Mo Salah: the humble superstar who's influencing a new generation of footballers

Mo Salah has won hearts and matches at Liverpool - PA
Mo Salah has won hearts and matches at Liverpool - PA

Mo Salah was last month crowned the Professional Footballer’s Association Players' Player of The Year, the ultimate accolade in the glittering world of the Premier League. As the name suggests, the winner is selected by his fellow professionals – players who have picked endless goals out of their own nets this season, deftly sent there by this curious figure who could yet hit 50 for the season in all competitions. Salah accepted the award with typical humility: no showboating, no gloating, no drunken cheers. 

Liverpool fans have known about Salah since the start of the season – he scored in their opening Premier League match, his first for the club. They celebrate his high speed, inventive performances in song, art, scarves, T-shirts, banners, chants and molten Twitter and Instagram excitement. However, for the rest of the footballing nation, the indication that something exceptional was happening in Anfield might have started in a messy bedroom in the Irish City of Cork. 

It was there, via a very basic head and shoulders You Tube clip, that Cork’s self styled “biggest Liverpool fan” Kevin Murphy (as played by comedian Richy Sheehy) sent his version of The Archies ‘Sugar Sugar’ out into the world. Accompanied by some sand in a juice bottle for homemade maracas and a karaoke backing track that stops mid-song, Murphy's simple yet overwhelming demonstration of his love for Mo Salah went viral, thrusting the character into the same sort of whirlwind fame that his hero is experiencing on a grander scale. Sometimes things happen in football that puncture the gross big business pomposity of the global entertainment machine. Things that connect fans of all ages, all clubs. Peter Crouch’s Robot dance goal celebration was one; Gazza showing the ref his own red card was another; Leicester City's historic Premier league success the most recent. 

Murphy's song is a fourth – but it was only possible because of the utter joy the 25-year-old Cairo born Egyptian is spreading in football. Some players transcend the tribalism of inter-city and inter-club rivalries – Arsenal’s master technician Denis Bergkamp, for example, and Chelsea’s tiny Sardinian magician Gianfranco Zola. Last week, I booked a babysitter and went down to the pub to watch Salah star in Liverpool’s demolition of his former club Roma in the Champions league semi-final. And I'm a Leeds supporter.

Peter Hooton, a lifelong Liverpool season ticket holder and singer with The Farm pop group, says of Salah: “He’s a breath of fresh air. He has sublime skills and world class finishing. We’ve had many goalscoring heroes – Kevin Keegan, Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez – but this is so much better because it was so unexpected.” 

Certainly eyebrows were raised when Liverpool paid Roma £35million for Salah last summer, just a year after Chelsea had sold him to the Italians for half the price. But, having sold their previous star striker, Phillip Coutinho to Barcelona for £125,000,000 (yes you read that right), £35m probably seemed like small change.

Salah collects the PFA Player Of The Year Award Trophy - Credit:  PA
Salah collects the PFA Player Of The Year Award Trophy Credit: PA

As a player, Salah fizzes around the pitch. He has the pep and endeavor of former Liverpool hero Kevin Keegan and creates the sort of lovely lines to goal defined by former Arsenal star Thierry Henry. There’s now an expectation amongst spectators that when he gets the ball, he will score. In Liverpool they adore him.

Peter Hooton continues: “He already has a double album of songs about him as his name seems to fit into ever song written since the 60s. He also seems such a humble person which appeals to fans who crave honesty. He seems a very different character to (previous Liverpool hero) Louis Suarez.

"Suarez was a street fighter but Salah is a Street Poet.”

Back in Egypt, Salah is the most famous man in the country, a footballer who prompts people to come together in coffee shops to see him play.  Even the Manchester United fans of Cairo cheer him on. 

After Leicester’s Mahez and Chelsea’s Kante, Salah is the third Muslim in a row to win the prestigious PFA Players Player Award. These players are role models to young kids of all faiths but they must be increasingly important to young Muslims at a time of increasing religious prejudice. Salah and his wife Magi named their daughter Makka, after the holy site in Saudi Arabia. At Anfield, they see only the similarities and the skills, not the differences. 

The UK media’s leading goalkeeping analyst David Preece says of Salah’s success amongst his peers: “Kevin De Bruyne is a brilliant player but Manchester City could probably have won the league without him. Liverpool wouldn't be anywhere near the same without Salah.” And as an after thought as to why he is so popular with fans: “Google 'fish and chip shop and Salah', there’s great shot of him getting some chips. The fans see that he's like them.”

There’s an apparent humility to Salah which is at odds with other players, like £90,000,000 Manchester United buy Paul Pogba, who seems to thrive on the attention his haircuts garner on social media. Salah’s teammates, like defender Dejan Lovren, manager, Jurgen Klopp, and former Liverpool icons, like Steven Gerrard, already believe he is in the top three in the World. This season he has outscored both Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo. 

It’s a star of another world and another century that Salah reminds me of. Maybe it's his hair, his nature or the way his goals look like they’ve been speeded-up on film, but Salah has the air of Charlie Chaplin, an innocent genius that delights all who encounter him.  

James Brown's book on amateur football, Above Head Height: A Five-a-Side Life, is published by Quercus