Mohamed Salah interview: on Champions League final, comparisons with Ronaldo and giving '100 per cent' for Egypt at the World Cup
Record-breaking forward tells The National he is taking his achievements with Liverpool and Egypt in his stride
The midnight hour has begun and the sun has only just set in the English countryside but Mohamed Salah’s eyes sparkle with excitement and a visible relish for the days ahead.
Relaxed and avuncular in the setting of a stately home with sweeping views over the green valleys, Salah spoke of the importance of enjoying the Uefa Champions League final on Saturday and his hopes for the World Cup in Russia next month.
My audience with the Liverpool forward came as he reaches the zenith of a year of change that has transformed his own reputation, the fortunes of Liverpool, the five-time European champions and helped secure qualification for Egypt to the tournament.
“Everyone around me is very excited to win the Champions League game but the final is one step. For 90 minutes, we have to try very hard to win the game and the same with the World Cup, we are very excited, it's the first time we play in the World Cup for 28 years so every one in Egypt is very excited,” he told The National. “I’m sure I’ll give more than 100 per cent as a player to make the Egyptian people happy and if I do that I’ll very proud.
“As for Saturday I cannot put more pressure on myself — I have to play it as a normal game,” he said. “Of course it is different because it is the final of the Champions League but the best way is to take it easy, relax and enjoy the game.”
The inevitable question of the head-to-head clash with Cristiano Ronaldo, who has at times himself seemed destined to pull his team to Champions League glory this season, is not one to break Salah's sunny demeanour.
“The final is not between Mohamed Salah and Cristiano Ronaldo,” he said. “Of course I know a lot about him. He is a top-level player, as he said, he plays with his right foot, I play with my left. We are both focused on a good game in the final and to win it for our clubs. All I can do is play well.”
Announcing a new partnership as brand ambassador with DHL Express for the Mena region at the hotel 40 miles south of Liverpool, Salah broke the Ramadan fast. As the Isha prayer time passed, he discussed his readiness for the big game. He accepted the gift of a cardboard lantern emblazoned with his distinctive features. Egyptian fans embraced the lantern as symbol of the fire the pathfinding footballer brings to the pitch. Nour Suliman, the ebullient chief executive of DHL in the Middle East and North Africa, said the wide-ranging ambassador deal would see both sides work together with shared values.
"Our partnership with Mohamed Salah is unique and different from any other partnership, because it is the first time we contract for an individual player," he said. "Before the signing, we considered his attributes as a human being who works on himself to develop and improve his performance to prove to all that hard work leads to success, which led to his most successful seasons in the Premier League yet,” Suliman added.
The announcement marks a new stage in Salah’s career, which is now replete with the Mo Salah brand. An MO badge which bears the hallmarks of the design logo used by the electric car maker Telsa, was as prominent at the signing as the familiar DHL trademark.
“A lot of work is going to happen,” he said. “We are talking education, we’re talking about health, we’re talking about special needs. You’re going to hear in the very near future a lot about our partnership with Mohamed.”
The coming few days will shape Salah’s reputation. The forward, who scored a record 32 goals in the Premier League last season, said he was able to screen out any last minute nerves. “I keep my focus on the team and concentrate on the best possible match preparations,” he said. “I don’t think in terms of being a superstar.”
Asked about attention from Spanish media during the team training sessions and speculation that he would move to La Liga, Salah waved away the proposal. “I concentrate on training, I go to the gym, I want to put the football first not the social media or what’s going on around the camp. If I want to know what’s going on [in] the social media my family can inform me.”
In Liverpool he has scored so many goals he is known, on T-shirts and in conversations in the streets, as The Egyptian King. His hard, tough upbringing in the Nile delta, including the stories that he would travel on a bus for four hours to get to his club and four hours to return home, have endeared him to the tight-knit residents of the city.
Part of its legacy as a port city that was imperial Britain’s window to the world is that Liverpool is home to the first mosque established in the country. Liverpool fans have embraced his work ethnic and devotion to his faith in equal measure. A viral video chant of the fans earlier this year lauded his beliefs with the line: “If he scores another few, I’ll be a Muslim too.”
The trustees of the stucco-fronted Abdullah Quilliam mosque speak of how he has changed perceptions in the city and has already become part of the proud history of the institution. “[This mosque] is a gem for the British Isles because Islam started here,” said the director, Abdul Hamid. “It brought together more and more people visiting the mosque and attending Friday prayers just because Mo Salah is here.”
Elder Galib Khan told a television documentary this week that Salah brought a touch of magic with him. “He brings fun to our lives,” Mr Khan said. “Inshallah, by the grace of god, we will win.”
Speaking on the club’s own TV channel, Salah said he was convinced the side had improved in every round and would do again on Saturday. “If you look at our team now and in the beginning, you see the improvement each round, each game, and we were fighting to be in the Champions League and now we are in the final Champions League game — it’s something huge. It’s hard work, dedication.”
He spoke of his friendship from “day one” with Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, who has said the player has unlocked his talent at Liverpool after playing for Basel, Chelsea, Fiorentina and Roma since 2010. “We are very close to each other,” said Salah, as he paid tribute to Klopp as a “great man”.
Meanwhile, with 44 goals in all competitions Salah faced one more challenge from the greatest Liverpool striker of all time. Ian Rush holds the club record for number of goals in a season at 47 and said he would “bow down” to Salah if the striker surpassed him on Saturday.
“If he beats my record I would actually bow down to him,” Rush said. “To score four goals in a final would be an incredible achievement."
Updated: May 24, 2018 05:59 PM