March 5, 2016
The majority of Egyptian football fans are very aware of Mohamed Salah’s career trajectory thus far, especially the last three to four years. The agile winger exploded into form for Swiss giants Basel at the end of his time in the industrial city, and convinced Chelsea to outbid Liverpool in January 2014 to secure his services. The rest, as they say, is history: Salah struggled for playing time for an entire year, before joining Fiorentina on loan for the second half of the 2014/15 season, a move that breathed life into his somewhat stalling career. The Egyptian international was a fan favorite during his time at the Viola, but his decision to not renew with the club – and ill-advised handling of the situation – meant he had become persona non grata at the Stadio Artemio Franchi.
Nevertheless, he had a new adventure to look forward to; Roma had come calling for Salah and he felt it was the logical next step in his career. Champions League football nights, coupled with a recent upturn in fortunes on the local front that had rendered them title challengers made them an attractive option in the Basyoun-born attacker’s eyes. Indeed, he would end up making a fantastic start to his time with the capital club; his first nine Serie A matches with the Giallorossi yielded an impressive five goals and an assist, as Roma rose to the top of the league table in late October. An injury in the Rome derby and the subsequent drop in the player’s (and club’s) form led to a gradual cooling of interest for even the most avid of Salah followers. A combination of pressure, exhaustion, and other factors will be cited as the reason for such a drop, along with questions about Salah’s compatibility with Roma’s style or place, but this is neither the time nor the place to hypothesize.
Compatriot – and ex-Basel teammate – Mohamed Elneny made the switch from the Swiss Super League to the Premier League last month, following in the footsteps of Salah. The similarities even extended to the fact that Elneny had joined a London-based outfit, but not further. It is too early to judge the success of the defensive midfielder’s move, but it seemed a more calculated decision than the one Salah made two years earlier. Moreover, it seems that Elneny’s newfound fame could be a blessing in disguise for the man affectionately known at Roma as ‘Momo‘. The reasons behind that are:
Mohamed Salah has risen to heights that no other Egyptian footballer has reached in the football-crazy nation’s long history. An English Premier League winner’s medal – despite practically not featuring during the season – is an honor no other Egyptian can claim to have received. Nor is his famous brace in a Coppa Italia semi-final win away to Juventus something any of his compatriots have even come remotely close to achieving. His €20 million move to Roma last summer was the most expensive transfer fee ever paid for an Egyptian, €5 million more than what he cost Chelsea 18 months prior, and almost €10 million more than what Arsenal paid for Mohamed Elneny this year.
Nevertheless, Arsenal are considered to be a bigger side than Roma by everyone, except perhaps for a few die-hard fans of the latter club. That means Elneny, and not Salah, is firmly in the spotlight, as Luciano Spalletti’s men are barely hanging onto fifth place in Serie A while Arsenal push Leiceister City and Manchester City at the top of the Premier League standings. Despite Arsenal’s arguably small chances of progressing past a brutal Barcelona team in the Champions League Round of 16, they are more likely to secure a quarter-final berth than a Roma side with the competition’s worst remaining defence, who face an unstoppable Real Madrid front line later this month. It’s not surprising that the focus has shifted to Elneny as a result of his recent transfer and promising debut.
In tough times, a team tends to look to the most talented and/or experienced player for solutions. Seeing as Salah has been playing at a significantly higher level than almost all of his Egypt teammates for the past few years, he has been the go-to guy in times of need. That might just change over the coming period, as Elneny’s potential Arsenal exploits would see him become another leading figure for the Pharaohs, which would be a welcome development for the number 10.
Carrying on from the previous point, it is obvious that Egyptians’ hopes have weighed down on Salah against stronger opposition; it is not easy to go about business knowing that anything short of a match-winning performance could result in the breaking of millions of hearts around the nation, so to speak. Egypt now have two players in the top five European leagues, and the soaring of Ahmed Hassan ‘Koka’s stock in recent months – coupled with reports linking Amr Warda to Serie A – means that the Pharaohs can now rely on a larger group of ‘established’ Europe-based footballers. Now, Salah can breathe a little, knowing that a growing group of squad members are becoming recognized by fans as key players in the setup.
This might seem like an obvious reason, but it still needs to be stated. Mohamed Salah and Mohamed Elneny both joined Arab Contractors after being rejected by Egypt’s top clubs, with Zamalek deciding against signing the former and Al Ahly being less than impressed with the latter. The duo were promoted to the club’s first team in the summer of 2010, just two years before Basel came knocking for Salah. Elneny joined the Swiss team’s ranks just six months later, and famously relied on Salah for any type of communication with the people at the club. The bond between the two grew immensely over the year they spent together, helped by the nurturing atmosphere and positive results at the club.
When Salah left for London at the start of 2014, it seemed unlikely that his partner would seal such a high-profile move as well in the following years, but he has. Despite not winning as many trophies as Chelsea in the past decade, Arsenal are one of Europe’s top clubs at the moment, both financially and in footballing terms, and Elneny has been vocal about his sheer happiness about the transfer. Salah hasn’t gushed in public – despite congratulating Elneny on social media – but it’s safe to assume that he was over the moon when he first heard the news.