A month ago, Liverpool planned to hold a festive ceremony in honor of Sadio Mane’s win the African Championship with the Senegalese team, and placed him before the league game against Norwich. The idea did not materialize in the end because the star himself sought to shelve it. He did not want to hurt in any way the feelings of Muhammad Salah, who lost to Egypt in the final of the tournament cruelly and dramatically on penalties after a zero-sum draw at the end of 120 minutes.
Yes, they are the best friends there are, with immense mutual respect. The two Liverpool extremists enjoy collaborating on the pitch, helping each other not just on the pitch. Fate wanted, and tomorrow (Friday) they will be rivals again, in the pair of matches between Senegal and Egypt on the ticket to the 2022 World Cup. Only one of them will qualify for the World Cup, and even Jürgen Klopp chose to cheer them on for the important battle. In the quarter-finals of the English Cup on Sunday, Salah was absent due to a minor injury, and the German coach left Mane out of the squad as well. “He needs to prepare for the critical game,” he stated Klopp.
They made the preparations separately. In fact, Mana did his best not to hurt Salah. They did not even talk to each other about the African Championship final, in which they are reserved in opposite roles. The Senegalese were accurate in a duel, but the Egyptian’s turn did not come at all – he chose to be the fifth kicker in a move that received quite a bit of criticism.
They exchanged experiences for just one incident that took place on the grass in Cameroon – Mana’s missed penalty early in the first half. Before the kick, Salah then approached his goalkeeper, Gabaski, to give him tips about his Liverpool friend’s intentions. Mana saw this and joined the conversation himself. “I’ll kick right,” he informed Gabaski, and in this psychological battle he lost.
This miss could have had tragic consequences, but Mana won the entire campaign, marched his team to the first ever win of the African Championship, and felt comfortable joking about himself. This is his greatness – despite everything he has achieved in his career, he keeps his feet on the ground, and really does not suffer from an overly bloated ego.
Some tried to quarrel among themselves. Three years ago, the British tabloids tried to paint an artificial picture of tension between the two Africans from Manfield. Salah was defined as too selfish, Mana – as too jealous. The Egyptian apparently did not refuse to surrender and cared only for his personal balance, the Senegalese did not seem to accept the situation. For the purpose of demonstration, Mana was inflated beyond all incident proportion in which Mana was furious at Salah during the game against Burnley in August 2019, cursing him after he was replaced because he had waited in vain for a ball in a comfortable position.
In practice, the anger was really there, but it was momentary and natural. Sometimes even angry at a good friend who made a mistake. There was nothing deeper behind it, and to the credit of the two Africans it should be said that they did not attach any importance to the bizarre reports, but simply went on with their lives. The Burnley incident was forgotten after a matter-of-fact conversation between them.
For the most part, there is no friction. Mana, who signed for Liverpool in the summer of 2016, welcomed Salah with open arms to the team a year later, even though the Egyptian has grabbed his box. In his first season at Anfield, Mana will usually function from the right, but Salah “forced” him to move to the left. Bottom line, it only benefited him, because the Senegalese really likes to cut in and use his strong right foot.
Salah is more prolific with 153 goals in 239 games in all competitions, compared to 111 goals in 254 Mana appearances, but in the bottom line it doesn’t really matter when they both enjoy the results. “We can be competitive from time to time, but work for the team,” he says Salah.
The fact that they come from similar backgrounds helps them to develop a better mutual understanding. Mana was born in the most remote province of Senegal, from which never a single footballer had ever left before him, and chose to secretly flee the house at the age of 15 to an academy in the capital Dakar. Salah grew up far from the capital Cairo, and moved to it at the age of 14 when he was accidentally located by a scout who came to follow another actor.
Both moved to Europe at the age of 19 against all odds – the Senegalese to the French Metz, the Egyptian to the Swiss Basel. They built the fame with hard work and no PR at first. They are the most authentic representatives of Africa – each from its own region. And as far as the continent is concerned, they are most deserving to represent it in the upcoming World Cup as well, but only one of them will be able to fulfill that dream.
So for whom is the trip to Qatar more important? Both have already participated in the World Cup in Russia in 2018, and Mana enjoyed a little more – he was fully qualified, provided not bad games, defeated Poland, won a draw against Japan, but was eventually eliminated in the home leg after a loss to Colombia, which was a big disappointment. Many commentators saw Senegal as the most promising African team in the tournament, and had the potential to go further.
Salah came close to that World Cup with a bigger swing after a brilliant record season with 44 goals in all competitions in the Liverpool uniform, but an injury in the Champions League final put his participation in the tournament in doubt and ruined everything. He did arrive, taking part in two games and scoring twice, but was not at his best to say the least, and Egypt went home without points at the end of the home leg.
On paper, then, Salah needs greater “compensation” after the traumatic experience in Russia, but it could be argued that the Egyptian team has weakened slightly compared to 2018, and has little chance of achieving exceptional results in Qatar. Senegal, on the other hand, has only intensified compared to the previous World Cup, including goalkeeper Edward Mandy’s breakthrough to the status of one of the best in the world, and it could really be the Black Horse of the World Cup, led by Mana.
Senegal is a favorite, especially since it is a double encounter in which its quality will be more pronounced. The fact that the rematch will take place on Tuesday in Dakar, after the first game on Friday in Cairo, also plays into her hands. However, on any given day, a particular star can decide the deal.
This responsibility rests primarily on the shoulders of Mana and Salah. They know each other very well, and appreciate each other, and know how dangerous they are both. For the neutral spectator this could be a real celebration, and hopefully the fights will be more fruitful than the zeroed-out draw in the African Championship final.