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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Is Mohamed Salah the best African player of his generation?

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The two-time African Player of the Year rose to the top of European football in the late 2010s, but is he the greatest among his peers?

The ascent of Mohamed Salah in the late 2010s has certainly been remarkable, especially after his underwhelming spell with Chelsea at the mid-point of the decade.

Having arrived from Basel in January 2014, the rapid Egypt winger was earmarked as the next Messi owing to a few stylistic similarities in both players. Unfortunately for the native of Basyoun, his time in West London was average at best and he moved to the Serie A, initially on loan, in January 2015.

That temporary spell at Fiorentina began a renaissance that was to reach its halfway point with Roma before peaking at his current side on Merseyside.

In that time in the Italian capital, Salah was transformed from an individualist to a goalscoring forward by first Rudi Garcia and Luciano Spalletti, before being taken to another level by Jurgen Klopp from 16/17.

He’d been named Roma’s Player of the Year in 2016, beating the effervescent Radja Nainggolan, legendary Francesco Totti and Miralem Pjanic in the voting prior to his second spell in England.

A stupendous elevation in English football has seen him win the Champions League, Uefa Super Cup and Club World Cup with a transformed Liverpool. The Reds were on the verge of a historic Premier League win in March before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the campaign.

Prior to that, though were an array of individual awards any professional would covet. Salah holds the record for the most goals scored in a 38-game top flight season, beating the 31-goal haul of Alan Shearer, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez in 16/17 by netting 32.

He’s a two-time African Footballer of the Year and has won the BBC equivalent twice as well. While not matching his first-year exploits at Anfield last term, the former Chelsea man did retain the Golden Boot, albeit in a three-way tie with Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Senegal’s Sadio Mane.

For context, only eight players have topped the scoring charts more than once while six retained the award, and Salah falls within both categories.

He’d scored 16 times before the Premier League was halted – three behind Jamie Vardy on 19 goals – and could still end the season as highest scorer, a feat that’ll sit him alongside Shearer and Thierry Henry as the only players to have topped the scoring charts for three successive seasons.

The Englishman and Frenchman are regarded as two of the greatest players to play in the Prem, and matching their feats, with a league title thrown into the mix, will surely cement his legendary status in English football.

Nevertheless, do Salah’s achievements so far make him the most iconic African star of his generation?

This claim is unlikely to be accepted lying down owing to the nature of talented players in this argument: Aubameyang, Riyad Mahrez, Mane and, to a lesser extent, Andre Ayew.

The then precocious youngster seemed destined for greatness having thrived at Marseille like his legendary father Abedi Pele and even made the final three for the 2011 African Footballer of the Year in his early 20s. Ayew finished in third behind Yaya Toure and Sedou Keita on that occasion, a feat repeated in 2015 as a Swansea City player but similarly finished third behind Yaya and Aubameyang.

Be that as it may, the Ghana attacker hasn’t enjoyed a storied career at the top like the aforementioned names and ultimately falls short.

In a four-way contest with the prolific Gabon hitman, the all-round Senegal superatar and Algeria maverick, however, the debate gets trickier.

These aforementioned trio, alongside Salah, have largely been the most consistent African stars in the last few years.

Aubameyang, Africa’s best in 2015, made the final three for five successive years between 2014 and 2018 before eventually missing out in 2019. Current holder Mane was consistently in contention for three years in a row until his recent success in January, while 2016 winner Mahrez made the podium alongside the Liverpool pair recently.

The quartet are difficult to separate for technical quality, and given the deadlock, their honours and individual awards for club and country may be brought forward.

This is to Auba’s detriment as his sheer brilliance and consistency in front of goal hasn’t translated into enough honours at Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal, while the national team haven’t pulled up trees on the continent either.

Admittedly, it’s no fault of the striker, but with the stakes this high and quality near impeccable, he likely drops out.

That, in turn, leaves Mahrez and Mane as Salah’s contenders. The three widemen have ruled the continent in the last few years, with the Algerian starting the rise with a notable World Cup showing in 2014.

The North African giants’ Golden Generation threatened to shock eventual winners Germany in the Last 16, but ultimately fell short in extra-time.

Their rise was to eventually bear fruit five years later as Mahrez led the Desert Foxes to the Africa Cup of Nations title in 2019. Coached by Djamel Belmadi, Algeria ended a 19-year wait for success on the continent and became the first North African side after Egypt to win Africa’s most illustrious competition more than once.

Before that, however, was Mahrez’s once-in-a-lifetime Premier League win with Leicester City in 2016. Against all odds, the relegation favourites at the start of the campaign overcame 5000/1 odds to rule the English game, and the maverick was voted Player of the Year.

While the North African hasn’t been as influential as the Liverpool duo in the last two years or so, Mane and Salah will be hard-pressed trying to match his Leicester influence from 15/16.

With that an unlikely challenge, the next near expectation is success on the continent.

Mahrez was successful last year but Mane and Salah have, so far, failed to lead their respective countries to Afcon success.

The Egyptian came close in 2017 but fell at the final hurdle to Cameroon, and suffered the ignominy of an early exit on home soil in last year’s showpiece.

Mane couldn’t inspire the Teranga Lions to a maiden success at Afcon 2019, where they were defeated by Mahrez’s Algeria despite being pre-tournament favourites.

The disappointment at Afcon followed a rueful World Cup in 2018 where Mane and Salah couldn’t inspire their nations as Africa’s five representatives exited at the Group Stage, thus failing to take advantage of many prestigious countries’ subnormal outings.

While Mahrez has thrived and succeeded at two international tournaments, the Liverpool duo haven’t delivered for their respective countries for varying reasons, which could stand against both in the ‘greatest player’ dialogue.

Indeed, it’s a debate that’s unlikely to be settled soon, and simply proclaiming Salah as Africa’s best of his generation isn’t as clear-cut as it seems on first viewing.

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