Football might not be a priority for a turmoil-stricken country, but Egypt starlet Mohamed Salah knows that the game can play a vital role in lifting a nation's mood. With a rare FIFA World Cup™ place in sight, there is a timely opportunity for Salah and his team-mates to give home fans something to cheer about as they look to end the team’s 24-year absence from football’s most prestigious tournament.
“There is always pressure as long as the fans put their hopes in you, there is that sense of responsibility in such a difficult time,” the live-wire forward told FIFA.com, referring to the ongoing political turmoil in Egypt.
The 21-year-old, a key player of Swiss champions Basel, has quickly become an indispensable member of an Egypt squad devoid of much of its past glamour, outshining some of the old guard to steal the limelight and make headlines. He often leaves defenders trailing in his wake with mazy runs and sharp turns, and his intelligent passing comes in handy against tight back-lines. Such attributes are vital assets for Egypt as they approach the final two-legged FIFA World Cup qualifying round after having ensured they would finish on top of Group G with one match to spare, becoming the only African team to collect 15 points from five group games.
A star is born
Egypt’s successful FIFA World Cup qualifying run has come despite a lengthy halt to domestic football. The Egyptian Premier League was cancelled for two straight seasons, and coach Bob Bradley has been forced to resort to a string of friendly matches to keep his players fit for competitive games. The Pharaohs nonetheless lived up to their favorites tag in Group G to overcome Guinea, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Salah played a key role in helping Egypt brush aside their opponents. His last-gasp strike gave them a vital 3-2 win at Guinea, before he scored a hat-trick in the 4-2 win over Zimbabwe that included a brilliant solo goal. He also notched the solitary tally that handed the side a 1-0 away win over Mozambique and a place in the final CAF preliminary round. Egypt will have a chance to maintain their winning streak and finish with a 100 per cent record when they host Guinea in a fortnight, after which a draw will be made to determine their opponents in the decisive phase.
“We have been playing in difficult circumstances since the start of the qualifiers because of the football stoppage in Egypt and the problems facing the country,” Salah said about the possibility of being drawn against another of the continent's giants in the final hurdle before Brazil 2014. “But the most important thing will be to have luck on our side and think about the people who are eager for happiness. A qualification for the World Cup is the biggest thing that could make the people happy.”
Salah, who played at last year’s Olympic Games in London, made his senior team debut in a CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in September 2011, and since then he has gone on to make 23 international appearances, scoring 16 goals.
A European adventure
Salah came through the youth ranks of Arab Contractors, a modest Egyptian Premier League side where he burst on the scene with a series of eye-catching displays, proving wrong a widespread belief that Cairo giants Al Ahly and Zamalek monopolise youth development. His form at local and international level prompted Basel to sign him in the summer of 2012, embarking on a European adventure at a time when several of his compatriots prematurely called time on their overseas careers.
“It was not easy for me. I did not know how it would be like in Europe and whether I would adapt to the atmosphere there. But the first year went well, and I did not really suffer from any homesickness,” he said. “My priority was to achieve my primary target of succeeding there. As long as I’m playing well and achieving my goals, there is no point being concerned about any off-field issues. I hope I can play a role in changing the view that some people have about Egyptian players abroad.”
Salah’s valuable assists, and the constant menace he causes to defenders, were pivotal in helping Basel claim a fourth successive Swiss league title in June. His contribution in the UEFA Europa League was also notable, having steered Basel to a place in the semi-finals where he scored against eventual champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. However, he was still criticized by Basel coach Murat Yakin for wasting too many chances. Salah scored nine goals in all competitions last season, including five in the league. “If people are speaking about only one deficiency in my game, then this is a good sign, I’m not sad. [Finishing] can be improved in training, so this is something I can work on,” he said.
Reports linked Salah with a summer departure after he excelled in his first season with Basel but he eventually opted to stay put, signalling his intention to further enhance his reputation as an up-and-coming player before making a bigger move. “The club’s marketing director informed me that there were offers from Fiorentina, Olympique Lyon and Tottenham Hotspur. But what I care about is the amount of playing time I will get,” Salah said. “It’s not worth it to go to any team, earn good money and sit on the bench. Playing is what matters most.”