Surprises, by and large, almost never occur at soccer's highest levels anymore. A coterie of the richest eight European clubs invariably hoards the most important titles. The same two men, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, have been the sport's preeminent players for 11 years and counting (page 88). Just eight nations have won the men's World Cup, and three of them—Brazil, Germany and Italy—have combined to raise 13 of the 20 trophies. Yet the hegemony of the 1% only makes that very rare surprise even sweeter, an affirmation of our tightly held belief that in sports, everyone has a chance.
That's why Leicester City's run to the 2015--16 English Premier League title (at 5,000-to-1 odds) was so soul-stirring. And it helps explain the global embrace of Mohamed Salah, the genial 25-year-old forward who propelled Egypt to its first World Cup since 1990. When Salah joined Liverpool from Roma last summer, most observers expected he would outperform his first Premier League stint with Chelsea, when he scored just two goals across 20 games in 2014 and '15. But not even the most starry-eyed Scouser could have predicted that the so-called Egyptian King would more than double his previous season high with a league-record 32 goals, spearhead the Reds' unlikely run to the UEFA Champions League final and thrust himself past dozens of better-known aspirants into the debate, with Messi and Ronaldo, over who is the world's best player today.
About the only person who isn't stunned by this rise is Salah, who says he could see it coming as a teenager on a modest Egyptian club, Arab Contractors, owned by a construction company. "I've always had the vision, so I'm not surprising myself," he explains in English on an unseasonably warm spring day in northwest England. "I'm happy about what I'm doing. I need to work to do it again and again and again. I work on my weaknesses and try to improve all the time—in the gym alone after training, before training.... If you recall, the number [of goals] this year is [more] than last year, and last year was [more] than the year before. Every year I feel I've improved. That's the most important thing for me."
Watching Salah in full flight on the ball, cutting in from the right wing toward the goal, is a study in the expansion of time—he's like the only person in the room who has figured out that you can listen to the podcast at 1.5x speed and still understand everything perfectly. Salah glides past defenders plodding along at 1.0x speed, and even when they converge on him in the box, he weaves between their thick bodies and holds the ball on his merciless left foot longer than anyone would think possible (or wise—scoring chances can dissolve in an instant) before unleashing a surgical strike into the net. Salah's shots are more like injections: repeatable, reliable and an inescapable source of pain. If you lay off him outside the box, though, he'll simply conjure a leftfooted bender into the top corner. So mesmerizing is Salah with his left foot (like Messi, like Diego Maradona), it scarcely matters that his right is benign by comparison.
Neil Atkinson, host of the Anfield Wrap podcast and the unofficial mayor of Liverpool, observes that LFC supporters began approaching each home game this season as though they were already ahead 1--0 at kickoff—the likelihood of Salah scoring was that high. (Indeed, Salah found the net in 19 of his 24 home starts across all competitions.) "The main way he's been so impressive is how calm and poised he is," says Atkinson. "The ball falls to him and he acts as though he's got all the time in the world, just this supernatural calm he exudes to do the hardest thing in football. He makes goalkeepers look tiny and the goal look huge. The thing I've become almost obsessed with is the number of times he shoots and the goalkeeper doesn't dive—without [Salah] even kicking it that hard. Because he's putting it in a place where the goalkeeper knows, 'Yeah, I can't get it.' And that's crazy to watch."
Ask Salah to name the best goal of his career, and he includes strikes this season against Everton (in which he clowned two men in the box and curled his shot between two more) and Tottenham (in which he found space among four defenders in the box with three leftfooted touches, then fired a stoppage-time winner). But inquire about his most important goal, and Salah goes another direction: his stoppage-time penalty (after another Salah score earlier in the game) against Congo last October in Alexandria—a goal that sent the Pharaohs to the World Cup for the first time since before Salah was born. "Everyone is looking at you; you have to score," he says. "They celebrate even before you shoot. But I know that no one else can take it. When you play for your home country, it's a different feeling. I'm not saying that you don't feel something when you play for Liverpool—you can see I do. But to take your own country to the World Cup, the feeling is different."
Egyptians adore Salah. They've painted his smiling face on murals, entered him as a write-in vote in the recent presidential election, and hailed his financial support for public services and charities in Nagrig, his hometown four hours northwest of Cairo. For five years, Salah says, the outpouring of countrymen who see him in public has been so overwhelming that he occasionally grows concerned for his own safety. "When I go to Egypt, I stay at home; I don't like to go out," he says. "But the day we qualified for the World Cup, the hotel was open, so everyone could go in. There were so many people, I had to run from this room to that room, jump from here to there. The people wanted to celebrate, but they wanted to celebrate with us."
Even then, the leading African scorer in World Cup qualification handled the pressure with the same aplomb he showed on that decisive spot kick. Says Los Angeles FC's Omar Gaber, Salah's Pharaohs teammate and one of his closest friends, who was there that night, "I have never seen him nervous."
THE YOUNG Egyptian talent and the American coach formed a bond from the start. The year was 2012. Egypt's domestic league had been suspended after the Port Said Stadium massacre, which saw 72 people killed, and Bob Bradley—the former U.S. coach who'd taken over the Pharaohs—began organizing regular games and training camps to keep his players sharp. Among those charges was a 19-year-old Salah, who had already starred for the U-20 team under Bradley's assistant Diaa El Sayed. "From the first day when you got Salah in there, you realized how special he was," says Bradley, who now coaches Gaber at LAFC. "So explosive, so quick. Still raw, but smart. And he was so hungry to get better. He wanted to work on his finishing. When you showed him things in training, the next day you'd see him doing it without even thinking about it. Salah is a special guy."
The admiration is mutual. "[Bradley] and Captain Diaa were like my fathers in a football way," Salah says. "[Bradley] helped me a lot, inside and outside the field. Everyone loves him in Egypt." Even though they are now separated by eight time zones, Salah and Bradley still communicate regularly.
To hear Salah tell the story, his own father, also named Mohamed, played a central role in the most pivotal moment of his career. When he was 14, Salah began making regular eight-hour round-trips from Nagrig to Cairo so he could train with the Arab Contractors' U-15 team—but after a year things weren't going too well. "The moment that changed my life?" Salah tees it up. "I was on the bench for two months. I told my father I can't go four hours every day and be on the bench. I was crying. He said, 'Listen, everyone who became a big name after a long time, he suffered a lot [first]. It's not going to be easy. Just keep focused, train hard and I'm sure you will play again and be great.' That's a moment that I still remember, in his car at six in the morning. After a short period I started playing again, and everything has worked out." (Asked whether he has ever shared the importance of that conversation with his father, Salah pauses and shakes his head. "No," he says finally. "No, I haven't.")
There were plenty of other milestones in Salah's soccer journey. The time when one coach, citing the 16-year-old Salah's underdeveloped body strength, moved him from left back to the front line. ("From then," he recalls, "I started playing on the right wing and scoring goals.") Or when Zamalek, one of Egypt's biggest clubs, chose not to sign Salah at age 19 and he moved instead to Basel, in Switzerland, a week later. ("If I signed for Zamalek, I wouldn't be here now," he says, suggesting a young Salah would have settled permanently at one of his country's top clubs.) Or when Salah moved to Italy at 22—first to Fiorentina, then to Roma—which restored his confidence and his career after a year in purgatory at Chelsea under José Mourinho.
Salah credits two more North Americans at Roma—head performance coach Ed Lippie, an upstate New Yorker, and director of performance Darcy Norman, a Canadian—with making him stronger in the gym. But he saves some of his most glowing comments for his manager there, Luciano Spalletti, who responded to Salah differently than Mourinho did. "He was unbelievable," Salah says. "I love him as a man. He made the difference for me in my life because he worked with me every day after training. Even if we were tired, he said, 'O.K., if you want to do something, come and ask me.' And every day I asked him. I was always doing finishing with him." Spalletti was always demanding more, including improvement in Salah's upper-body fitness and in his ball protection in tight spaces.
All of which is to say that Salah's great leap at Liverpool has not happened overnight, even if the environment under coach Jürgen Klopp has helped create the right conditions. Salah adjusted quickly to Klopp's high-pressing style, which seeks to create chaos and cause turnovers in dangerous positions. What's more, the whole of Liverpool's front three—Salah, Roberto Firmino (of Brazil) and Sadio Mané (Senegal)—has been far more than the sum of its parts. Firmino, in particular, is the ideal team-first centerforward. "Sometimes he goes and defends in my place, maybe multiple times [a game]," says Salah, who's then freed to take risks and put himself in front of the goal. Klopp's most significant attribute, though, Salah says, is his approach to the sport: "He knows how to work with players mentally. On the field you can see that; he makes the difference for everyone."
And as Salah's goals piled up this season, you could hear a chant (sung to the tune of the 1990s Britpop hit "Good Enough," by the band Dodgy) radiating from the Anfield stands:
If he's good enough for you,
he's good enough for me.
If he scores another few,
then I'll be Muslim too.
If he's good enough for you,
he's good enough for me.
Sitting in the mosque,
that's where I wanna be!
At a time when Britain is fighting rising Islamophobia, the outpouring of affection for an Egyptian-national superstar who is proud and public about his Muslim faith has been edifying. In England, youth soccer players of all backgrounds can be found commemorating their goals as Salah does, raising their hands skyward and kneeling prostrate in sujud on the field.
Atkinson, the Anfield Wrap host, wonders if there's something about the city of Liverpool that has influenced the response to Salah. "Nationalism in all its forms is on the rise [in England], and it's unpleasant," Atkinson says. "I think Liverpool's unique character has helped. Salah and Mané clearly reflect their [Muslim] faith on the pitch, and that's now something that's respected—and, in fact, celebrated. It's not just because Salah kicks it in the goal; it's that Liverpool is a port city that sees itself as different in the context of the rest of the United Kingdom."
For his part, Salah calls his supporters' song "something special," but given the sensitive climate around the world, he is hyperaware of what he says publicly and how it is received back home. Mohamed Aboutreika, his once-beloved former Egypt teammate and the nation's greatest player before Salah, has been accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization that briefly held power after the Egyptian revolution of 2011, only be to be deposed by current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Today Aboutreika lives in exile, his name having been placed on a terror list by the Cairo Criminal Court.
Even a benign question about the meaning of Salah's public bow is cut off by his agent, Ramy Abbas Issa. "No, no, why are you talking about that?" Issa asks. A follow-up question about being welcomed in Liverpool at a time of rising nationalism is also interrupted. "He's a footballer," Issa says. "We just talk about football—not about skin color or racism or Trump, or any of that stuff." (Perhaps it's best not to assume anything these days, in a complicated world. Issa's social media channels contain several supportive references to President Trump, an ally of Sisi's.)
For now, Salah is trying to keep things as simple as possible. His challenge in Russia will be to carry his transcendent form from the Reds to the Pharaohs. Group A is workable, with one talent-filled team (Uruguay) and the two lowest-ranked squads in the tournament (host Russia and Saudi Arabia). "We'll give everything for the country," Salah says. "We will protect each other. We love each other, and that will help us on the field. I'm sure we are going to do something special. Egypt play a different way than Liverpool—but in both ways I have to score."
Salah's ambitions aren't complicated. Asked if he wants to be viewed as the world's best player, he says, "If you just see yourself as, 'O.K., I play football for fun,' if you don't have a vision for what you want to do, it's better to stay at home." More important, though, he adds, are team goals: "I want to win everything in football. I want to win Champions League. I want to win the Premier League. If I can win the World Cup, I would be very happy."
Egypt winning the World Cup? Surprises like that never happen at soccer's highest levels. Right?