Golden Goal: Stories of Soccer Legends

Golden Goal #6: Salah

Brandon Kelley
Host

The Premier League has long been lauded as one of the most difficult leagues to succeed in. There are more legitimate contenders in the league than any other top competition in Europe. Where Italy, Germany, and Spain are often dominated by one or two teams, with a third contender sometimes weasling into contention, England has had five different teams crowned champion over the past ten seasons, including Liverpool, who this season clinched their first Premier League title in 30 years. This suggests that the talent and power at the top of the table is more evenly distributed in England, true, but it’s also a testament to the strength of the teams throughout. It’s hard to win games in England. Perhaps that’s why the record for most goals scored in a Premier League season was one of the toughest records around to crack. Many of the best players in the world looked like they would best it, only to fall just short.

Then how on Earth is it that the person to finally come along and do it was already branded a Premier League wash-out years before, a man who had never come close to breaking any scoring records at any club he had been with previously? How did a pretty good player well into his professional career suddenly become one of the best players in the world?

It didn’t happen overnight for Mo Salah. But it did happen much in the same war he runs up the wing: with blinding speed.

Salah’s gonna have a go...absolutely sensational for Mo Salah!

I’m Brandon Kelley, welcome to Golden Goal: soccer’s greatest stars and the moments that made them.

To understand the magnitude of Mo Salah’s rise, you have to understand both the ups and downs of his career, and just how difficult the record for most Premier League goals scored in a season proved to be.

Salah debuted as a 17-year-old in his native Egypt. Not exactly a hotbed of soccer prospects in the traditional sense, but one that worked well enough for Salah to get on the radars of some European teams, including FC Basel. In 2012, Salah was still with the side he debuted with, Al Mokawloon, but without any games to play in. The Egyptian Premier League had been canceled following riots and tragedy at Port Said, where a game between rivals Al-Ahly and Al-Masry ended in the deaths of over seventy people. The Egyptian Premier League would not re-start for another two years, which was too long for FC Basel to wait. They organized a friendly with Egypt’s U-23 team, in which Salah played the second half and scored two goals. This was enough for Basel, who shortly afterwards brought Salah to Switzerland. Salah continued to develop with FC Basel, and looked like a good prospect. It was a Europa League loss to English titans Chelsea, however, that sent Salah’s stock soaring. On a cold night in England, Salah was everywhere, buzzing around the wings, harrying Chelsea players on the ball, and skipping past defenders as if they were standing still.

Another break on here...Salah, beautiful control from him...and Salah has done it! For the third time in a row against Chelsea, he has scored and it might clinch the Champions league title over Jose Mourinho's side, for the little team from Switzerland...

His goal at Stamford Bridge was the cherry on top of a plucky performance for the Swiss underdogs, and although they would go on to lose the two-legged tie 5-2, it put Salah firmly in Chelsea’s sights.And...that’s where his momentum stalled. Maybe it was mismanagement, maybe it was overly defensive tactics from Jose Mourinho, or maybe it was simply a young player failing to adjust to a new place so vastly different from where he had lived, but Salah never caught on at Chelsea. In his first two seasons with the club, Salah only managed to get a handful of minutes on the field, and scored just two goals. Chelsea had had enough, and sent the Egyptian on loan to Italy, which soon turned into a permanent move. Salah was officially a Premier League wash-out.

All was not lost, as Salah’s move to Roma proved fruitful, returning to his dangerous attacking ways. He contributed 51 goals and assists for the Italian side over two seasons, proving he had what it takes to succeed at a high level. His move to Liverpool in 2017, however, still raised eyebrows: they paid nearly $50 million for a player that hadn’t been able to get on the field with Chelsea just a couple years before. Yes, he produced in Italy. But fifty million? Liverpool were finally back into the Champions League after finishing fourth in the 2016-17 Premier League season, was this really the person they were going to splash all that cash on?

And then the season began. And Mo Salah couldn’t stop scoring.

Oh, he’s done it...How on earth has he managed to squeeze that in...

First it was a goal in Liverpool’s opening game of the season. Then another in a rout of Arsenal. Then another. And another. In order to break any goal-scoring record, you have to keep an insane pace. Mo Salah did that, never going more than two games without a goal in his very first season in a Liverpool shirt. And as the season wore on, the Liverpool faithful adored him. He became one of their own, and they sang his praises from the stands.

Fan cheer “Mo Salah”

But goal-scoring pace and consistency isn’t all you need. This is the Premier League we’re talking about. The record for a 38-game season, set by Alan Shearer in 1996 when the Premier League shrunk from 22 teams to 20, had only managed to be matched twice, by Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008 and Luis Suarez in 2014. Some of the best attacking players to ever play passed through the league at that time, and couldn’t best the mark of 31 goals. You had to have consistency, yes. But you also had to have explosions, games where you racked up as many tallies as you could.

Salah highlight in Arabic

On match day 31, Mo Salah still had plenty of work to do to break any records. He was sitting on 24 goals from the previous 30 league games, and needed to score at a rate of one goal per game to get to 32 by season’s end. It was a cold night in the North of England, with snowflakes falling at kick-off, very much like the cold night at Stamford Bridge, where Salah had shown Chelsea his worth.

Sadio Mane looks for Salah...and still...and still!

And once again, Mo Salah absolutely went off. He opened the scoring in the fourth minute, racing past Watford defenders, even making one fall down with a fake before driving the ball into goal. Just before halftime he struck again, meeting a low curled cross with aplomb. Liverpool all but ended the game just after half thanks to a Roberto Firmino goal putting them up 3-0, but Salah wasn’t finished. Again, surrounded by defenders in the box, Salah found a way to guide the ball home in the 77th, and again in the 85th minute, after unselfishly laying the ball off for Danny Ings, Salah cleaned up a rebounded shot. In the span of one game, Salah went from needing to score eight goals in eight games to break the record, to only needing four goals in the remaining seven games. And on the last day of the season, he broke that record that had withstood some of the best players in the game for over twenty years. The Chelsea washout, was now the King of England.

How did he do it? Maybe it was a coach who knew best how to use his gifts. Maybe it was a perfect storm of attacking power and guile, putting Salah in the best possible position to utilize his talents next to Firmino and Sadio Mane on the opposite wing. Maybe it was simply finding a place to call home. But always, without fail, Mo Salah did it in a flash, a blaze of light and brilliance that seemed to come from nowhere, just like in that game against Chelsea all those years before. Turns out, Mo Salah was always that player. He just found the right home in Liverpool. And sometimes, that’s all it takes to create a star.