ONLY six months separate the arrivals of Mohamed Salah and Denver Mukamba into this world — the Egyptian the first to be born on June 15, before the boy from Highfield made his grand entrance into this beautiful garden of the living just four days before Christmas.
That was in 1992.
The year a battery of other international football stars — Jack Wilshere, Koke, Dani Carvajal, Erik Lamela, David Alaba, Isco, Shkodran Mustafi, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Alvaro Morata, Stephan El Shaarawy and Marco Verratti — were also born.
Brazilian superstar Neymar, Phillipe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Wilfried Zaha, Jesse Lingard and Mario Gotze, who would score the winning goal for Germany in the 2014 FIFA World Cup final, were also born that year.
It was also the year the Church of England voted, for the first time, to allow women to become priests.
Denver and Salah’s arrival in the world also coincided with the end of a fierce battle in the diplomatic boardrooms which had been fought, months earlier, between Zimbabwe and Egypt, with our former Finance Minister, Bernard Chidzero, losing a tight contest for the right to become the first African United Nations Secretary General to Egypt’s Boutros Boutros Ghali which spilled into a fifth round.
Twenty one years later, Denver and Salah would find themselves on opposing sides, in a titanic World Cup battle fought on the shores of the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, between the Warriors and the Pharaohs, as part of the quest to play at the 2014 global football showcase in Brazil.
Both were 20-year-olds when they confronted each other in that battle, on March 26, 2013, with Salah three months short of his 21st birthday while Denver was nine months short of marking his 21st year.
Interestingly, for all their raw youthfulness, and relative inexperience in football at this level, one of them, Denver, was wearing the captaincy armband for his country with German coach, Dieter-Klaus Pagels, having somehow invested his trust in this teenage rebel to lead the Warriors on this special assignment.
To their eternal credit, Denver and his troops battled long and hard, against the Pharaohs that night, and would have been full value for a point had the hosts not been awarded a controversial 88th minute penalty which was converted by the immortal Mohamed Aboutrika to secure a dramatic 2-1 win for the Egyptians.
Knowledge Musona, then underlining his pedigree as probably the finest Warrior, when it comes to dependability and value provided to our national team on a regular basis — the one who rarely let us down, the one who usually carries the weight of our expectations on his shoulders and, now and again, always delivers — since King Peter Ndlovu, had scored our equaliser.
Three months later, the Pharaohs arrived in Harare for the reverse fixture of those World Cup battles and, while we didn’t know it back them, our Sunshine City, our traditional football home, the National Sports Stadium, had been chosen by the football gods to provide the stage for the stunning transformation of a boy into a man.
Just a week before his 21th birthday and, in the arena we call our football fortress, the stunning evolution of a budding star into the genuine article, from fantasy into reality, was well and truly underway before our very own eyes with us having been chosen as both the special witnesses, and unfortunate victims, to this natural wonder.
We didn’t know it back then, consumed by our exploding spirit of patriotism which blinded us from appreciating, or embracing, the magic which was coming from the opposition, that something special in world football was being introduced to the world with us having been chosen to be the privileged witnesses that day.
We chose to ignore it all, still camouflaged by the mist of how our boys had come very close, to getting a point in Alexandria only to be denied by the cruel decision by the referee which gave these visiting Pharaohs a victory we felt they didn’t deserve, while nature worked its wonders right on our doorstep.
The blinkers which we all wore that afternoon made us only look one way, our way, what Musona was doing, in scoring for the second straight game against these Pharaohs in a World Cup qualifier for another equaliser after Aboutrika — feeding off an assist from Salah — had given the Egyptians an early lead, and not the evolution of boy into genius which was happening on the other side.
The raging bias towards our boys, which had been fuelled by the anger of the way we felt we had been robbed in Alexandria, crippled our senses of appreciation for anything that wasn’t being done by someone in our golden colours and prevented us from bearing true witness to the evolution of man into superman, right in our backyard, on that winter afternoon.
It all exploded right before our very eyes, in our city, in our stadium, fate having long decided to separate the good from the very best with the man who had captained our Warriors in the reverse battle in Alexandria, the one who was a mere 19-year-old like this Egyptian, our Denver, having been relegated by Pagels to the bench for that showdown in Harare.
MO SALAH, THE PHARAOH WHO FIRST EXPLODED ON OUR DOORSTEP
The Egyptians, for all their pedigree as Africa’s most successful football country when it comes to the Nations Cup, which they have won a record seven times, and when it comes to the CAF Champions League, which their clubs, led by Al Ahly with eight titles, have won a record number of times, had never beaten the Warriors in a competitive match in this country when Salah and his crew arrived for that World Cup showdown on June 9, 2012.
And when Musona, the guy who is always there for us when we need someone to deliver for the Warriors, the one who never lets us down when it comes to flying the flag of his country, cancelled out Aboutrika’s opener in the first half, we were certain, and they were certain, that this was going to be another forgettable outing for these Pharaohs in this country.
Then, just like that, an Egyptian genius took over the show, cast his magical spell on the game and by the end of the contest, had scored three times for the Pharaohs, a rare hattrick by a visiting star in a World Cup qualifier here, and although Lincoln Zvasiya scored a late goal for us, the damage had long been inflicted.
Mohamed Salah, we didn’t know a lot about him back then, and neither did the world — after all he was just starting his football journey and had just moved to a Swiss club Basel, which isn’t a league the globe really spends time casting its eyes on to check out events unfolding there, which even Benjani had used as a springboard to get into France and then England.
His three goals that day had everything, which in itself was a powerful message that a special player had arrived on the international football scene — but as we reflect on them now — we can see his signature moves which have turned him into a global superstar that some are now even daring to speak about him in the same vein as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The first one came in the 41st minute and you can watch it on AhlySport.com and it’s a trademark of the goals which have destroyed opponents in Europe this season, a dash into space on the right channel, for a player whose mastery is with his left foot, his excellent timing leaving the defence all at sea and providing him with acres of space to devour in his charge towards goal.
Our goalkeeper then comes out, to try and narrow the angle, just like what the Roma goalkeeper did on Tuesday night, just like what the Manchester City goalkeeper did a few weeks ago, just like many goalkeepers have been doing all season, the result is the same — a cool and assured placement of the ball into the bottom corner.
Then, in the 77th minute, he scored the pick of his three goals, a sublime finish like the ones which are now bearing his signature, speeding onto a pass from Aboutrika, skipping past his marker, twice, and then going one-on-one with the ‘keeper and directing the ball into the bottom corner, with all the calmness he has shown this season, with the outside of his foot.
Of course, there was a third goal, and those who thought it was just a freak soon realised that something very special was happening as he scored the only goal, a week later, in Maputo to power Egypt to a 1-0 win in a campaign in which he scored six times and ended as the joint top-scorer among the African teams — all at the age of 21.
It remains the only time a visiting player has come here and scored a hat-trick against the Warriors in a World Cup qualifier and, to show how special this was, the last time someone had come close to doing that, Delron Buckley of South Africa who scored twice for Bafana Bafana on July 9, 2009, it triggered a sequence of ugly events which eventually ended with 13 fans losing their lives.
THE LESSONS FROM SALAH FOR OUR NEXT GENERATIONS OF STARS
Given that Salah and Denver were at the same age, with our boy even having the honour of being handed the captaincy of the Warriors, when the Warriors and the Pharaohs clashed in that World Cup match in Alexandria five years ago, it’s inevitable that comparisons will always be made about how their paths have moved in different directions since that duel.
Salah is now being spoken of, by some pundits, in the same category reserved for superstars like Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar and he has been crowned the BBC African Footballer of the Year, the CAF African Footballer of the Year and the English Premiership Footballer of the Year.
He scored the two goals, including a late penalty against Congo-Brazzaville, to take his country to their first World Cup since 1990 and he has been breaking records in the English Premiership and the UEFA Champions League with his goal-scoring spree.
In sharp contrast, our boy Denver is undergoing a rehabilitation at CAPS United, after suffering the ultimate humiliation of being rejected by the coach who gave him his big break at Dynamos, and having lost his way in South Africa where he failed to justify all the buzz which accompanied his arrival there.
Both Salah and Denver, as fate would have it, scored against their former clubs this week with our boy scoring the only goal in the Harare Derby on Sunday, while the Egyptian star scored twice against his old Italian club Roma in the Champions League.
While Denver’s goal triggered extended animated celebrations from the forward, who went into a trance in a show that lasted more than two minutes, Salah somehow greeted each of the beautiful goals he scored against Roma with dignity, refusing to celebrate any of them, as a show of respect to the fans who were part of him just a few months ago and the Italian club that helped him in his adventure.
Of course, Denver can rightly argue the circumstances are different because he was forced out of DeMbare, against his wishes, despite pleading with Lloyd Mutasa to give him one final chance, but some will probably also say his rift with the coach should not have clouded his judgment to somehow forget the club’s fans, the majority of whom wanted him to remain at the club.
“What’s most notable about the role of Mohamed Salah is that he was just another player,” Hector Cuper, the coach who guided Egypt to the World Cup in Russia, told FIFA.com.
“He’s an enormously talented yet very modest player. People often say the national team is ‘Salah and 10 others’ to which I reply, ‘maybe that’s true as he’s someone who can win a match for you, but also because he just sees himself as another player’.
It’s that humility, according to those who have worked with Salah in his journey, which has enabled the Egyptian to rise to the top of his game and even when he was rejected by Jose Mourinho as a failure having played for just 530 minutes of league action for Chelsea — six starts and seven appearances as a substitute — he refused to let that weigh him down.
Instead, he kept working even harder, and excelled at Fiorentina, who even had a pizza named after him and whose fans nicknamed him the ‘Messi of the Pyramids’, and was Player of the Year and top scorer at Roma before Liverpool came knocking for his services.
“As if Mo Salah’s goals weren’t enough, Liverpool’s Egyptian star also boasts the best disciplinary record in the Premier League,’’ the Daily Mail newspaper noted.
“Salah has yet to be shown a single yellow card this season in 41 club appearances and scoring four in the 5-0 drubbing of Watford didn’t even tempt him to rip off his shirt or jump in the crowd for celebration.’’
During his time in Egypt, where he played for Arab Contractors, his coach said he would cry after his team had won 4-0, simply because he hadn’t scored in that match, even when he was still playing as a left-back.
“Salah was a very disciplined player, always on time for training. Everyone loves him, he is loyal to his family and his hometown residents,’’ said the coach.
And, this is someone who now has streets named in his honour in his home country, has given his government £200 000 to help strengthen the economy, donated 30 000 euros to the Association of Veteran Egyptian Players and, after being offered a luxury villa by a businessman as a reward for his winning goal against Congo-Brazzaville in the World Cup qualifier, he rejected it and asked for the money to be donated to his hometown.
This is someone who, when he was 14, used to travel more than four hours by bus, sometimes changing the bus five times, from his home to train with Arab Contractors and would then take the same return journey home every day.
“He is a very down to earth, quiet footballer and person. He barely interacts with the media in Egypt or abroad,” Egyptian football expert Marwan Saeed told BBC Sport. “He uses social media to a moderate level.’’
To God Be The Glory
Come on Warriors!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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