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'We knew right away Salah was an amazing talent' - How an Egyptian teen sensation became a global star

4:15 AM EST 1/11/22
Mohamed Salah Liverpool
The Liverpool winger embarked on an improbable journey from humble origins to the pinnacle of the game with a helping hand from agent Sascha Empacher

Mohamed Salah is inspiring Africa's next generation and is the biggest draw at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Indeed, the Liverpool forward is now one of the game's global stars, a role model to Arabs and Africans who want to replicate his career, and his return to the biggest stage in African football is a reminder of how improbable his journey to the top has been.

Salah wasn't discovered until he was 14 but then he joined the Cairo-based club Arab Contractors – now known as Al Mokawloon. That meant a three-hour trip from his hometown of Nagrig but the switch paid off because it was while playing in the capital that he was spotted by Sascha Empacher, the founder and an agent at the SPOCS football agency.

After watching the teenage prodigy in person, meeting with Salah, his family and the club, Empacher helped a rough diamond to get a chance to shine in Europe.

"He was at an Egyptian Premier League club (Arab Contractors) but Salah wasn’t playing there. He was on the bench because he was young," Empacher tells GOAL. "But we knew right away that he was an amazing talent.

"We got to know his family, stayed with them in Egypt and developed a friendship. We marketed him in Europe but it was not easy. It cost a lot in flights to go to and from the country.

"We had to negotiate a lot both with his club and the European clubs, which have different cultures. Lots of European clubs said no because he only played in Egypt.

"We have done similar deals for Mohamed Elneny and Trezeguet, and more recently Mustapha Mohamud, who went from Zamalek to Galatasaray.

"So we were able to help him and, eventually, Salah went on trial to FC Basel, he got the contract, played in the Champions League and the rest is history."

The harsh reality is that there are a whole host of factors working against African talents which could prevent other youngsters from emulating Salah and making their way to the top.

There were few scouts in Africa before the coronavirus pandemic but Empacher describes a situation where it is now often just his agency, SPOCS, and Red Bull, the owners of RB Leipzig and Salzburg, attending the continent's top youth tournaments.

Furthermore, there has been an increase in second- and third-generation African players from Europe and its big-five leagues receiving senior call-ups from African nations.

Empacher also believes that current FIFA rules hold back African talent, with players unable to sign for European clubs until the age of 18 and thereby missing important development years at the world's best academies.

"If an African country ever wants to win the World Cup, this rule has to change and they have to be able to leave at 16," he argues. "It should be easier for them to get visas when a top European league or club comes calling.

"What was meant to protect them is actually now a disadvantage. They also have restrictions on working visas and Covid-19 is making it worse, so it is not easy.

"A lot of talents fail because of administration, not a lack of talent. This is the main difference with Europe.

"Leipzig and Salzburg have a lot of African talent but it is only some of what's out there. The next Salahs, Essiens and Drogbas are coming through but the politics need to change to help the continent."

The Africa Cup of Nations is another chance for an entire continent to show its worth on the world stage.

Empacher expects he'll soon be inundated with questions about some of the clients on his agency's £280 million ($379m) talent roster, including Ghana striker Benjamin Tete and Chelsea full-back Baba Rahman.

There will also be clubs asking for advice on players that he doesn't represent due to his connections in Africa. Indeed, he believes Europe's top clubs should follow the tournament closely if they're looking to make a shrewd signing before the close of the January transfer window.

"At Ghana, we have Abdul Fatawu Issahaku, who won best young player in Africa. He is an exciting talent," Empacher adds.

"There’s Benjamin Tetteh, who isn’t new but he has been around and he is ready to profit. He had Premier League teams in for him two years ago and will hopefully start for Ghana. I think he could get back to England or Germany.

"Ahmed El Fotouh is the best player in the Egyptian league. He is a really fast left-back and is good at crossing. He can play at the highest level.

"There is Morlaye Sylla from Guinea. I want everyone to go and watch him. He is just amazing and he has had MLS interest. There’s also Pape Matar Sarr, who Tottenham bought from Metz."