Thursday 21 November 2019

History and tradition matter as king Mo plots a pharaoh tale

The Couch

Mohamed Salah. Photo: Pa
Mohamed Salah. Photo: Pa

Tommy Conlon

A pair of football boots belonging to Mohamed Salah have been added to the British Museum's famous collection of Egyptian artefacts.

Which naturally makes it almost mandatory for us to insert a gag here: never mind the British Museum, just make sure he brings his shooting boots to the Champions League final in Kiev next Saturday.

The Liverpool FC man of the moment will be leaving his Golden Boot at home, presumably, or in a bank vault for security. (Insert your own gag here.) Salah picked up the prestigious award last Sunday at Anfield having notched up his 32nd goal of the Premier League campaign, thereby breaking the 31-goal record for a 38-game season held jointly by Alan Shearer (1995/'96), Luis Suarez (2013/'14) and Cristiano Ronaldo (2007/'08).

Ah, Cristiano. He will certainly be bringing his shooting boots to Kiev. The prince regent of the royal house of Madrid has scored 43 goals in all competitions this season; Salah has 44. A vast amount of the pre-match speculation will therefore centre around the two plunderers and their importance to the prospects of both teams. But they both could end up being peripheral; major games often take a perverse course, contrary to all the conventional prognostications. Who knows, maybe James Milner pops up with the winner for Liverpool? Or the Brazilian defensive midfielder Carlos Casemiro for Real Madrid.

The Spanish giants are gunning for three-in-a-row. If they succeed, this team will enter the pantheon as a dynasty the equal of the Real side that won the first five European Cups between 1956 and 1960. Indeed historians of the game would probably argue that a win would eclipse the vaunted team of Di Stefano, Gento and Zarraga. It would be their fourth Champions League crown in five seasons, a record achieved in a much more volatile and complex professional football culture than pertained in the post-war years.

Either way, no other club comes close to Madrid's pedigree in Europe. They have won the pre-eminent tournament in global club football 12 times. The next highest is AC Milan with seven. And when Madrid get to the final, they usually win it. They have been runners-up three times: '62, '64 and '81.

This kind of record matters, long after those games and players have been consigned to the archives. They matter because they set the standard for all subsequent generations. Contemporary players and managers and boardroom executives inherit this tradition, both as burden and inspiration. They cannot aspire to anything less because the institutional pressure is there to emulate those who have gone before. They do not have permission to lower the bar. The institutional memory lives on in the here and now.

In bad times a glorious past can haunt incumbents. It can exacerbate anxieties and frustrations when things are not going well; it can cause resentment about fans living in the past; it can retard initiatives designed to modernise and move forward. But with good teams and good managers, it can become an enabling force. Past triumphs become a form of institutional knowledge, a road map full of know-how and experience about how to get the job done.

It doesn't matter if the latest heirs to the jersey, and the managerial dugout, weren't born when the previous team reached the summit, or grew up in a different country at a different time. The memories live on in the walls of the buildings, in the ether of the training ground, in the folklore of the supporters. Liverpool's current non-English players come from Germany, Holland, Croatia, Scotland, Brazil, Egypt and Senegal. It doesn't matter. They know the story. "It is not necessary for the England players to tell the foreigners," said the Dutch midfielder Clarence Seedorf on the eve of the 2005 Champions League final. "You absorb the culture of your club."

And we all know what happened in that final. Seedorf was in the AC Milan midfield that overran Liverpool in the first half, only to see their 3-0 lead collapse in one of the most sensational football matches ever played.

We remain convinced that Liverpool would not have won the European Cup that night if the club hadn't won four already. The history of those seminal victories in '77, '78, '81 and '84 hung in the air on that remarkable evening in Istanbul. Not in some romantic, sentimental fashion, but in the hard currency of entitlement and expectation. Their two local boys, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, were weaned on stories of the power and the glory. On the night it translated into a ferocious sense of belief and inspiration. They knew the players who had brought the great prize back to the city in previous decades. They wanted to bring it back too; they felt an entitlement to bring it back; between them they drove the team to victory. It was the presumption incarnate of a winning tradition.

No team is more presumptuous in Europe than Real Madrid. But the Liverpool players and their supporters will bring their own presumptions to Kiev too. They also stand on the shoulders of giants.

Salah's mint green Adidas X17 boots were photographed on display in the British Museum last week alongside the enormous statues of Ramesses the Great and Amenhotep the Magnificent, epic Egyptian pharaohs who have been carbon-dated all the way back to the early years of the John Motson period.

The boots have never been worn but a Museum spokesman said they hoped to acquire a "worn pair" next week. If Salah scores the winner on Saturday, his worn pair that night will become a precious artefact, maybe as priceless to Scousers as the treasures of Tutankhamun himself.

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