I’ve been reading Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon’s novel about the dudes who plotted the line of the same name that once definitively and now roughly separates the American North and South. The book draws immense power from meditating on boundaries: actual lines on maps, but also ones between the living and the dead, between slaves and their masters, between people and information. At one point, the pair draw the Pennsylvania-Maryland border right through the middle of a couple’s house so that on the Pennsylvania side of the building, they’re legally married and on the other side they aren’t. They put the foundation up on logs and roll it into Maryland. You get the sense the husband and wife’s relationship is close to an end.
This is to say I’ve been thinking a lot lately about delineations, the exact point at which things begin or conclude. They’re almost always artificial: somebody decides that if something is sixty-three percent whatever, it’s this, and if it’s sixty-four, it’s that; the city limits are at such-and-such intersection; you can get into this college with an 1140 SAT score, but not an 1130. Whatever. It’s both mind-numbing and, after a while, seeds the mind with creeping panic: order, disorder, fake order. I could get into the U.S.-Mexico border here, but won’t.
Anyway, in my End-To-End Stuff entry on Harry Kane, I mentioned Mo Salah as one of the best six or so goalscorers in the world. That’s a pretty uncontroversial statement. He tallied 32 goals in all competitions for Liverpool last season and won the PFA Player of the Year award. But this is a relatively recent jump in status for Salah. He never got a chance at Chelsea and was quite good at Roma but whenever I watched him, I tended to come away wishing he had a stronger end product. He would sprint and wind, with that powerfully squat gait he has, through opposing defenses, cut inside onto his left foot, and often weakly ground the ball at the keeper, or fire a low cross to nobody. It’s not that he didn’t score—29 goals in 65 matches for Roma is a fine record—but he was noticeably better at getting himself into promising positions than converting chances. He had a mild case of the affliction that troubles many wingers in the Young Ronaldo mould: speed, dribbling, instincts… and unconvincing finishing.
There are a bunch of articles with headlines like “The Making of Liverpool’s Egyptian Superstar Mo Salah,” and um, “The Making of Mohamed Salah” that provide scant insight into how Salah fixed his finishing. He did lots of shooting drills at Basel. He learned from Luciano Spalletti at Roma. He worked very hard and had a positive attitude. It’s difficult to explain, the mental and/or technical rubicon that certain forwards cross as they evolve from frustrating talents into trusty killers. In practice, it seems an attitudinal shift—we start expecting them to score; they expect to score; therefore they score—but it almost definitely isn’t just that. Part of the appeal of soccer as a sport is that even those who make a career out of it admit that there’s a lot they don’t understand. Salah used to struggle in front of net and now he doesn’t. It’s a bit of a mystery—a profound one if you’re an Egyptian or a Liverpool fan.
So Mo Salah is a Great Player now. A single prodigious season at a big club was enough to grant him a new designation. I’m here for it. (Salah’s such a fun player, in addition to being a really productive one.) But there remains the possibility that last season was a bit of a fluke or that he’s given us the false impression that he’s solved some problems that still persist, beneath all the beaming and goal-scoring. Progression is rarely a straight-line thing, and game to game, moment to moment, players are not their reputations but simply bodies in motion. Mo Salah’s still going to scuff some shots, is my point. Maybe more than we think he will, now that we think so highly of him.
The distinctions we draw will always be at least a little bit incorrect, the titles we bestow imprecise. We bother with them because they’re useful. If Maryland and Pennsylvania are going to have separate governments, they need an arbitrary line that stipulates where one set of laws applies and another doesn’t. Cities need limits and colleges need a criterion for accepting applicants. Mo Salah had a breakthrough year. How are we to describe what he is coming out the other side of that? It calls out for a name, or at least a couple of adjectives.
I’ve lost my head over this before, not a little bit dottily because there are no meaningful consequences to mislabeling an athlete. But it unnerves me still, the ever-shifting jaggedness of reality and the facile ways we try to artificially smooth it out with language, maps, cameras, violence, etc. At times it feels deeply pathetic to try to make a statement about anything.
How about another, more hopeful framing? We don’t know for sure what Mo Salah is capable of this upcoming season. Maybe he’s even better than we think and we’ll have to find a new vocabulary for him—happy sounds and elated disbelieving facial expressions, which we won’t have to think about; they’ll just happen to us, like he’s the wind moving over our skin, the moonlight beaming down. Maybe this year Mo Salah transforms into a literal sensation. Beyond categorization, beyond words. That’s something to wish for: an end to taxonomical anxiety. And a bunch of goals.