After weeks of fervent speculation, it took the Saudis until around 24 hours before Friday night’s Premier League transfer deadline before they finally made their move for Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah.
It was a brief phone call, made with Fenway Sports Group president Mike Gordon. The tone was amicable, but the message from Merseyside could not have been clearer: Al Ittihad’s offer of £100 million ($126 million), potentially rising to £150 million with add-ons, was instantly rejected.
No negotiations, no demands. Gordon made it clear Salah was simply not for sale and that Liverpool considered the matter closed.
This wasn’t a bargaining tactic designed to push the price up. Jurgen Klopp and the club’s owners were in full agreement – losing Salah so close to the deadline with no time to replace him was unthinkable, regardless of the fee being offered.
Yet if anyone at Anfield believes that is the end of the matter, they are almost certainly mistaken. Indeed, a transfer saga that has already taken in cryptic social media posts, colossal salary offers and a Dubai summit meeting between the Saudis and Salah’s agent Ramy Abbas may only just be getting started.
With sources close to Al Ittihad indicating they haven’t given up hope and are prepared to pay up to £200 million ($252 million) to secure the most famous Arab footballer on the planet – and a poster boy for the Saudi Pro League that would rival even Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar – Liverpool’s resolve is set to be further tested prior to the Saudi transfer window closing on September 7. Money is no object when you are one of four clubs bankrolled by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund.
It’s an eye-watering valuation for a 31-year-old, a sign of just how determined the Saudis are to add Salah to their growing stable of superstars.
And the fact Liverpool have stuck to their guns underlines just how integral they still view the player to their hopes of success after a summer of upheaval at Anfield which has already seen a clutch of experienced players depart. The void created by the exit of the fifth-highest goal-scorer in the club’s history would be vast.
The sales of midfield duo Jordan Henderson and Fabinho to Saudi earlier in the window were sanctioned because both players were deemed to be past their peak and there was sufficient time for Liverpool to fill the gaps in the squad. Salah, however, is a very different scenario.
He scored 30 goals and contributed 16 assists last season, is still Liverpool’s most potent attacking weapon and, crucially, he has so far shown no signs of agitating for a move (his slight display of petulance when substituted in the first game of the season at Chelsea on August 13 was not a sign of any unhappiness at the club, with Klopp saying he had not even felt the need to smooth things over with the player).
Salah trained as normal with Klopp’s squad on Friday as preparations geared up for Sunday’s visit of Aston Villa. He smiled and waved to waiting supporters when he drove away from the club’s training ground shortly after 3pm.
There’s no question his head has been turned by the vast riches on offer – a three-year contract understood to be worth around £1.5 million per week, around four times his current salary.
Al Ittihad wouldn’t have made a bid unless they had received firm assurances that Salah was on board. However, wary of potentially damaging his Anfield legacy, he has made a point of leaving matters in Liverpool’s hands. Whether that stance changes in the wake of the rejected bid, only time will tell.
What’s clear is that the Saudis refused to take no for an answer after an approach to the player’s camp was rebuffed around a month ago. Al Ittihad – who already have Salah’s Egyptian national team-mate Ahmed Hegazi in their squad – were initially informed that Salah intended to stay at Liverpool and as speculation rumbled on, Abbas decided to reiterate that stance publicly.
“If we considered leaving LFC this year, we wouldn’t have renewed the contract last summer. Mohamed remains committed to LFC,” he posted on social media on August 7.
Salah had been locked in a protracted, at times acrimonious, contract saga with Liverpool before penning a new three-year deal while on holiday on the Greek island of Mykonos in July 2022 that made him the highest-paid player in the club’s history on around £350,000 per week.
Prior to a breakthrough in negotiations between Gordon and Abbas, Salah’s camp had made it clear that he was prepared to sit tight until he was a free agent in 2023 and that joining a Premier League rival wasn’t out of the question. With the stakes raised, Liverpool improved their offer and a compromise was reached.
“It’s the best decision for us and the best decision for him. He belongs with us I think. This is his club now,” said Klopp as he celebrated retaining Salah’s services.
The Liverpool manager couldn’t have foreseen that there would be such a fight to keep him just 12 months later, or that the threat would come from a league which had previously been an afterthought in the global football landscape.
Unperturbed by the initial rejection, Al Ittihad put together a huge financial package for Salah worth in excess of £200 million over three years. Although signing him in 2024 when he would be 32 and down to the final year of his contract was always deemed more realistic, they didn’t want to wait.
The Jeddah-based Saudi champions will be competing in the Club World Cup on home turf in December and they made it clear they wanted Salah on board for it alongside Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and his former Anfield team-mate Fabinho.
A delegation from Saudi held talks with Abbas in Dubai, where the player’s agent – a Colombian lawyer who graduated with a law degree from the University of Leicester – is based. They received sufficient encouragement that a deal was achievable. As the rumour mill went into overdrive, it was telling that both Abbas and Salah kept their counsel. They didn’t dismiss reports that personal terms had been agreed and Abbas did not respond to requests for comment.
Even social media posts from Al Ittihad were decoded by fans as being part of an ongoing charm offensive, including a photo of a tactics board with a mystery player being added to it.
While the rumour mill gathered momentum, Liverpool sounded a note of defiance. “There is nothing to talk about from our point of view,” insisted Klopp last week. “Mo Salah is a Liverpool player. Obviously, for all the things we do, he is essential, was and will be. There’s nothing there (in terms of a bid) and if there would be something, then the answer would be no.”
Yet in Saudi, the sense of anticipation continued to grow. It was widely reported in the kingdom that last Sunday’s trip to Newcastle United would be Salah’s last game for Liverpool and that he would fly to Dubai to undergo a medical immediately after.
Instead, Salah remained in the UK and spent his day off viewing ancient Egyptian artefacts at London’s British Museum. Similarly, on Friday, it was reported in Saudi that he was flying to Jeddah and would be attending Al Ittihad’s game against Al Hilal. It didn’t happen.
Within Saudi, however, confidence remained undented. Senior officials were still anticipating late drama at the end of the window and it duly arrived in the shape of that phone call to Gordon which saw their £150 million bid verbally lodged.
Why Al Ittihad left it so late in the window is uncertain. If they believed it was an offer that was simply too good to turn down, they were mistaken. Liverpool have previous for refusing to cave in. Barcelona were convinced they would ultimately get their man in the summer of 2017 when Philippe Coutinho put in a transfer request after an improved bid of £90 million.
Instead, FSG told them it was far too late in the window to sanction his departure and the Brazilian stayed put. He left six months later for £142 million – the highest transfer fee a Premier League club has ever received and one that helped finance a rebuild that included the signings of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson.
Similarly, with Salah, Liverpool have prioritised accumulating talent on the field rather than money in the bank. Klopp knows the threat from Saudi isn’t going anywhere, however. “I can’t see how we can really deny it in specific moments. The difference between the contracts here and the contracts there are so big it causes problems,” he said on Friday.
With the SPL window still open for another week, there’s the potential for this to rumble on. Liverpool remain steadfast that there isn’t a figure at which they would do business, but further twists and turns cannot be entirely ruled out.
- The Athletic report