In the 45th minute of Ghana’s game with Egypt – that ended in a 2-2 draw – on Thursday at the Africa Cup of Nations, Mohamed Salah was substituted. His exit came after a suspected hamstring injury, dealing what could be a tough blow to the star forward and his country’s chances at the tournament.
For all that the Egyptian has achieved in his illustrious career, there has been much ado about what is missing.
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The Liverpool star is one of the world’s best players and has enjoyed a gilded time at Merseyside, winning every trophy on offer with the Reds since joining from Italian side Roma in 2017. There have been individual honours as well, most notably back-to-back CAF Player of the Year nods in 2018 and 2019, and he is the top African scorer in the history of English football, with 153 goals.
What is conspicuous by its absence, however, is an international trophy with Egypt.
Following the Pharaohs’ disappointing 2-2 draws against Mozambique and Ghana in their 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) group games so far, questions have once again arisen about Salah’s ability to deliver continental success for the team.
‘The missing piece’
Given his haul of accomplishments in his career, Salah’s iconic standing is beyond question in Egypt.
“There is no doubt that Mohamed Salah’s a legend,” says Marwan Ahmed, an Egyptian football expert with online publication KingFut. “No player from the nation has achieved what he has in world football so obviously he is the pride of the nation.”
That said, silverware with the national team carries a special significance in the minds of Egyptians and Africans in general. “At the end of the day, an African player will always aspire to claim the most prestigious title in the continent,” digital marketer and Pharaohs fan Nour Alaa Abdelkader says. “I think that’s the missing piece in Salah’s puzzle.”
Egypt are AFCON royalty, having recorded seven wins in their history, more than any other nation in Africa. The most recent – in 2010 – was the culmination of a mythical three-peat, forever inscribing such names as Essam El Hadary, Ahmed Hassan, Wael Goma and Mohamed Aboutrika into the country’s folklore.
It is not quite the 37-year wait Egypt had to endure between their second and third titles. However, in the ensuing 14 years since their last win, the Pharaohs have only mustered two final appearances, losing against Cameroon and Senegal in 2017 and 2021 respectively.
Salah was front and centre in both those editions but, despite being named in the teams of the tournament concerned, he only scored four goals across them and his impact was halting rather than inspirational.
Ultimately, were he to fall short, it would be difficult to place him alongside the members of the mid to late-2000s vintage generation.
“(The 2006-2010 golden generation) won the AFCON multiple times,” Ahmed says. “It is difficult to think that Salah would win three titles in a row like them. “He will be ranked as the greatest Egyptian footballer in history, however unfortunately he will never be the greatest Egypt national team player as his effect on the national team is not as apparent.”
Abdelkader agrees, but offers some context.
“I think Salah is another category on his own,” she explains. “Their (the team of 2006-2010) success is unmatched and [it’s] not entirely objective to have him and the rest of them in a comparison, given that back then the entire squad was top notch. Essentially today, Egyptian talents are not ready to deliver on a bigger stage yet.”
Salah’s Messi moment
While Salah’s profile and ability dwarfs the rest of the Pharaohs’ talent pool, Egypt have seemingly pulled out all the stops going into AFCON 2023, including hiring decorated Portuguese manager Rui Vitoria on a yearly salary of $2.4m. It is quite the outlay, more than any other national team manager working in Africa earns; seemingly the last roll of the dice in search of a crowning international moment for Salah.
Concessions have been made, too: under Vitoria, Egypt are a more attacking side, as opposed to the defensive, counterattacking approach that has defined them in recent years and tournaments. This has been done to curtail an over-reliance on Salah. According to Ahmed, “Most expect this to be more of a team effort rather than one player taking the team to glory.”
The former Benfica boss also has Salah operating closer to the centre of the pitch, with a centre-forward alongside him in Mostafa Mohamed who occupies defenders and creates space for Salah to work in.
In many ways, the situation mirrors Lionel Messi’s 2022 World Cup, which was implicitly understood as a chance for a last hurrah for the Argentinian great. Messi went on to lead the Albiceleste to the summit of world football for the first time since 1986, ending any debate around his legacy.
If Salah, who will be 33 by the time the next edition comes around, is to pull it off in the Ivory Coast, the sentiment and effect will be similar, Ahmed explains. “You know how there was a feeling of relief for many when Messi won the World Cup? Helped the nation to their first World Cup in almost 30 years and now, finally a winner’s medal which he has been waiting for long enough? With Salah, (if he were to win) we can expect a similar feeling.”
For all the pressure, there is also faith.
“People are still rooting for him relentlessly,” Abdelkader says. “He is very relatable to most of the generations through his story and his resilience. Egyptians believe in Salah as they would their own sons.”
For the nation’s favourite son, this tournament in the Ivory Coast potentially offers one last opportunity to return as a king with a kingdom.