There are moments when you just know. Even if you don’t believe in romantic love at first sight, you have probably experienced footballing love at first sight.
At least, it seems like first sight. There are some moments that bounce on the mind like a bowling ball on a rubber sheet, pulling and distorting all your other memories so that what seems like their first game was actually their 30th, or erasing initial misgivings in favour of being able to say you knew all along.
Patrick Vieira’s Arsenal debut came with the Gunners 1-0 down to Sheffield Wednesday; his introduction turned the game, which finished 4-1. In 2002, 16-year-old Wayne Rooney became the Premier League’s youngest ever scorer by grabbing that famous last-minute winner against Arsenal. Gareth Bale’s coronation as a superstar came with his Champions League hat-trick against Inter in October 2010 – a performance so singularly brilliant that it’s easy to forget that Spurs lost that game.
Those performances, those moments, serve as origin stories: the moment a myth was forged and a player became part of the club’s folklore, to be passed down from parent to child. “Gather round, children, and let me tell you about the time David Beckham beat Neil Sullivan from the halfway line in 1996.”
Mohamed Salah’s performance against Roma on Tuesday night was just such an occasion. I have been with my wife over ten years now, but this is the first season she is really truly getting into football. There were moments from Salah during the 5-2 win that made us both make strange involuntary noises and then look at each other, grinning like maniacs, before fixing back on the screen to see what could possibly come next; a performance both to reignite the passion of a lifelong football fan, and make a previously indifferent person fall in love with the game.
We were not alone. The New York Times’ Rory Smith described it as a Messi-level performance, and it was enough for Robbie Savage to yelp that the Egyptian should be handed the Ballon d’Or immediatement. Even in the context of Salah’s already-exceptional season, this was taking things to a completely different level.
There are always false positives with this kind of thing, as if fate is determined just to keep things interesting: Neil Mellor never lived up to his crucial goals against Arsenal and Olympiakos in 2004, while Federico Macheda will never have a greater moment than his title-consolidating winner on his debut against Aston Villa in April 2009. In later years, once the hype has turned into a plodding career in the lower leagues, we convince ourselves that we never really thought they’d be superstars, and that we always saw those one-off moments for what they were. But when it happens, we can still enjoy getting caught up in the hype. Crucially, those moments can provide much-needed succour even for fans of clubs who aren’t realistically going to win anything; Leeds fans have spoken about James Milner and Lewis Cook in much the same terms.
Those moments of ‘oh my God, we’ve really got something here’ offer a sudden explosion of hope, a glimpse that something magic can indeed come into your life and make everything seem brighter. They have the power to make us into giddy little children all over again.
That is rare. That is thrilling. That is why we love football.