Liverpool’s Mohammad Salah in action Image Credit: AP

Not since Omar Sharif’s meteoric rise into world cinema upon starring in David Lean’s masterpieces Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 and Doctor Zhivago three years later, did any Arab shoot to international stardom the way Mohamed Salah is celebrated globally these days.

The Egypt’s national team captain and the star forward of the Liverpool club, affectionately known by fans in England and around the world as Mo Salah, seems to have come out of nowhere only to secure in a matter of few years a legitimate claim to be the best player in the world, to have his name in the same conversation with such great footballers as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

As Liverpool ripped apart their arch rival Manchester United with five goals, Salah’s brilliance was on show as he became the first player in nearly 20 years to score a hat-trick (three goals in a match, for those not familiar with football terminology!) against United at their home pitch, the Old Trafford, famously known the Theatre of Dreams.

A grounded man

A fitting feat for a player who has dreamt of being the best in the world since he began shooting the ball around as a little boy in the streets of Nagrig, a small Egyptian village in the Gharbia Province, some two and a half hours drive north of Cairo, where he was born in 1992.

On the eve of the Liverpool and Manchester United game, Salah told Sky Sports that he wants to be the best in the world: “It’s always the ambition to be the best player in the world. I don’t have to lie. It’s something that drives me to work really hard and just try to be the best version of myself.”

As the conversation continues to rage in world football about Salah’s status versus the two great players, Messi and Ronaldo, the Liverpool star says it is clear to him who is the best: “In my head, I’m the best player all the time. I’m trying to have that confidence in my head. It doesn’t matter if some people agree with you, some people not.”

And he is probably right. His genius overwhelmed the world two weeks before that historic victory against Manchester United — in fact during another big game against another Manchester club, City.

Nobody expected Salah to do much against Manchester City, which has arguably one of the most formidable defences in the world. It was the 76th minute and the game was level at 1-1. Salah received the ball from midfielder Curtis Jones outside the 18 yard box.

At that point, the crowd was calm. It was one of those passes that mostly lead to another and another. It was not particularly a scoring opportunity. Salah, playing on the right wing as usual, had his back to the City goalkeeper. There were four City players stand between him and the net.

As he received the ball, Salah turned around and started to run inside the penalty area. The crowd took notice and began to roar. Three City players Cancelo, Foden and Bernardo Silva, rushed to surround Salah he sprinted towards the net.

In a few magical seconds, and with a slight but a brilliant play from his famous left foot, the three defenders were left behind — Silva was on the ground as Salah approached the six-yard box. The crowd here stood up, realising that something big is about to happen. With Mo Salah, it always does.

Pure magic on display 

The fourth player, Aymeric Laporte, the Spanish international, faced Salah heads on trying to push him to the right; to force him to a play with his weak right foot. Few yards from the net and the goalkeeper Ederson now in sight, Salah leant to the left only to pull back to the right where he saw an opening. Leaving Laporte in his wake, he shot strongly to Ederson’s right, yes with his weak right foot. The ball was in the back of the net and Ederson could do nothing about it.

Salah’s solo goal was pure magic, described as one for the ages by the football pundits. Liverpool’s head coach, German Jurgen Klopp said after the match that “people will talk about this goal for a long time and in 50 or 60 years’ time they will remember this goal. The first touch, the first challenge he wins then putting it on his right foot and finishing the situation was absolutely exceptional.”

Continuing his stunning performance, Salah has raised the bar for himself and the expectations of the fans and critics. I myself expect him to do such brilliant every Saturday. So far this season, he hasn’t disappointed. He now sits at the top of the list of the Premier League top scorers with 10 goals in 9 games.

More importantly, he has become an international symbol of excellence, hard and honest work. Because there is much more to Salah than just kicking the ball in the net on weekends. His achievements go beyond the wall of Liverpool’s legendary grounds, Anfield. There is another dazzling story that is seldom told when talking about Mo.

Unlike Omar Sharif, who seemed to have cut almost all ties to his native Egypt as he wandered in Hollywood, Paris and London and other showbiz arenas, only to return few years before his death in 2015, Salah’s ties with Egypt and particularly his home village Nagrig seem to have gotten only stronger. The bigger Salah got in world’s football, the closer he got to Nagrig.

During the last Eid, few months ago, as rich as he is, he could have spent the holidays anywhere fancy in the world. Not Salah. He spent it in that dusty little village of 10,000 people he calls home. Residents recall that following the Eid prayers, the ever-smiling Salah went to homes, knocking on doors to greet his village’s families.

In every home, he had Eid sweets, tea and of course, a few selfies. He hung out with childhood friends, those who played with him in the streets of Nagrig as he dreamt of being the best player in the world.

A real star

He has already established a charity foundation that provides financial assistance on a regular basis to a large number of families in the village. He donated a large plot of land to establish a sewage treatment plant to give the village access to fresh water. He built an ambulance centre.

He renovated the village’s youth community centre and is currently building an Olympic-size football ground adjacent to the centre. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and through the Salah Charity Foundation, he donated tonnes of food and health supplies to the village, including oxygen tanks that were in critical need at the time.

Salah doesn’t talk much about his off-field achievements. But what he does in Nagrig speaks loudly of his love and loyalty to his people, his down to earth personality and the help he has extended to thousands of people since he moved to professional football abroad.

Like everyone else on the planet nowadays, I make sure I am there in front of the TV on Saturdays to watch Salah’s brilliance with Liverpool. But for me, what he does outside the Anfield Stadium, in his Nagrig hometown, thousands of miles away from Liverpool is what makes him truly best in the world.