Mohamed Salah is arguably the best player in world football right now. His exploits with Liverpool have been legendary; this season, he has shown no signs of slowing down. He has won everything in club football and is only chasing the shadows of greats such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry in the Premier League. However, a huge stain engulfs him with the national team. The lack of an African Cup of Nations winners medal means that Salah is not regarded as even the greatest Egyptian player of all time. That honour belongs to the otherworldly figure of Mohamed Aboutrika.
Egypt is a country steeped in football heritage, boasting the most AFCON titles on the continent (7) as well as Africa’s most successful club, Al-Ahly, who have won the CAF Champions League a record 11 times. It is due to this football heritage that Aboutrika is regarded as their greatest-ever player. Nicknamed the magician, the number 22 had won the CAF Champions League five times with Al-Ahly and had won AFCON twice in 2006 and 2008, with him scoring the only goal in 2008 against fellow African giant, Samuel Eto’o’s Cameroon.
He is regarded as the greatest player never to play in Europe or South America. All his on-field, as well as his off-field exploits, have catapulted him to the stars in terms of reverence in his homeland. A status that Salah could only hope to achieve with one act: winning. Egypt has grown accustomed to being the best the continent has to offer, with their golden generation winning three ACON titles in a row between 2006 and 2010.
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However, 2010 was the last time they had won the competition, with them losing the final twice since then in 2017 and 2022, with Salah playing in both finals. Both losses have subsequently been seen as huge stains on his legacy. Nevertheless, Salah has achieved some success with the national team. He led the Pharaohs to their first World Cup since 1990 in 2018, with himself scoring a last-minute penalty against Congo to take them through. Something their golden generation never achieved. He is their second all-time goal scorer and is only 12 away from breaking Hossam Hassan’s record of 68.
Surely this all counts for something? The answer is nope. What Egypt wants; Egypt expects. He must lead them to at least one AFCON victory before hanging up his boots, to be in the conversation of not only Egypt’s greatest, but Africa’s too. His exploits in the Premier League have already led to him being crowned as Africa’s greatest ever in some quarters. Yet, the two-time African Player of the Year would himself tell you that an even bigger shadow looms over him in that conversation. A little-known striker named Samuel Eto’o, if you have heard of him. Not many have.
A back-to-back treble winner. A four-time African Player of the Year winner. AFCON’s all-time top goal scorer, a Pichichi winner, and multiple team of the year selections with UEFA and FIFA. The list goes on and on. For my generation which was too young to see George Weah in full flight winning the Ballon d’Or, Eto’o is the African GOAT.
He possessed unreal ball striking with both feet, was good in the air, could play off either wing and upfront, possessed searing pace and was lethal in front of goal. He was the complete package. His exploits in Europe made him a king, his exploits for Cameroon made him immortal.
Not only did the ex-Barcelona man win AFCON twice for his country, but he also helped them to win gold in the 2000 Olympics, one of six medals Cameroon have ever won. By scoring in the final of both the Olympics and AFCON that year, Eto’o had already cemented himself as one of Africa’s biggest stars.
So, could Salah eclipse Eto’o or is this just a useless conversation as many would say no? But are we being too harsh on him? It is not his fault he came into prominence when the golden generation ended and he is by a long shot and I do mean long, Egypt’s best player.
He is the only reason they rescued a draw against Mozambique, with a goal and assist and sparing Egypt’s blushes. He did play with Aboutrika in the 2012 Olympics but that was towards the end of his career, so the two giants could never truly link up at the height of their powers.
I hear Drogba named as a better player than him, but the Ivorian failed to win AFCON with a stacked generation of players. He also missed a penalty in 2012 against Zambia in the final and subsequently went on to lose in the shootout. Why is he afforded such leniency, but Liverpool man is not? It has been Salah or nothing for years, with teams knowing if they focus on him, the chances of losing against Egypt drastically drop. But his many detractors would say others have done it for their country, why hasn’t he?
The likes of Sadio Mane and Riyad Mahrez have both led their country to AFCON glory, with Mane scoring the winning penalty in the shootout for Senegal against Salah’s Egypt who didn’t even get a chance to take one. Upon taking a deeper look, both Senegal and Algeria boasted much higher quality and depth in their squads.
But legacy does not care about nuance, it cares about getting over that imaginary yet all too real line. And with Mahrez and Mane, his contemporaries whom he has outlasted in the Premier League, they managed to achieve international glory when he has not.
Salah’s international career scarily mirrors that of Messi. Both of whom were expected to bring glory to their nations. Both of them lost multiple finals, and both were compared to mythical figures like Maradona and Aboutrika. Messi ended up expelling his national team curse by winning the Copa America, ending Argentina’s 28-year wait for a trophy and then the World Cup.
Even with a talented squad like he has now, I don’t think Salah will win the latter for his country. Yet, by ending his country’s 14-year wait for an AFCON, he can achieve the love and admiration like the Argentinian did when he finally broke his international duck.
For the first time in a long time, Egypt has given Salah a supporting cast that can look to be amongst the favourites for the tournament. Frankfurt’s Omar Marmoush, who has seven goals and three assists this season is an exciting forward who can help break down deep blocks alongside Salah. Mostafa Mohamed will help the frontline and the talented Al-Ahly duo of Marwan Attia and Emam Ashour bolstering the midfield.
It is a good team with a coach who has a point to prove in Rui Vitória, the previously highly touted Benfica manager. But with this year’s AFCON there are many strong teams. The World Cup semi-finalist Morocco is a big favourite, with Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Algeria boasting impressive squads. But expect the unexpected with AFCON. Many good teams have crashed and burned and through the fire could rise Egypt, soaring to heights not seen since 2010.
This year’s African Cup of Nations represents so much for Salah. It means finally figuratively shushing all the naysayers who have said he cannot do it for his country. It would be the crowning of a new Pharoah of Egypt, and end Aboutrika’s end. But above all, it would push him into the conversation of not only Egypt’s greatest but the greatest of those who ever came from the big and wonderful continent of Africa. Thus, granting him what every footballer aims for, sporting immortality.
By: Abu Yasin / @Abuy2j
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Visionhaus – Getty Images