Onwards and upwards for Salah
© AFP

Arab players rarely attract major interest after making the move to Europe, especially when their destination is one of the continent’s lesser known leagues. But Mohamed Salah is an exception to the rule, with an exciting first season at Swiss club FC Basel turning the 21-year-old prodigy into a hero for fans from Egypt and elsewhere.

The spotlight will certainly be on him this Wednesday night, when his side run out for their sixth and final Group E game in the UEFA Champions League, as they bid to secure the section’s second qualifying berth for the Round of 16. Salah found the net during both group encounters with London giants Chelsea, his strike in the second leg enough to consign Mourinho’s men to defeat and leave his side needing just a single point from their last fixture against Schalke in order to progress.

Wonder goals
Salah’s favoured position is out wide, from where he uses his considerable skills to cut back inside, an approach that has paid dividends for the talented youngster and his team. Indeed, it was from out on the left during the second Chelsea game that Salah dashed in behind Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic to intercept a long diagonal pass and carve out the opening. Keeping his composure during the ensuing 40-yard run on goal, he then delicately lifted the ball over Petr Cech to seal victory.

Speaking after his match-winning performance, Salah said: “The coach is always telling me to use the full width of the pitch. We’d had a number of chances, and when the ball came to me I was determined to score. I made for the penalty area as directly as I could and I got the goal. It was an important win for us, something we badly wanted and gave our all for. That goal will be part of my history with this side. It’s just incredible to score one like that and I’d like to dedicate it to my parents, who have always supported me.”

Though making a name for himself with his ball-skills and efficiency in front of goal, finding the net in three successive encounters with Chelsea – he was also on the scoresheet when the pair met in last season’s UEFA Europa League semi-final – saw him headlined as the nemesis of Mourinho’s star-studded line-up. His goal in the 2-1 first leg at Stamford Bridge laid a strong platform for the return game, while his strike in the second leg came moments from the final whistle to kill off the game.

Despite the loss, Mourinho made no attempt to hide his admiration for the Basel star: “Salah is a top player. He’s got speed and skill and he managed to outwit our defence and score a vital goal.”

On a roll
Salah never played for behemoths Al-Ahly or Zamalek, the two sides that traditionally dominate the Egyptian League. His talents found a limited audience at Arab Contractors and the chaotic state of the domestic game in recent years did not help his progression. However, Salah’s undeniable talent shone through, and he is now recognised as one of his country’s finest and tipped to follow in the footsteps of Ahmed Hassan, Mohammed Zidan and Ahmed ‘Mido’ Hossam, all of whom had successful spells in Europe.

Salah also sparkled for his country at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012, before cementing a spot in the first team, where he played a central role in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers. And although the Pharaohs ultimately came up short in that quest, had it not been for their dramatic 6-1 loss in the opening leg of their final-round game against Ghana, things might have been very different.

Adjusting to a new league and environment usually takes time and patience, but the winger settled quickly into a routine at Basel and soon imposed his presence on the side. Victory in the Swiss Super league and a runner’s-up spot in the Swiss Cup followed, though even more significantly they reached the semi-finals of the Europa League, where they went out to Chelsea.  

Looking to the future
With his star in the ascendancy, Salah is now being tipped to move to one of the major European sides at the end of this season. Though well aware of the rumours, the precocious Egyptian already knows that success comes from focussing on the task at hand.

“I’m at Basel right now,” he explained: “Things are great and I haven’t lost my focus. My aim is to carry on performing at this level. We want to win more domestically and make it through to the Round of 16 in the Champions League. I don’t pay attention to what’s being said. I’m a professional and once I’ve been given formal offers then I’ll talk about them, sensibly.”

He knows that his career can only go from strength to strength if he keeps developing and putting in the performances. He is ambitious and eager to succeed but, as he has already stated to FIFA.com, what matters most is football, not the material benefits it can bring: “The aim is not to move to this or that club and to make a ton of money, just to find myself sitting on the reserves bench. Playing games is what matters to me.”

Wednesday night could prove to be a watershed moment both for Basel and their young forward. The Swiss champions have entered the group stages of the Champions league three times in the last decade. After being knocked out twice they finally made it through to the second round in 2011/12, defeating none other than Manchester United on their run to the Round of 16.

Should both club and player manage to repeat their heroics this time out it could make life a lot easier for them both. A Round-of-16 qualification would seal Basel’s reputation as a serious continental contender, and Salah would be hailed as one of the key players in his side’s campaign. One thing is for certain, however: we have not heard the last of Mohamed Salah