become Egypt’s most famous football export. Ahmed “Mido” Hossam played on some fine teams, including Ajax, Celta Vigo, Marseille, Roma and Tottenham. Hani Ramzi was the first Egyptian player in the Bundesliga after joining Werder Bremen with a $1.5 million transfer fee to become at the time the most expensive player in Egypt. Former Salah teammate Mohamed Al-Neni plays for mighty Arsenal. And Ahmed Hassan holds the world record for most international games with 184 appearances. But it is Salah who is closer than any other Arab or African player to realising one of sports’ greatest accomplishments.

How many goals does Salah need to win the Premier League scoring title? Kane scored 25 in 2016 and 29 in 2017. Since 1993 up to last season, the players who have won the scoring race have averaged 27 goals a year. The most was 34, shared by Andy Cole of Manchester United and Blackburn’s Alan Shearer. The least was 18 goals. Kane has already reached that figure; Salah is in hot pursuit.

Nicolas Anelka had 19 in 2008. That was the year another Egyptian, Amr Zaki, briefly headed the English scoring table. Playing for Wigan, Zaki had at one time seven goals in seven games, solidifying his position as top scorer in the English League. But he fell behind Anelka and Manchester City’s Robinho who had 15 and 12 respectively to Zaki’s 10. Zaki failed to add to that tally.

Zaki could have enjoyed a few more seasons in the Premiership and — who knows? — perhaps vied once more for scoring honours. But his attitude did him in. He failed to return to Wigan from one of Egypt’s World Cup qualification matches, leading his manager Steve Bruce to label him the most unprofessional player he had ever worked with. His late returns from international duty led to Bruce fining Zaki considerably more than the average person in Britain earns in a year. Bruce’s public bashing and punitive measures were to no avail. Zaki returned to Egypt, never the same player he once was, retiring in 2015 in virtual anonymity, never realising the full potential he so obviously possessed.

Salah has had no such controversies. From Chelsea to Fiorentina, Roma and now Liverpool, he has stayed his humble self with a temperament of even keel. He will need all his composure to score the most goals while fending off the charge of others in the race. Salah and Kane have company. Breathing down their necks are the Manchester City pair of Raheem Sterling (13 goals) and Sergio Aguero with 12. It was Aguero who notched 26 for Man City in 2015 for the league scoring crown.  

Salah’s competitor is tough. As recently as two weeks ago, he was three goals ahead of Kane but two hat-tricks in a row for the Hotspur forward, plus no goals for Salah in a 5-0 demolition of bottom of the table Swansea, made Kane the undisputed goals leader. Salah’s brace against Leicester brought him back to almost level with Kane.

While on Thursday 4 January Salah is up for the Best African Player Award which only one Egyptian has ever won before (Mahmoud Al-Khatib in 1983), and is bound to set the field afire in next year’s World Cup, winning the Premiership scoring title would be a singular feat that would uniquely stand alone.

Playing in the Premiership is tremendous. Being a member of its better teams is fabulous. Becoming the league’s top scorer is stupendous. However, just to understand how difficult it is to win the scoring title, you must brave freezing winter months and young, powerful defenders who brook no challenge from forwards. You have to run the full 90 minutes and play with the same energy, zeal and tenacity from the first game to the 38th. There is no place for complacency. You must avoid serious injury or a marked drop in form. Along with Spain’s La Liga, you are playing in the best league in the world against some of the world’s best teams, players and coaches. Tons of sterling pounds are invested in players in what is a cutthroat business. You must strike a balance between playing to score goals and playing selflessly to help your team win. All the while you must deal with the pressure of demanding owners, managers, fans and a relentless media.

It is a job for Superman.

In tandem with their almost equal number of goals, the teams of Salah and Kane are neck-and-neck in the table. By New Year’s Day, Liverpool was fourth with 41 points with Tottenham in sixth place with 37 points and a game in hand. They have almost no chance of catching leaders Manchester City’s 59 points. The next best thing is to secure a place in the Champions League or Europa League. The third is for one of their players to win the Golden Boot.

Kane has been there before. Salah has not. The Egyptian is chasing both Kane and history.

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