There is a scene in the BBC comedy programme This Time with Alan Partridge when Steve Coogan traps Monty Don, the much-loved British TV gardener, in a hotel lobby over drinks.
Partridge wants to prove that the “squiggle-haired horticulturalist” is, in fact, a bit of a crook, who is willing to accept cash for advertising tools in one of his garden programmes.
Initially, the sting fails and in frustration, Partridge’s offers keep going up and up. Eventually, he reaches £1billion, which prompts Don to break.
“Gotcha!” declares Partridge smugly, revealing that everyone has their price: even one of the BBC’s nice guys.
The summer has been like that in football. There are numerous examples of players who have received approaches from Saudi Arabia – a country that, unlike Partridge, lowballs in its early engagements. A couple of rounds later, however, things have changed and their targets are reduced, like Don, to wide-eyed disbelief: “Sorry, how much did you say there, Alan?”
Mohamed Salah would never consider a professional future in Saudi if the contract wasn’t at that kind of ridiculous extreme and it seems inevitable he will eventually follow it.
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Then, he will be no different to anyone else who is willing to place a product in front of us, only in this case it will be funded by a state in pursuit of credibility rather than a gardening trowel.
It would be fascinating to know about the true extent of the pressure Salah has faced over the last few months because Saudi money is only available due to the urges of the country’s political classes. These figures, some of the most influential in the Arabic world, are helping to transform the footballing landscape.
So much focus has been on the impact on the West but, closer to source, an old order is being tested. In August, Saudi Arabian sports presenter Walid Al-Faraj caused a stir when he claimed that the rivalry between Al Nassr and Al Hilal was now the strongest in the Middle East.
Al Ahly and Zamalek had held that status but interest in the Cairo derby, according to Al-Faraj, did not extend beyond Egypt because it “lacked a substantial international audience”.
Al Ahly fans in the derby with Zamalek (Mohamed Hossam/AFP via Getty Images)
Al-Faraj pointed towards the 40 broadcasters across the globe signing up to showcase Saudi Arabian league matches as proof for his argument.
Given that Egypt was once the powerhouse of the region in nearly every possible way, it would, according to Al-Faraj, take time for everyone “to adapt to the upcoming phase”.
Al-Faraj’s comments prompted Ahmed Diab, the president of the Egyptian Premier League, to refer to Al Ahly and Zamalek as the “real derby”.
What followed was a broader introspection in Egypt, where Mido, the outspoken former Tottenham Hotspur and Middlesbrough striker, spoke for many when he suggested that the Egyptian game was “tired” because of the state of the stadiums, the television coverage and the teams. “And most of the players go to one barber,” he complained.
This was before Al Ittihad had a bid of £150million ($188m) for Salah turned down by Liverpool, with Saudi rulers surely not oblivious to the significance of bringing Egypt’s most famous player to the Saudi Pro League and adding weight to the perception that Egypt is being left behind.
Egyptians would be intrigued by this development but would it translate into more than 100 million supporters, as Saudi estimates, tuning into matches as part of one of those broadcast deals Al-Faraj speaks about?
Though Salah is popular in Egypt, he never dominated the domestic football scene because neither Al Ahly nor Zamalek featured in his career path.
(Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
A move to Saudi, indeed, is not without its complications for Salah, a footballer who has spent his entire career attempting to retain a sense of independence.
It is not easy being a country’s most recognisable sporting figure as rule has swung from authoritarian to revolution and back again.
Salah’s hero and predecessor as an icon of the Egyptian game, Mohamed Aboutrika, remains exiled, having been placed on a terrorist watchlist for alleged links to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood organisation.
Aboutrika had publicly endorsed the successful 2012 presidential bid by Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member. When Morsi was ousted in 2013, it was believed that Saudi funding had supported the Egyptian army.
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The countries have since become strategic partners, buoyed by shared interests and certain threat perceptions. Saudi values Egypt’s large military force, which helps protect the Red Sea, and Egypt sees Saudi as its most important economic benefactor and as a workplace for labour.
Saudi now hosts the biggest expatriate Egyptian community anywhere in the world, with up to 2.5m foreign workers living on the peninsula. This migration has increased since Saudi started to provide substantial financial support to keep the Egyptian economy afloat following Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi.
The relationship has been tested by a change of ruler in Riyadh, with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman opting not to continue the unconditional financial aid that had previously been granted to Cairo.
Mohammed bin Salman has overseen a change in policy with Egypt (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)
Saudi has since demanded something in return for its support. In 2016, the Sisi administration announced that it would transfer two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi, a decision that caused considerable resentment among the Egyptian population.
A Saudi finance minister made the shift in thinking as clear as it could be. “We used to give direct grants and deposits without strings attached,” Mohammed Al Jadaan said. “We are changing that. We are working with multilateral institutions to actually say, ‘We need to see reforms’.”
This prompted two prominent Saudi commentators close to the monarchy to criticise Egypt on social media, talking about its “failure” since the 1952 revolution, as well as the dominant role of the military in the economy.
In a response, Abdel Razek Tawfiq, editor-in-chief of Egyptian state-owned newspaper Al Gomhuria, wrote an editorial arguing that the “barefooted” and newly wealthy countries had no right to insult Egypt.
“The mean, the scoundrels and the nouveau-riche have no right to insult their masters,” he wrote, drawing on derogatory stereotypes and claims of historical superiority.
Any footballer whose wages are paid by a state becomes a tool of that state. By moving to Saudi, Salah would be entering a world he has tried to avoid for his whole career. Until now, his career had been dictated purely by his form on a football field, his public image carefully curated with selective media appearances and a reliably uncontroversial social media output. Joining the Saudi Pro League would make his future reliant on relations and diplomacy well beyond his control.
Ultimately, he could have chosen to stop the talk about his future last week in an instant. A month ago, his agent Ramy Abbas dismissed the notion of moving to Saudi; there has been no such intervention this time.
For the time being, Saudi does not have its ‘gotcha’ moment but they will surely try again.
Instead, while all of this was unravelling, Salah spent some of his time off in London, wandering around museums and photographing himself in front of Egyptian artefacts.
It may have reminded him of the uncomplicated way things used to be, and perhaps question where everything is heading.
(Top photo: Matt McNulty/Getty Images)