When Mohamed Salah stepped up to take a late penalty for Egypt, the eyes of the world were on what happened next.
Not only did he score, but the Liverpool forward shook the world.
It wasn’t the penalty that made people sit up and take notice, but it was the reaction: a footballing nation that hadn’t been in the World Cup finals since 1990 had, thanks to a last-gasp penalty, finally qualified. That, in itself, was enough to make this special, but the fact that this was Egypt – a country of nearly 90m people, and the third largest country in Africa which has undergone some traumatic political periods over the last decade – made it all the more incredible. Indeed, since the last time the country qualified for a World Cup finals in Italy 27 years ago, they had been to five African Nations Cup finals, winning four of them.
It’s not like they were never good enough to qualify.
The pressure was immense, unlike anything footballers normally have to deal with. In football, you don’t just let yourself down, you also let your teammates down if you miss. For Salah, he was also letting down a nation of tens of millions, plus those around the world willing them to qualify. When you think about it, scoring that penalty was vital in every conceivable way.
And so when he stepped up to take a penalty against Huddersfield last weekend at Anfield, Salah inexplicably, it seemed, forgot what he was doing.
With others like James Milner on the pitch, who are usually super reliable from 12 yards, it was also inexplicable to Liverpool fans why Salah had taken the penalty. They may also be wondering if he’ll be taking the next one. The answer isn’t automatically positive, according to Jurgen Klopp.
“I thought it made sense after the Egypt penalty – obviously the pressure is bigger in Liverpool than in Egypt to qualify for the World Cup. I’m not sure that he is [the penalty taker] anymore… I think Daniel would have been a safe number in this group of players.”
All of this is really rather strange: the cut-throat world of modern football at its most short-termist. Salah clearly isn’t an unreliable man. Indeed, he’s shown in the very near past that he’s able to withstand the most fervent pressure from his own country’s fans in what really were fever pitch circumstances in order to score a penalty. And now, he’s fallen down the pecking order.
Football is a strange game, but the only thing that’s certain is that footballers are humans: if you treat them as anything other than imperfect entities who make mistakes, miss chances and even penalties, then you’re going to be dropping players every week.
Sure, Liverpool may have more important things to worry about, and taking the Egyptian off penalties doesn’t mean taking him out of the team. But just days after seemingly throwing Dejan Lovren under the bus – by claiming that he, all of 50 years of age and wearing trainers would have defended better than the Croatian – Klopp now appears to be less than charitable to Mohamed Salah. And that’s surely not healthy.
Klopp: "If I was on the pitch in trainers their first goal wouldn't have happened."
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) October 22, 2017
There’s not much in this just yet, but it’ll be worth watching how Klopp deals with setbacks over the next few weeks. Even if it was only mild, Salah shouldn’t have been questioned at all. And although Lovren’s mistakes were terrible and all too public, Klopp must have understood the implications of taking him off before half-time and then trash talking in the media. If these are the early stages of the pressure mounting on the Liverpool manager, then the early signs aren’t too good.