Sadio Mane, after Caf president Ahmad named Mohamed Salah as officially Africa’s finest for 2018 last night in Dakar, was the first to congratulate the winner with a warm hug.
This was Mane’s home, but the biggest prize on the night — resembling the Ballon d’Or with a halo in its latest form – was his friend-cum-teammate’s and, for at least one more year, the former would have to be content with ‘best man’ honors. Even as he joined celebrated countryman Youssou N’Dour and triumphant Salah on stage afterwards for a merry little dance, the remarkable Mane knew — and everyone did, too — that, right now, there’s simply nobody as good at football in Africa as the curly-haired, toothy-grinned, nimble-footed and sharp-shooting genius from Nagrig.
And even when Salah looks at the pyramid of legends back home in Egypt, he can only see a handful he hasn’t overtaken at this point. Eighties’ star Mahmoud El Khatib — of Al Ahly fame — is the only other Egyptian to have been crowned African Player of the Year, but he has been eclipsed by Salah and his pair of awards. Ahead of the Liverpool man, there aren’t many now: Mohamed Aboutrika, Ahmed Hassan, Essam El-Hadary, and probably a couple more.
That said, not one among those greats — for all their legendary brilliance at club level and incredible international achievements — have made their mark on the world as mightily Salah has in his few years of global prominence. No Egyptian has scored more at the Fifa World Cup than Salah (never mind that a first appearance at the Mundial in almost three decades was largely his work), and none has shone brighter in European football. Currently, he stars in Liverpool’s strongest English Premier League title challenge yet and could well finish the division’s top-scorer — and best player, maybe — for a second successive season.
But while Salah has all those grand objectives and more in his sights — and at 26, there’s plenty of time to accomplish the lot — what he might be running out of time to hit is a lofty target much closer to the hearts of his people: Africa Cup of Nations glory.
The tournament’s 2019 edition may only be Salah’s second, but given the relatively short span of an international career, it’s as good an opportunity as any for the former Chelsea player to tick that box. With Egypt handed hosting rights to the biggest Afcon yet hours before Salah’s coronation on Tuesday, expectations are reasonably soaring.
“I want to win the Afcon 2019 in Egypt in front of our fans and everyone is eager to win the trophy, we will do everything to win,” Salah said after picking up his newest gong, also expressing – perhaps in jest — a desire to “play the final against Senegal.”
Be it against Mane & Co or not, that July 13 date in Cairo should feature — and be won by — Salah and his fellow Pharaohs. It wouldn’t be Salah’s last chance to seal his place as Egypt’s greatest ever, no, but success on home territory would surely get him there in record time.
The ball, quite literally, is now in his court.