If you want to find Mo Salah, look for him with the ball at his feet in the box between a gang of defenders. He’s in gridlock, and there it’s a game of who will move first. Salah waits to see which foot a defender reaches with, which way another leans. The cracks show, and then he darts through. He reacts to defenders as much as he attacks them. His acceleration over three yards is electric. Defenders still run on combustion.
The Egyptian national scores almost all his goals in only one or two touches. Against Manchester City this year, he scored with two from nearly half-field. City’s goalkeeper Ederson went for a ball about twenty-five yards out. His defender told him to get back into the goal, but Ederson whacked the ball anyway. It was too low and went straight to Salah. The Egyptian brought the ball down and chipped him: two touches.
Salah doesn’t just score goals for Liverpool though. He led the Egyptian national team through World Cup qualifying, all the way to a fateful night in October of last year when Egypt hosted the Republic of the Congo. A win would send Egypt to their first World Cup since Italia ’90, and qualification would bring a hope and pride that Egyptians hadn’t felt in 30 years. In the US, we feel that void now as the commercials come on for this summer's World Cup. The other teams are getting ready for the party in Russia, and we’ll be staying home. Sounds fateful. One main reason the US couldn't punch their ticket was the we don't have a Mohamed Salah, a talisman, a good luck charm who will lay the team on his back and carry it through.
That night against Congo, Salah famously scored twice. His first started with a heavy touch that almost killed the chance. The play became a fifty-fifty race between him and the Congolese goalkeeper. At that moment, athleticism made the difference. Salah showed his speed, his determination, and that he’s more bullish than skillful. He beat the goalkeeper to the ball by a big toe and dinked it over him.
A goalscorer’s goal, nothing pretty, but a goalscorer is worshiped as the bearer of joy. It’s a goalscorer’s name that continuously shows up on the match report. Their picture, smiling, on the homepage. Fans associate victory with the name. They don’t care if their goalscorer is brown, white, or Muslim. They will sing the goalscorer’s song because he makes them hug their brothers, and they love him for that. Back in Egypt, it was only the 62nd minute, but the crowd went into religious throes when Salah scored. The substitutes ran across the field, kissed Salah, and rubbed his face as if, at that moment, he was their god, and the game was already over. It was not.
The Egyptian fans would have to stew in a 1-0 lead for 30 more minutes. They had been through hell since 2012 and the riot in Port Said, where 74 people were killed, where politics and sports clashed with stones, knives, and bottles. Egyptian fans endured two cancelled seasons of their domestic league, a national team scrambling for stability, a whole country doing the same, and now Salah and the team just had to hold on, keep the Congolese back, get to the 90th minute 1-0, and then let the endorphins do the rest.
In the 87th minute, they failed.
The Congolese celebration was muted. Arnold Bouka Moutou’s first-time volley was a beauty, but the Congolese would wait until they were on the airplane to celebrate. The players encircled their goalscorer and hushed each other, no smiles on their faces. They knew what their goal had done. Their survival instincts drove them towards respect. Their fate was already sealed anyways: win, lose or draw, they would not be in Russia this summer. They were going to be home, sharing a sofa with the Americans.
The Egyptians were devastated. Fans lifted their shirts over their heads, prayed, and cried. The cheering of 86,000 smash cut to a gasp when Congo scored. Then silence.
It’s under this type of pressure that Salah thrives. It’s where he wants to be. At age 14, He sacrificed his education and began the life of a professional soccer player, committing himself completely to the sport, making it was do or die. He traveled nearly five hours a day to get from home to training, and that’s not traveling on the Autobahn. His journey was through a country just starting to really heat up. Under that type of pressure, most people are going to crack. Salah hardened. He’s a player who pushes himself to new challenges and next levels. The World Cup is that next level, and Salah needed to get there. Egypt needed to get there. They’d come this far and just needed one more push.
In the 93rd minute, the Congolese, ever respectful, gave that push. It was a kick really. A clumsy Congolese defender cut out an Egyptian’s legs in the box. The referee made an immediate, uncontested call: penalty kick.
Salah, the Egyptian talisman, the hardened man who still smiles, stepped up to take it. How can you tell he’s a natural goalscorer? Put him in a crowd in the box, send him to half-field, place him at the penalty spot with an invite to the biggest party in the world on the line. You’ll see pressure doesn’t matter. His vision just goes a little fuzzy, and he scores through instinct.
2-1 to Egypt.
مرحبا ، روسيا (Hello, Russia).