Once upon a time, Mohamed Salah was just a teenager playing in Al Mokawloon… until Ivica Todorov came along and the rest is history…
Ivica Todorov still remembers the first time he saw the lightning bolt.
It was a hazy evening in Cairo. He had come to watch a group of boys playing on a yellowed-out turf on the edge of the city. Sweat dappled on Ivica Todorov’s forehead but the Yugoslav born coach was paying no attention to it.
His eyes were fixed on a small streak zipping across the boys on the right flank of the pitch.
Todorov could barely capture the face. He saw the black curls, but only in brief flickers before the boy bolted across the field once again leaving defenders tumbling to the ground in his wake.
“When I arrived at the club [Al Mokawloon Al Arab SC] I was missing players,” Todorov recalls to FTF.
“So I went to see a junior match and this boy came on with the game at 0-1. In 16 minutes, he scored a goal and gave an assist.”
“I asked who he was and they told me:
“I told him straight away to come directly to the first team and train with us. I could tell he was special.”
The first steps
For years Mohamed Salah’s life revolved around a circuitous path in Cairo. He’d take a three hour journey to training from his home in Nagrig boarding several buses en route.
By the time Ivica Todorov arrived at Al Mokawloon, Salah had already had his taste in the first team, but he was still on the periphery of the squad. And the club’s previous first team manager Hamza El Gamal did not favour the Egyptian youngster.
Todorov remembers a young boy dedicated to his profession.
“When he came to training the next day he arrived an hour earlier than anyone else. I was impressed, I knew about the long bus journey from his home. ”
During Ivica’s time at the club, Salah’s early appearances in training and games would become a regular occurrence. But he was not in a rush to leave the training ground either.
“After games and training he would often stay in my locker room and he would ask questions about what he can still improve. It motivated him, he was eager to learn. Sometimes, he would stay behind after training to work on his control and hit balls all by himself.”
Despite the long journey, Salah never looked tired. There was a glint in his eye. And a sense of destiny when his feet danced with the ball.
“He never complained,” Todorov explains. “He always wanted to work more.”
It took Ivica just five days to be convinced by what he saw of the Egyptian.
He started Mohamed in the club’s next game against Al Ahly, and Salah did not let him down.
After a looping long pass, Salah ran in behind the opposition’s defence and controlled the ball with immaculate precision.
“He scored to make it 1-1, I remember he ran over to me and thanked me just as everyone was congratulating him,” Ivica remembers.
Ivica Todorov’s influence would prove to be the catalyst for Mohamed Salah’s breakthrough. The former Yugoslav coach gave Salah the trust and confidence he needed to shine.
He was just 18 years old at the time, but Ivica could tell Mohamed Salah was destined for greater things.
“In football, there are a lot of players who can go fast with the ball at their feet. Mohamed can go very fast, but where he is different from the others is that he can also change direction at an exceptional speed.”
According to Todorov this was innate in Salah.
“The speed was the only thing that we did not work on, it was natural for him. He had this unique ability and you could tell it was a special gift.
“I am sure that he was born with something that the others do not have. He never stopped working throughout his career and you can see he was eventually rewarded for his hard work.”
In training sessions, Todorov remembers Salah was always eager to learn.
“After sessions I would always take the opportunity to talk to him and he wanted to listen. I gave him the confidence to do the things he was doing in training in match situations.”
As Salah’s popularity grew within the club. Todorov sensed that the young attacker was able to keep his feet on the ground.
“Sometimes younger players develop an ego when they are given a chance in the first team, but he never had that. After he started playing, he just wanted to play more and more and he did not care about anything else.
“In many ways he has changed now. He is one of Egypt’s best players, but even today I can tell he has remained very humble.”
As for the future, Todorov believes, his former protégé duly deserves an individual honour which has eluded him so far.
“He is working with one of the best coaches in the world. I think he is among the best players in the world and I hope he wins the Ballon d’Or because he is a golden boy.”
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