NNaturally, the lasers lent the scene a certain pathos. As Mohamed Salah stepped up to take Egypt’s first penalty against Senegal on Tuesday night, the swarm of green laser beams dancing across his face were a reminder of football’s capacity to render even its greats temporarily powerless. Here was one of the biggest stars in the world’s biggest sport. But he couldn’t make his team win. He couldn’t get his country to a World Cup. And now he didn’t even have the use of his own eyes.
“I was luckier,” Sadio Mané said afterwards. This was his second consecutive triumph over his Liverpool teammate, Senegal’s two-leg World Cup playoff victory coming after the Africa Cup of Nations final in February. And yet for all the advance billing of the encounter as “Mané v Salah”, there was perhaps a wider lesson from the Senegal v Egypt trilogy, one with a particular and pressing relevance to the club they both play for.
Watching Mané and Salah across these three games offered a subtle but telling contrast. Though the playoff and the Afcon final were ultimately settled on penalties, Senegal mostly dominated in terms of chances and possession. Besides Mané they had the ever-present threat of Watford’s Ismaïla Sarr on the opposite flank, Boulaye Dia of Villarreal through the centre, a defense marshalled by the inspirational Kalidou Koulibaly. They had a system and a style, different approaches, different ways of playing.
Egypt, by contrast, had very little. Their main striker Omar Marmoush has a Bundesliga record of three goals in 23 games. The midfield may as well have been constructed of barbed wire: not so much a device for using the ball as for deterring it somewhere else. And so pretty much everything Egypt did go through their captain: a man upon whom they have developed a touching if faintly surreal dependence.
Since his debut against Sierra Leone in September 2011, Egypt have scored 191 goals, of which Salah has scored or assisted 72 (38%). And of course none of this takes into account the goals Egypt scored when Salah wasn’t even playing, after he had been substituted, the goals he helped create, goals that might have been prevented by an opposition defense that wasn’t so perturbed by the threat of Salah that they were marking him with three men.
So yes, Mané was luckier than Salah: not just in the lottery of penalties but in the lottery of birth, lucky to be surrounded by a golden generation of Senegalese players, players who can pick up the slack, players who can maintain the standard when he is injured or unavailable, players who score when he doesn’t. Tellingly, Mané’s scoring rate at international level is lower than at club level. For Salah it is the opposite, and perhaps this is an opportune moment to point out that his two most prolific goalscoring seasons for Liverpool were also the two seasons when they won nothing.
The point is that trying to define individual worth in a team game is a fraught and imprecise business. This feels particularly relevant at the present moment, as Mané and Salah approach the final year of their Liverpool contracts and all the relevant parties try to assess a fair market value for their services. Clearly there are lots of moving parts here: the players themselves, their age and form, a Liverpool balance sheet still laden with Covid and pre-Covid debt, the price of loyalty and memory.
There has been a lot of nonsense talked about this on both sides. On one hand, the idea that Salah and Mané are somehow holding Liverpool Football Club to ransom (and somehow the full name must always be used here), that Luis Díaz and Diogo Jota will get the goals, that two of the greatest players in the club’s history must therefore be sacrificed to preserve a sacrosanct financial model whose primary objective is to generate revenue for the club’s American ownership.
On the other hand, you have the idea that these are generational talents who simply want their due. Which you calculate … how, exactly? By what the next petro-state or doofus-billionaire is prepared to pay their star asset? By the internal economics of a sport whose internal economics have been corrupted beyond repair? What is the going rate for a human being in 2022? And really, both these arguments are underpinned by the ugly fallacy that talent is no more than a resource, a part that can simply be bolted on and bolted off and reattached somewhere else.
Greatness needs greatness. The market worth of Salah is built not just on his own formidable talent and hard work, but that of Mané and Roberto Firmino and Jürgen Klopp and Virgil van Dijk, of the medical staff who look after him and the fans who give him strength. Take Mané out of Liverpool and stitch him into the Paris Saint-Germain team and he would be a different player entirely. Liverpool’s immense strength is not simply Mané plus Salah but Mané times Salah, each to the power of each.
Never was this more apparent than in the reverse fixture against Saturday’s opponents Watford, a 5-0 win in which Mané and Salah seemed to be operating on some astral plane, finishing each other’s sentences, communicating in a tongue only they knew. And if their contrasting international travails taught us anything, it is that whatever they have achieved apart, nothing sounds as sweet as the music they have made together.