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Friday, July 19, 2024

Mohamed Salah’s AFCON departure sparks confusion and blame

As the Egyptian Football Association released the press statement on Sunday night that confirmed Mohamed Salah would return to Liverpool to undergo his rehabilitation from a hamstring injury, Mohamed Abou El-Wafa was telling a television programme in Cairo that there was nothing to worry about in relation to the player’s condition and he was unaware of any plan to spirit him out of Ivory Coast, stressing his responsibility to remain in the country because he is the team’s captain.

El-Wafa was responding to Jurgen Klopp’s announcement that Salah’s treatment was likely to be covered by Liverpool’s staff rather than Egypt’s. While on air, the EFA confirmed this development and El-Wafa, a board member of the organisation, somewhat embarrassingly, tried to change direction, placing responsibility for the decisions made by officials based on the other side of the continent. “I’m sure they did the right thing,” he suggested.

The following morning, the EFA station in Abidjan admitted to The Athletic that the plan, from their end at least, had been to announce Salah’s departure from the competition after the country’s crunch Group B game with Cape Verde.

Yet the organisation did not respond to a question about whether this had been agreed with Liverpool. Nor did it answer when asked about claims emanating from Egypt that the EFA was angry with Klopp and therefore Liverpool for making this a public issue before they were ready. Meanwhile, Liverpool rejected the opportunity to answer questions on the matter.

If each institution was attempting to protect Salah as the hours passed, the reverse happened. Within this uncertainty, the pressure on Salah increased, arguably leaving him in a position with his country where it now seems impossible for him to win.

Had Klopp remained quiet and Egypt went out by losing to Cape Verde, then Salah could have returned to Liverpool without anyone knowing about what was going to happen.

Egypt conceded a late equaliser against Cape Verde but still finished second in Group B (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Instead, Egypt potentially falling to Cape Verde would have led to Salah being blamed for creating a distraction. Now, progression through the rounds will act as proof to his critics, who scarcely need any more fuel, that the team is better off without him, true or otherwise.

His coach Rui Vitoria provided some clarification over the sequence of events after Egypt made it through to the round of 16 in dramatic circumstances on Monday evening. After a late Egypt goal was confirmed following a long VAR delay, they conceded an equaliser. Only at the final whistle did the players realise Ghana had conceded two late goals in their game in Ebimpe, moving Egypt into second place in Group B.

Salah watched all of this from the stands before flying back to Liverpool. Vitoria described his injury as “very complex” and appeared to suggest that Egypt had known about this for some time, but he wanted to wait until after this game to talk “with calm“ about Salah. Nameless “intermediaries” from Liverpool had, according to Vitoria, stopped that from happening.

Until this point, the most clarity about Salah’s condition had arrived via his agent just 90 minutes before kick-off.

Amidst fierce criticism of Salah in Egypt, Ramy Abbas used social media to confirm that the injury was “more serious than first thought.”

According to Abbas, Salah will miss the next 21 to 28 days. Given the final of AFCON was 21 days away from the moment he entered the conversation, Abbas concluded that going back to Liverpool gave his client the “best chance” of a future participation in the tournament but that seems optimistic given the timeframes involved.

This would appear to mean Salah has sustained a grade one or two tear, which as The Athletic reported on Friday, would leave him unable to play for at least three weeks.

A few hours before Klopp revealed his forward was probably going to return to Merseyside, Salah had been the focus of a press conference in Abidjan’s Palais de Culture and it did not seem like he was preparing to leave.

The subsequent press release from Egypt implied that test results, revealed later in the afternoon, had led to a change of strategy. Rather than missing just two games as suggested on Friday, Salah was now racing to be fit for the semi-final, if Egypt got there. Klopp, meanwhile, has suggested that he could return to Ivory Coast if Egypt progressed but referenced instead a possible appearance in the final.

Egypt’s original statement relating to Salah’s welfare had initially caused more confusion, with the diagnosis of damage to the “posterior” of the thigh established by an X-ray. Standardly, X-rays are conducted to assess bone health, and for a clearer picture of a muscular injury, Salah would have needed an MRI scan.

While Vitoria commended the “vast experience” of his doctors, Liverpool have suggested the original message was lost in translation. The Egyptian FA did not reply when The Athletic sought clarification over the treatment the player was receiving.

But late on Monday night, the national team doctor Mohamed Abou El-Ela told Egyptian TV channel ONTime Sports that while discussions with Liverpool had been ongoing, the Premier League club had not followed an agreed timetable. “We wanted this (the statement) to be out after the game, and that’s what we agreed with Liverpool on.”

He also revealed just how much the Egyptian staff and Liverpool had been speaking about Salah’s injury: “The level of communication (with Liverpool) reached a point where we were speaking five times a day, for half an hour on each call.”

The Athletic has contacted Liverpool for comment.

Salah watching Egypt’s game on Monday night (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

It would be understandable if Liverpool were asking serious questions about why a player who rarely suffers injuries, particularly relating to muscles, has pulled up after such a short time under the care of someone else.

In the past, Liverpool have dispatched medical professionals  to look after their players during AFCON. It happened in Cameroon two years ago, when the club had three players involved in the tournament. It also happened in 2017 when only Sadio Mane was the only Liverpool player on duty in Gabon.

On that occasion, the work was outsourced to Dave Galley, a former club physio. Different reports from the period suggested Galley was able to monitor Mane’s fitness on a daily basis and tell the Senegalese coaching staff if the player needed training schedules amended to include rest days and avoid excessive high speed running sessions that tend to cause muscle injuries — like those to the hamstring.

Mane returned from that completion in full health. Three days after Senegal exited the competition by losing on penalties to Cameroon, Mane was introduced as a second half substitute as Liverpool drew with Chelsea.

Seven years later, Liverpool did not send anyone to accompany Salah. The club has offered no official explanation for this but Salah has not experienced problems in previous competitions with Egypt, so there must have been some confidence in the care a player the club valued at more than £150m last summer was receiving.

(Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Egyptians believe the country’s football association should have been more forceful with Liverpool. The Moroccan Football Federation, by contrast, has rejected Bayern Munich’s request for Noussair Mazraoui to return to Germany for further assessment, with the organisation’s president Fouzi Lekjaa insisting Bayern send their medical team to San-Pedro, in the west of Ivory Coast.

There is a difference here because Mazraoui travelled to Ivory Coast with an injury to his thigh already diagnosed, with his club coach Thomas Tuchel recommending that he only feature at the earliest in the third group game. That guidance has been followed.

Morocco’s stance over the situation, however, has exposed weaknesses in Egypt’s strategy, as well as a brittleness in the influence of the country’s football authority.

One of the things Salah is having to deal with is a quiet, almost unspoken criticism due to the blurred lines that exist between the EFA and an authoritarian regime. It means that outwardly, it is much easier to blame a footballer who lives abroad than a domestic figure with powerful friends.

Whereas football federations like those in Morocco and Senegal have successfully separated themselves from the impulses of  government administrators, the relationship in Egypt remains tangled. Critics believe the lack of sound football-related leadership within the EFA means the organisation does not have the wisdom to positively influence the most famous player the country has ever produced.

Given that few Egyptian footballers are successful abroad, the EFA is also accused of not investing in its relationships with the clubs of the players that do.

After the Arab Spring of 2011, a former player called Hany Abu Rida had aspirations of becoming the president of the EFA. A businessman in engineering, he had held positions at CAF and FIFA. Yet his previous role as the EFA vice president made it difficult to rise to the most senior position because of his links with the old pre-revolution regime.

This led to the appointment of Gamal Alam. As Abu Rida controlled from the back of the stage, the arrangement worked for four years. With enough distance since the revolution, Abu Rida was able to step forward in 2016 but he was forced to resign three years later when Egypt tumbled out of an AFCON as hosts, amidst a player scandal that involved Amr Warda, who was expelled from the squad only to be quickly reinstated for sending inappropriate messages to women online.

For two years, the organisation stood without an elected board. During this period, the army and its intelligence services controlled everything in Egypt but in 2022, Gamal Alam returned from the shadows.

“They have chosen him because he is weak and is very happy to be president,” says a source close to the organisation, who asks to remain anonymous to protect his safety. “And at the same time, it looks like a normal development because he was the former president of the EFA.

“Welcome to Egypt.”

(Top photo: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

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