“One man team” is a common football expression, often used as an insult to describe a side that seems to be carried by the individual efforts of a particular star player. The term is often thrown around in a disingenuous manner in an attempt to detract from a team’s success. Generally, like many tired football clichés and adages, it tends to fall down under closer scrutiny. But sometimes, the phrase “one man team” is a fair characterization. In international football in particular, teams can be dragged to higher levels with a much lower sprinkling of star dust than club teams.
At major international tournaments we have seen examples and evidence to support that. In Euro 2016, a workmanlike Wales side made it all the way to the Semi Finals, largely inspired by the performances of Gareth Bale. Bale scored in each of Wales’ three group games and he was influential in their knock out wins over Northern Ireland and Belgium before their exit to eventual winners Portugal. At World Cup 1994 in the USA, an unfancied Bulgaria team were carried to the Semi Finals by the enigmatic Hristo Stoichkov, who scored six times en-route to the tournament’s penultimate game.
Davor Suker also hit six World Cup goals in 1998 to help Croatia reach the Semis in France, while Poland came from nowhere to finish third at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany helped by Grzegorz Lato’s seven tournament goals. Among the nations who have qualified for this summer’s 2018 World Cup in Russia, there is another country and player who seem to fit the “one man team” category.
Egypt are set to compete in their first World Cup in twenty eight years in June, making the Finals for only the third time in their history. Having been eliminated in the First Round in 1934 and at the Group Stage in 1990, the Egyptians hope that his time around they can go one better. They have a reason to be optimistic about their chances of deeper progression – and that reason is Mohamed Salah.
In 2017/18, Mo Salah has made the leap from an outlier with potential to a bona fide international superstar. Since swapping Serie A for the Premier League, Salah’s stock has risen immeasurably and his goal scoring performances from Liverpool’s right hand side have earned him a reputation as one of the best in the world in his position. It’s now forty goals and counting for the former Roma winger and Salah is in the running for every major individual award this season.
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Unsurprisingly, Salah is revered in his homeland. His popularity is so vast that two Egyptian Premier League fixtures have had their kick-off times changed this Sunday just so his devotees can watch the PFA Awards in the UK, where Salah is among the favourites to take the Player of the Year award. Al-Ahly’s fixture against PetroJet and El-Zamalek’s game against Al-Asuity were scheduled to kick off at 18:00 and 20:30 respectively on Sunday, but the latter would have clashed with the PFA’s.
To most countries and their football associations that might seem like moving heaven and earth, but for Egyptian FC President Hany Abo Rida it was a no-brainer. He said: “Everyone is pleased that Salah is a candidate for the award. I had no problem at all convincing everyone with the late changes, people wants to see his success and celebrate it.”
Salah’s role in Egypt’s World Cup 2018 Qualifying Campaign
Salah has earned that adulation and then some. The twenty five year old was instrumental in helping Egypt qualify for World Cup 2018, scoring five of their eight goals in CAF Group E. The Egyptians finished top of their section after six games, collecting thirteen points from the eighteen available. In their first group match in October 2016, Mo Salah scored a first half headed equalizer for Egypt who eventually went on to win 2-1 away to Congo. In their next Group E match he gave his country the lead from the spot against Ghana as Egypt ran out 2-0 winners.
Two games later he helped Egypt get revenge over Uganda, who had beaten them a week earlier in Kampla, scoring the only goal in 1-0 win in the return fixture in Alexandria. Big goals at big moments, but the best was yet to come. On October 8th 2016, Egypt knew that a win at home to Congo would secure their place at their first World Cup tournament since 1990. After a tense first hour, Salah latched on to a through pass from Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny to poke the ball home.
An 88th minute equalizer from Bouka Moutou looked like ruining the party, but just as the fireworks were being put away, Egypt were awarded a penalty deep into injury time. As the nation held it’s breath, Mo Salah slammed his 95th spot kick home to spark countrywide celebrations all the way from Cairo to Aswan. Is it any wonder he’s been floating on air this season?
Salah has now scored thirty three goals in fifty seven games for Egypt since he made his debut in 2011 against Sierra Leone, though the current African Footballer of Year still has a long way to go to surpass Hossam Hassan’s sixty nine international goal for the Egyptians. Salah’s exploits at club level have earned him a popularity that Hassan could only dream of however and if Salah can fire Egypt to success in this summer’s World Cup in Russia, he would be out on his own as the country’s biggest footballing icon.
Success for Egypt would mean qualifying from the opening stage of a World Cup competition for the first time in their history and if they can achieve that, who knows how far they could go pushed on by the euphoria of being trailblazers and without the pressures of high expectation. The draw was kind to Egypt, who were put in Group A alongside the competition hosts Russia as well as Saudi Arabia and Uruguay. Their first match on June 15th is against the Uruguayans, who count former Liverpool star forward Luis Suarez among their number.
Subsequent Group A games against Russia and Saudia Arabia will hold no fear for Egypt and Salah. Nor should they. Collectively, the Egyptians might be entering this summer’s World Cup with one of the competitions’ weaker squads, but they have one of the tournament’s best individuals in their ranks. If Mo Salah can bring his golden touch to Russia, the Egyptians could be set for unprecedented success.
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