If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Basel’s Mohamed Salah must sometimes seem like a greatest hits tribute act to some of the world’s finest players, past and present.
Exhibit A, his astonishing goal for Egypt in the 4-2 win over Zimbabwe in a World Cup qualifier last June; receiving a pass from Mohamed Aboutrika just inside the opposition half, Salah evaded a challenge with a deft first touch, drifted past the last defender into the penalty area, before effortlessly clipping the ball past the advancing goalkeeper. The similarity to Michael Owen’s goal for England against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup was uncanny.
But Salah, 21, is no karaoke footballer. His career trajectory suggests he is well on the way to becoming one of the best players to emerge from Arab and African football.
And potentially, the world.
“Salah is the future of Egyptian football. He was the best player against Zimbabwe,” the Egypt coach Bob Bradley said after Salah’s heroics in Harare. “His performance was historic.”
Salah began his career at Arab Contractors in 2010, where his 11 goals in 41 league appearances shot him to prominence and paved the way for a move to Switzerland in the summer of 2012.
He has netted 14 times in 58 matches so far for Basel.
The rest of the world is now singing his praises, too.
This season, Salah has already scored 10 goals for club and country.
And next in his sights are Schalke in Tuesday night’s Uefa Champions League clash at St Jacob-Park.
Coaches often like to differentiate between great goalscorers and scorers of great goals.
Salah, a winger-cum-forward, is the perfect hybrid of both.
He has blistering pace and rarely scores tap-ins, preferring mazy solo runs and expert finishes with his left foot.
Chelsea, for one, will be sick of the sight of Salah.
Last season, he scored in Basel’s 3-1 loss to the Premier League side in their Europa League semi-final second-leg meeting, but it was his performance against them last month that really grabbed their attention. An equaliser (let’s label this one Exhibit B) reminiscent of Rivaldo’s against England in the 2002 World Cup quarter-final for Brazil was followed by a role in the move that produced the corner from which captain Marco Streller scored Basel’s winner in the 2-1 victory in their opening Champions League Group E game at Stamford Bridge.
It has not just been at club level though that he has impressed.
Salah’s form for Egypt has been superb since making his debut against Sierra Leone just over two years ago. His 17 goals in 24 international matches testify to that.
Last year he scored in all three of Egypt’s group matches at the London Olympics; a stunning shot (Exhibit C) in the 3-2 loss to Brazil that Lionel Messi would have been proud of, and goals in the 1-1 draw with New Zealand and 3-1 win over Belarus.
It is his role in leading Egypt to the brink of qualification for next year’s World Cup in Brazil that has captured the hearts of his countrymen. A week after the hat-trick against Zimbabwe, he scored against Mozambique in a 1-0 win that kept Egypt at the top of the group.
His goal in the last qualifier, a 4-2 win over Guinea earlier this month, propelled Salah to No 1 in the goalscoring charts with six, and ensured Egypt’s progress to the play-offs for the finals. In exactly two weeks, Salah and his teammates take on Ghana at Baba Yara Stadium for their first-leg play-off, and on October 19 they host the return leg at the 30 June Stadium in Cairo.
Even for a country with a rich football history, qualification for Brazil 2014, to the backdrop of debilitating political and social chaos, could well prove to be the Egypt’s finest hour.
Alongside the veteran Aboutrika, who impressed UAE fans during a loan stint with Baniyas last season, the not-so-secret weapon Salah will be central to Bradley’s plans.
“Salah is a perfect professional player both on and off the pitch,” the American Bradley said after the defeat of Zimbabwe. “He will play a great role in guiding us to the World Cup finals.”
Salah now goes into arguably the most important two weeks of his career in the form of his life.
On Saturday, he reenacted Arjen Robben’s Champions League winning goal for Bayern Munich with yet another run and finish in Basel’s 2-2 home draw with Sion (Exhibit D).
Top of the Swiss league. Taking the Champions League by storm and within touching distance of World Cup qualification.
For Salah, life is sweet.
By next summer, fans, not to mention opposition defenders, could well be dancing to Salah’s tunes.