Speaking in an exclusive interview with L’Équipe Magazine, Liverpool and Egypt attacker Mohamed Salah looks back on a quite an astonishing year.
What are you first memories as a football fan?
The 2002 World Cup remains in my head. And of course, the final with Brazil winning. But the entire competition really struck me. I remember the French defeat against Senegal. (Smiling) Sorry! And the Champions’ League. When I was young, I followed it all the time.
You had three football idols growing up: Brazilian Ronaldo…
(Cutting off the journalist) Zidane and Totti.
Why those three?
I felt that they were unique. There are plenty of legendary footballers, but the way those three played was incredible. Each had their style. Ronaldo with his finishing ability and love for football. And Zidane was… (His face lights up) He was magical.
Any particular memory?
I watched him a lot when he was at Real Madrid. I watched so many games, where he was simply incredible. Along with Ronaldo, they were magical. When watching Zidane, we immediately understood that he was playing football because he loved it. Totti as well, there was something special with him. He played at Roma for 24 years! His shot technique and vision were unique.
Between 2015 and 2017, you played with him.
You can’t even imagine everything he was able to do on the field. On a human level too, he was amazing. A real professional. Always the first to arrive to training and the last to leave. At least, until I arrived! Then I was the first one (laughing)… We took the time to recover together, receive treatment, massages before and after training.
How did your footballing story begin?
In Egypt, everyone loves the sport. I was seven or eight years old, and all I wanted was to play football. In the streets, in school, everywhere… I loved it.
When you were 14, you joined the Cairo-based club Arab Contractors, 120 kilometers away from your village in Nagrig. What did your days typically look like?
From 8:00 to 9:30, I had class. Then I had to go to Cairo, which was four and a half hours away from my village. I would usually take five buses! Then there was training which was four to five hours more of travelling, and I would make it back home at 10 or 11 pm. So sleep, waking up, and that routine everyday…
You’re able to tell this with a smile, but at the time…
Indeed, it was very hard. But there are no free rides in life. I have always been able to make plenty of sacrifices for football.
Your mother wanted you to stop football, didn’t she?
She would say to me, “But why are you forcing yourself to travel so much? What if something were to happen to you? Why do I find myself worrying about whether you’ll return home every night?” My parents would try to reach me by phone, but most of the time, I wouldn’t respond because I was sleeping. Sleeping like a baby! My dad told her, “Let him play, we’ll see later.” To which I responded to my mom, “I love football, I can’t stop myself!”
At the time, what did you dream of?
I would be lying if I told you I dreamt of playing a big European club at the age of 14. No, when I was a kid, I just wanted to be a professional footballer. Being on TV, and seen by people, that’s it. I’ve always believed that once you reach your first goal, you have to look to the next one, and then the next one. When I was 16, I became a professional in Egypt, and then I told myself I wanted to play in Europe.
One day, you said, “If I hadn’t become a professional footballer, I would have had problems in life.”
Because football has always been my life! I don’t know what else I would have been able to do. When you’re out of class by 9:30 am…. (laughing) Yes, my life would have been difficult, had I not become a professional.
Between 2010 and 2012, you played with Egyptian Contractors. Suddenly, on February 1st 2012, came the Port-Said stadium incident (72 deaths following riots. The deadliest in Egyptian football history) The Egyptian league was suspended at the time, and you signed for Basel in Switzerland. How did your adaptation go?
A moment of deep sadness for the country. It was difficult for everyone, and now, I struggle to find the right words.
When did it become easier?
When you’re Egyptian and go to Switzerland, there’s a huge difference. I’m from a country where people are still out in the street at 9 p.m. In Switzerland, everyone is home at 6 p.m.! My beginnings were a bit difficult. I didn’t speak the language, so I couldn’t communicate with my teammates. And I didn’t know the country. The food, the daily routine, the culture, everything was different.
From a footballing perspective, was there a shock?
Not really. The difficult part was playing the Europa League, followed by the Champions’ League. I had to put in a lot of effort. During my first season (2012-2013), we reached the semi-finals of the Europa League which we lost to Chelsea.
Let’s take a leap forward. Six years later, you have turned into a footballing star, with all these honours and awards. Are you surprised by what you have accomplished this season?
(Thinking, and then smiling) No. I came back to England with the desire to succeed. A lot of people told me, “Don’t go! Stay in Rome, you have just come off a great season” (15 goals and 13 assists during the 2016-2017 Serie A season). But I wanted to do even better, and I feel that I have managed that at Liverpool.
How do you explain such a clinical season? Especially considering you’re a winger and not a central striker.
Our style of play helps. Jürgen Klopp often asks that I be at the heart of play, and remain close to the opponent’s goal. He knows how to get the most from his attacking players. Just looking at the amount of goals we’ve scored in the Premier League (second highest with 84 goals) and Champions’ League (highest with 47, including the qualifier against Hoffenheim). From day 1, he’s considered me a friend. We are close, even though, he’s the boss, and I’m a player. The quality of my teammates and their desire to help me score has also helped in my success. Plus, I work hard every day, with that desire to improve.
You have quite the partnership with Firmino and Sadio Mané…
This season, we have each scored plenty of goals. We are not selfish, and look to help each other shine. Off the pitch, we are friends. We are happy together.
Apparently, at the beginning of the season, you set yourself a secret goal. It’s time to reveal it!
(Hesitating) Well, over the course of the season, I would say, “I play on the wing, I don’t have to think too much about my goal tally.” (laughing) That wasn’t entirely true. After ten games, Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero and I had all scored around the same amount of goals. So I set the objective of being the best goalscorer in the Premier League. That was my secret. Reaching this goal, and being named player of the season, was amazing, it was one of the best moments in my life.
You even became the top goalscorer in the history of a 20-club premier league season (32 goals)
That was also incredible. When I reached 20 goals, I spoke with Didier Drogba (previous record holder for highest scoring African Premier League player in one season with 29 goals in 2009-2010 with Chelsea). He told me, “Please, break the record!” to which I responded laughing, “No worries, I will!” And I managed. So I thought to myself, I have quite a few games to play before the end of the season, I can break the all time record! It’s a great source of joy for me.
There’s something very strong between you and the Liverpool fans. How do you explain it?
I have given 100% for my club since my arrival, on and off the pitch. And the fans can see it. Feeling loved by the fans during my first season, fills me with joy. And they sing my song…
Your songs! How many have they wrote? Five?
(Laughing) A whole album!
What’s the craziest thing the fans have done for you?
(Thinking) After a game, they threw themselves on my car.
Liverpool was the team you used to play with on your playstation when you were a teenager. The days with Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso…
Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher… And Gerrard’s shots! I won games with that team.
The fans also love you for your personality. You never give up, you’re always smiling…
It’s part of my character. I’m convinced that good things always end up happening. On the field, I do what I can and continue till it works. There is no reason to worry.
Your idol status is also a lot of pressure. How do you cope?
I have coped with this for a while, so I’m used to this. For years, I have been seen in Egypt as a hero. It’s a large country with 90 or 100 million people. On social media, they’re very present. It’s a lot of pressure. I wouldn’t say I don’t feel it anymore, but I don’t worry. I play football, enjoy myself and good things happen!
Do you manage to tell yourself this before big games?
Yes, because if you don’t think about them like others, then you don’t perform. You have to enjoy yourself during big games. When I play them, I don’t change who I am.
This season, you’ve been compared to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
When your name is put next to theirs’, I feel proud. They’ve shone and have had remarkable careers. I follow in my path and we’ll see.
How is today’s Mohamed Salah different from the one who failed at Chelsea between 2014 and 2015?
It’s different from a player and human perspective. At the time, I was young and didn’t have the chance to play that much with José Mourinho. I decided to join Fiorentina for four months where I was able to express myself on the pitch. Then I left to Roma. My first season with Roma was better than my stint at Fiorentina. Then my second season with Roma was better than my first. This season with Liverpool was better than the last one with Roma. I am happy with my progress.
What did you learn during your two and a half seasons in Italy?
A lot of tactical understanding because we did a lot of it everyday. With “Mister” Spalletti (Roma coach between January 2016 and May 2017), I was also used to working alone at the end of training. On finishing especially. My body also changed to the one I had at Chelsea. My body is a lot stronger now! (Laughing) I’m more muscular. The muscles don’t make the footballer, but I have progressed in other fields.
You spent your first six months with Roma under Rudi Garcia’s guidance.
I remember when we first met very well. He was nice and friendly right from the beginning. His way of treating players is amazing. We didn’t work together for long, but I have to thank him because he helped me feel good in the squad, considering I had just arrived and wasn’t able to speak Italian. I saw that he lost the Europa League final (Marseille’s 3-0 loss against Atletico Madrid), I felt sorry for him.
In October, you scored a penalty in the 94th minute against Congo (2-1) to qualify Egypt for the World Cup.
It was a sensational feeling. Especially since Egypt hadn’t been in the world cup for 28 years. The Egyptians live in the competition. I am sure that people wake up thinking about it!
Tell us about your national team.
Our strength is that we’re a team. A lot of us are friends. We’ve known each other for while. We played together in the U-17, U-18, U-21 categories… It’s a young team, with the exception of our goalkeeper Essam el-Hadary (45 years old, could become the oldest player to compete in the World Cup)
In an interview with L’Équipe Explore, the night before the match, he told us you missed…
(Cutting the journalist off) Three penalties! He saved them all.
What happened the next day?
I don’t know, I was worried all night (laughing) El-Hadary is a great footballer, a passionate athlete who wants to play till the age of 50 or 55. Go figure! In training, he is like a kid. He gives everything and is in great physical shape.
What would you consider a successful World Cup to look like?
Winning the final! (smiling) It’s a difficult question. I don’t want to reach the quarter or semi-finals just to lose and go home immediately after. We know that it won’t be easy to get out our group because our three opponents (Uruguay, Russia, Saudi Arabia) are good teams. We’ll play them and see! In any case, I can’t wait to be there.
How do you see next season going?
For now, I just want to make the most of the World Cup and my holiday. Even if it will be difficult because we will have to work twice as hard, the objective will be to have a better season than the previous one.
You have become more than a footballer. An icon of the Arab world. How does this status feel?
Even if it’s a lot of pressure which shouldn’t be on my mind all the time, I am very proud to be seen as a role model. My message would be: with self-confidence, sacrifice, work, and perseverance, you can improve your life. It worked for me, so it can work for you too. Always believe in yourself.