Cristiano Ronaldo’s hunger for goals denied Mohamed Salah a victorious return to Switzerland — but it was unable to prevent more accolades piling up for Liverpool’s Egyptian star.
Salah was on target with the opening goal of their friendly against Portugal in Zurich on Friday and was acclaimed by a crowd of nearly 20,000, despite ticket prices of up to £74.
One Egypt supporter turned up dressed in full pharaonic regalia complete with golden headdress, while another travelled from Milan with a special banner that showed Salah’s face superimposed on to the Sphinx.
Others simply banged on their drums, waved flags and displayed his image on their shirts and scarves as he scored his 38th goal of a staggering season.
Still to come, there is a Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City and the final stages of a race for the top four in the Premier League.
Such has been his impact since moving to Liverpool from Roma, he is sure to contest the PFA Player of the Year and the FWA Footballer of the Year prizes.
Then his remarkable campaign will culminate in a debut at the World Cup finals, when direct comparisons to Lionel Messi and Ronaldo will be drawn into sharper focus.
‘Salah is one of the best players in the world right now,’ said Egypt’s Argentinian manager Hector Cuper. ‘I don’t know if he can be the best player in the world but what he’s doing now is really important.
‘Salah is one of our best players but I always say that behind a great player there has to be a great team. I don’t know if we are a great team but we cover what Salah gives us. We try to give as much security as we can as a team and, until now, we have been able to achieve things. We know we have to raise the level.’
Egypt, one of Africa’s great footballing powers, have not been to a World Cup since Italia 90, when they were grouped with England.
In Russia, they will face the hosts, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia after securing qualification courtesy of a penalty converted by Salah — who else? — in stoppage-time against Congo.
Egyptian hopes will rest on the 25-year-old, who is flourishing at Liverpool but he wears the pressure with good humour and an understanding of a status which is beginning to extend well beyond the confines of his homeland.
Kick-off against Portugal was delayed as he and Ronaldo posed on the touchline for one more photograph with a crowd of sponsors. Supporters whistled their disapproval but the players did not complain. Afterwards, Salah swerved questions with a smile and a nod and his charm has been on full power since he arrived in Switzerland on Tuesday.
His first engagement was a personal trip to Basel to catch up with old friends, before an open training session and a reunion with reporters, who took him back to his arrival as a teenager in March 2012. The Swiss club had organised a friendly against the Egyptian Olympic squad and the winger, who played only the second half back then, caught their eye as a potential successor to Xherdan Shaqiri, who was about to leave for Bayern Munich.
When the Egyptian season was abandoned in the wake of the Port Said stadium disaster — a riot which killed 74 people and injured more than 500 — Basel completed a £1.1million deal.
‘Basel was the perfect move for me,’ Salah told Swiss daily newspaper Blick. ‘A big club playing international football every year. I will never forget my time there.’ Asked about his progress against comparisons to Messi, he smiled. ‘I try to improve every day,’ he said. ‘I have learned. On the field and off.’
His shy and humble characteristics have not changed by big-money moves to Chelsea and then to Liverpool via Italy, although his English has improved along the way and his earning power has exploded.
Salah, paid £180,000 a year by Basle, suddenly commands a transfer valuation in excess of £200m as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain start to show an interest.
The 25-year-old has emerged fast and is currently the leading Premier League goalscorer with 28. And he will be a big attraction yet again when his nation take on Greece in a friendly in Zurich’s Letzigrund Stadium on Tuesday.