When I was a smaller lad, running around in the mucky soccer pitch of Bredon Hill Middle School in Ashton-under-Hill, my level of skill earned me the nickname Rhino. My one “skill” was charging at other players who had the ball. Since those formative years, I’ve come to greatly admire and envy those with greater soccer prowess than mine — an extremely long list numbering in the billions. At the head of that list are Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who face each other in the Champions League final on May 26.
Will other heroes emerge on game day? Quite possibly. Football is a team sport, no one can do it alone, everyone has their part to play, yadda-yadda. But we all love a great narrative, and only a bloodless Silicon Valley CEO could resist this one: two of the world’s most lethal goal scorers going head-to-head in Kiev.
One is a veteran, a fashion icon who is leaner than a Formula 1 racing car tire, and arguably the most recognized athlete in the world. The other is a reverse meteorite, leaving the confines of ordinary cumulonimbus territory and rapidly rising into the stratum of the stars ever since Jurgen Klopp paid £34.3 million to bring him to Merseyside in the summer of 2017.
Compare and contrast
Ronaldo — 33
Salah — 25
Ronaldo — Sporting Clube de Portugal, (1997-2003), Manchester Utd (2003-2009) Real Madrid (2009-present).
Salah — El Mokawloon (2010-2012), Basel (2012-2014), Chelsea (2014-2015), Fiorentina (on loan from Chelsea in 2015), Roma (2015-2017), Liverpool (2017-present).
Ronaldo — 572 for clubs in all competitive matches.
Salah — 120 for clubs in all competitive matches.
Ronaldo — With Man Utd: Three Premier League titles, FA Cup (03/04), Champions League (07/08). With Real Madrid: Won La Liga twice, Champions League three times.
Salah — With Basel: Two Swiss Super League titles.
“When Ronaldo gets the ball, you can just leave him to it while he beats player after player.” – Ryan Giggs, formerly of Man Utd.
“He is the quiet, unassuming kid who puts on his Liverpool shirt and becomes a superhero, the embodiment of every fan’s dream.” – James McKenna, Liverpool fans’ group, Spirit of Shankly
Ronaldo is a power player, superb on the counter-attack, and exceptionally fast. With his ability to jump, he is a natural target man (maybe in another life he could have maybe been an NBA player). He dekes out defenders with a combination of sheer force, velocity, and perfectly executed tricks, such as “the Ronaldo chop” or his infamous step-overs. Everything Ronaldo brings to the game is big, and requires outstanding athleticism. He is intimidating to play against.
Salah is very different. Half the time he wears an unassuming grin, as if he’s playing in a beer league — except his beer league is England’s top division, and he has just set the scoring record for the modern era. How does he do it? For one thing, he’s capable of executing all his moves at a faster pace than almost anyone else on the pitch. Yes, he can run like the wind, but he’s also capable of staying with the ball and twisting and turning rapidly in front of the goal until he finds the ideal angle for a shot. He is an opportunist, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. A lot of Salah’s goals seem impossible, until with a subtle flick, he’s made them possible.
Rumour has it that Real Madrid’s president wants to lure Salah away from Merseyside, but manager Zinedine Zidane isn’t so keen on the idea. This would not be the first time one of Spain’s top two teams goes talent hunting in Liverpool (see: Suarez, Luis; Coutinho, Philippe). But Salah seems to be at home in the UK, and his boots are currently on display at the British Museum. My guess is he’ll stay for as long as Liverpool’s fortunes are rising.
Ronaldo, then, will likely remain Real Madrid’s top gun. His fame has garnered him a $1 billion lifetime deal with Nike — only the third such deal in Nike history after Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Similar to David Beckham, consumers all around the world will be seeing plenty of Ronaldo even after retirement.
Salah, if all goes well, has about a decade of stardom left in him. His post-scoring prayers on the pitch haven’t gone unnoticed by fellow Muslims, who see his thoroughly decent demeanour and humility as an inspiration and source of pride. His influence on relations between Muslims and non-Muslim fans in the Premier League has been very positive.
The battle between these two will be fascinating to watch, and it would be supremely surprising, given their current form (remember Ronaldo’s astounding overhead kick in April?) if neither of them exerted considerable influence on the outcome of the match.