How Mohamed Salah rose from Chelsea benchwarmer to Ballon d'Or candidate

Fans across planet football have marveled at Mohamed Salah’s otherworldly season for Liverpool, a record-smashing campaign that concludes later this month when the Reds meet mighty Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

The 25-year-old Egyptian has become a bona fide icon at Anfield less than a year after arriving on a $50 million-plus transfer from Roma, the foe Liverpool dispatched last week in the semis thanks largely to Salah’s two first-leg goals.

It’s easy to understand why. The electric lefty’s 31 Premier League goals have equaled the circuit’s single-season mark, which he could break in Sunday’s Prem finale against Brighton and Hove Albion. Salah’s 43 strikes in all competitions are the most by any Liverpool player in more than three decades.

The affable Salah has also become the smiling face of his homeland; next month he will lead Egypt at the World Cup in Russia after helping the Pharaohs qualify for the tournament for the first time in 28 years.

Yet while Salah is particularly revered in Cairo and adored on Merseyside, some of his most ardent supporters have been watching his ascent to global superstardom from half a world away.

“We keep in touch – I spoke to him the other day,” Bob Bradley, coach of ballyhooed MLS expansion side Los Angeles FC and Salah’s former manager with the Egyptian national team, told Yahoo Sports in a recent interview.

Mohamed Salah led Egypt to its first World Cup since 1990. (Getty)
Mohamed Salah led Egypt to its first World Cup since 1990. (Getty)

Bradley led Egypt from 2011-13. And although Egypt narrowly missed out on a trip to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil during his tenure, Bradley played an important role in the development of several current mainstays, including Salah, who worked with his American boss on an almost full-time basis after the Port Said stadium disaster resulted in the suspension of the Egyptian Premier League in early 2012.

“When the league stopped, we had to start to put together camps and friendly matches because Olympic qualifying was that June,” said Bradley, who handed Salah, then just 19, the keys to his country’s attack alongside veteran Mohamed Aboutrika for crucial World Cup qualifying matches.

“Immediately when we brought him in, you could see how special he was: Incredible quickness, speed, power, explosiveness. He improved at every camp. He took ideas really well. You could tell he was determined to get better.”

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Others close to Salah credit that ambition and work ethic as much as natural ability in his rise from Chelsea benchwarmer to potential Ballon d’Or finalist – depending, of course, on what happens against Madrid in Kiev and afterward at the World Cup. Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi have had a stranglehold on the award, presented annually to the sport’s top player, since 2008.

“He’s a very good guy, very respectful, not arrogant at all,” says LAFC goalkeeper coach Zak Abdel, a native Egyptian who served in the same role under Bradley with the Pharaohs (and before that, the U.S. national team).

“He comes from a small town, not from Cairo. He didn’t play for Al-Ahly or Zamalek, the two biggest clubs in Egypt where they put a spotlight on you and treat you like a king, so you think you’re big time. That’s not Salah. He played for a small club [El Mokawloon], and when he walked around nobody recognized him. If he had played for Al-Ahly or Zamalek, everyone would have been all over him.”

Abdel, who says he talks to Salah “all the time”, helped facilitate his transfer to Swiss power Basel in the summer of 2012. Salah excelled on the field, learned English quickly off of it, and less than two years later was flipped to Chelsea for a handsome profit.

It wasn’t a good fit. Salah made just 13 Premier League appearances for the Blues, most of them off the bench, during his first two seasons in London. He was loaned to Fiorentina – where he wore number 74 to honor the victims in Port Said – and then to Roma, which purchased his contract outright after he led the Giallorossi with 13 goals in 2015-16. Salah bettered his output the following season, and Liverpool snapped him up last July for that club-record transfer fee.

Fifty million euros proved to be a bargain.

“He was always a good player, but nobody would have thought he’d have a season like this,” says Egypt and Vancouver Whitecaps defender/midfielder Aly Ghazal, who has known Salah since they were teenagers playing for their nation’s under-20 squad.

“What you could see was someone who was always working and doing his best. You could predict that something good would happen [for him]. But not what’s happening right now.”

Right now the only remaining question is if Salah is a one-year wonder, or if he can repeat this season for the ages. The “Egyptian Messi” might be the hottest player in the world, but the real Messi, like Ronaldo, has been able to produce highlight-quality goals and assists with almost supernatural consistency year after year after year.

Only time will tell if Salah can stay healthy, keep scoring, and put himself in contention to receive the torch when the careers of the world’s undisputed best two players – both now in their 30s – inevitably wind down.

“I know he has more ambition,” says LAFC defender Omar Gaber, another international teammate and one of Salah’s closest friends.

“I know he still has dreams, and I hope he achieves them. He deserves to.”

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Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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