Is Mo’ Salah’s improbable brilliance a rupture in the European-elite-club-football-spacetime-continuum?
Across sports, genres and eras, there is something that snakes its tendrils around the psychology of obsession and unites fans across the world – time. Or, to be more precise, the amount of time and space (physical and/or emotional) that the object of adoration takes up in one’s life – whether it be the teenage goth with the black nail paint or the suburban mom jamming out to Bruno Mars, the tattooed shirtless ultra on the Curva Sud at the San Siro or the father taking his young child out to their first East Bengal match at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, strip away the outer layers and they’re united by the joy they feel – and they’ve all caught the bug.
And let’s be clear, football fandom is very much an infectious disease, involuntarily absorbed, passed on amongst family and friends, and, more often than not, quite uncomfortable. As Nick Hornby wrote in Fever Pitch, the seminal book on football obsession, “I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.”
And just like romantic love, we persist with football, despite the existential anxiety of bad dates, despite the spirit-crushing tedium of a Sunderland-Stoke City 0-0 draw, or the heartbreaks and the crying yourself to sleep (after a breakup or a Champions League quarterfinal exit), only to wake up the next morning and go again, believing beyond all reasonable hope that this year, this year, it’s gonna be our year, where we’ll meet the One or finally win another league title. Why do we do it? For two reasons, mainly:
1) When it’s good, it’s really, really, really good. It’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic 40-yard overhead kick goal vs England good. It’s Bergkamp’s 1998 World Cup goal vs Argentina good. It’s Messi good. And it reminds you of all that is pure and unspoilt and worth fighting for.
2) The pleasures of discovery. For the same reason that music geeks will listen to hours of atrocious EPs and terrible mixtapes in search of that one really great band that flew under the radar, football fans will travel to away third-round cup matches against lower league minnows to watch their club’s newest academy products or scour through Youtube for highlights of talented young players – to be truly and pleasantly surprised by the flowering of talent.
Which brings us to Mohammad Salah.
Of the hundreds of articles written about Liverpool’s Egyptian king since last season, referencing his chances for the Ballon d’Or, his unfortunate injury in the Champions League final or his iconic status in his home country (where he was the surprise runner-up to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Egyptian Presidential elections with one million votes, despite never having ran at all), what is often forgotten is the sheer improbability of what is happening here. How has the rich man’s Theo Walcott suddenly become, in less than a year, the most lethal and well-rounded creative attacking player in the world, bar Lionel Messi? And more importantly, how did just about everyone associated with global football miss this?
Let’s be clear, Mo Salah has always been a very good player, even during his lost year at Chelsea as a 21 year-old, and especially as a second striker at Fiorentina and a buccaneering rightwinger at Roma. But until last season, the only real sign that he would become one of the best forwards in the world was that he was cast off by Jose Mourinho, the anti-Midas, joining an illustrious line of Jose-reject world-beaters that also includes Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. What Salah has done over the last one and a half years at Liverpool is something that is not really supposed to happen anymore, especially to 25 year-old inverted wingers with a reputation for bad decision-making in the final third.
The reason Salah’s success is all the more astonishing today is because the modern corporatised form of football and its associated media infrastructure doesn’t allow for many surprises anymore. Surprise means the system failed to notice the opportunity, and that’s bad for the bottomline. Football has always eaten its young, throwing kids into the lions’ den and crushing thousands of dreams in exchange for every one successful career, but today, football not only eats but subsumes its young with the world-conquering ferocity of a Lovecraftian monster. The economics of the modern transfer market and the inequities of global football are such that the richest clubs can afford to (and alternatively, cannot afford not to) stockpile promising young players like survivalists stockpile food – even their feeder clubs have feeder clubs, scouting networks spanning the globe like a spiderweb of rapacious speculation, luring younger and younger players into the system, and ramming them down the throats of fans as the new Messi, the new Cristiano, the new Neymar. It is shocking to realise that there are already articles about the new Mbappe. Kylian Mbappe is 19, and has played top-flight football for a grand total of about two seasons. Kylian Mbappe is the new Kylian Mbappe.
And with the richest clubs getting richer on the TV and streaming and sponsorship revenue and gathering all the best talent out there, national leagues have ossified, the same one or two clubs winning every season and almost everyone else doomed to be the also-rans and the cannon fodder. Even in continental competition, Real Madrid have won four out of the last five Champions Leagues, with the other won by – shocker! – Barcelona, emphasizing the closed, incestuous nature of this high table. We hang desperately onto scraps like Leicester City’s Premier League win in 2015-16 or Monaco winning Ligue 1 in 2016-17, but there is no escaping the general trend – there are no new lands in football to conquer, and everything is totally, totally predictable.
Into this landscape comes Salah, with his dinks, dribbles and drag-backs. Already, he is toying with most defences in a way that only the truly great players did – you’re reminded of the young Cristiano or peak Suarez, the way those players always seemed to be operating under different physical laws than other players, how they always seemed to be able to create that extra yard of space or a second or two of time on the ball that you wouldn’t imagine possible while surrounded by an army of defenders. And while he was used mostly as a clinical cutting edge for Liverpool’s heavy-metal football last season, Klopp recognising that this was a player finding a wholly different class of goalscoring form, this season he’s already shown a Messi-like ability to be all things to all his teammates, popping wherever needed, driving his team on from his right-sided berth or dropping deep from a number 9 position, taking players on, spreading the play wide, taking players on and creating space as well as chances for others. His hat-trick performance in the 4-0 rout of Bournemouth in the Premier League this season was a case in point – at any point, you could be forgiven for thinking there were multiple Salahs playing, such was his ubiquity to Liverpool’s attacking play.
There have been challenges to the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly for the title of best player in the world over the last decade or so, but those magical seasons have been telegraphed well in advance of their arrival. Neymar was already scoring 42 goals in 60 games for Santos at 18 and had won the Puskas award, the Copa Libertadores and the South American Footballer of the Year award (twice) at 21, before transferring to Barcelona. Radamel Falcao was already El Tigre to his Colombian fans before he scored 38 in 42 for Porto and 36 in 50 for Atletico to win consecutive Europa Leagues in 2010-12. Luis Suarez was widely acknowledged as the best young talent to flourish at Ajax since the Brazilian Ronaldo, scoring 35 goals in 33 games in 2009-10, well before he was PFA Player of the Year at Liverpool or part of the record-breaking MSN trio at Barcelona. Even Harry Kane won the Premier League Golden Boot two seasons in a row before he outscored Messi and Ronaldo in the calendar year of 2017. But there is no real precedent for the phenomenon of Salah. Last season alone, Salah scored 44 goals in 52 appearances for Liverpool – for comparison, he had scored 46 in 131 appearances over the previous four seasons combined.
This kind of thing used to happen, once upon a time, like when a little-known 24 year-old Reims striker called Just Fontaine scored 13 goals in six matches for France at the 1958 World Cup. Today, Just Fontaine would have been snapped up by a Chelsea feeder club in Morocco long before he turned 15, and fed through a succession of sister clubs in Spain and the Netherlands, where he might well have lost his head being called the next Gerd Muller for the thousandth time or with the ennui of yet somehow still being third-choice striker forever behind Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata, or what is known as the Michy Batshuayi Story.
And yet Mo Salah carries on being Mo Salah, oblivious to his own startling unlikelihood, the kind of player who doesn’t beat defenders so much as traumatises them (on cold, dark nights, Juan Jesus still checks nervously behind his shoulder, expecting to see Salah there). Here he is gliding away from an opposition marker so smoothly you half-expect to see him on roller-skates. There he is calmly dinking a ball over a panicking goalkeeper, as if he didn’t know that tens of millions of people were watching with bated breath. There he is again, turning on the afterburners into wide open space, legs whirring double-time like a Roadrunner cartoon, leaving panting defenders for dead. And he keeps on coming, beating teams with a smile and a lightness on his feet, a constant reminder of football’s enduring ability to defy the strictures and the stage-management, and find new ways of leaving our jaws on the floor.