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INTERVIEW: Former Arsenal goalkeeper Rami Shaaban speaks to KingFut
Rami Shaaban, born in Sweden to an Egyptian father and a Finnish mother, spent the majority of his footballing career in Europe. Following a short spell with Cairo giants Zamalek in 1995, Shaaban played for a handful of clubs in Sweden before joining Arsenal seven years later. Till this date, Shaaban is the only player of Egyptian origin to ever play for the Gunners; where he featured in the Premier League and Champions League, and was a part of Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ squad.
KingFut.com caught up with the former Arsenal goalkeeper…
Growing up, did you have a lot of contact with Egypt?
The thing is, I have a lot of contact with Egypt, all my father’s side live in Egypt. I go there two or maybe three times a year to visit them. I got to learn a little bit more when Mido was in Spurs, I was at Arsenal – or just left Arsenal – so we had a few lunches and dinners in London and now he’s obviously the coach of Zamalek. I’m trying to follow Egyptian football as much as I can but I have never been and watched live [in the stadium], but I’m following it on the LiveScore phone app.
What team do you support in Egypt?
Even in Sweden I get that question a lot. I was in Zamalek a long time ago but I am not a fanatic or anything like that of any club. I love watching good football. The only team that I actually supported before I went to Arsenal was Arsenal, and in Italy I supported Juventus. So they are the only two clubs I can say I have supported.
You trained with Zamalek, did you find there was a difference in the way European clubs trained?
The thing is, when I trained with Zamalek I was 20 years old. I came from Sweden, I was playing like division three and four football. It was practice every second day, it wasn’t that much. When I went to Zamalek, it was training almost every day in the mornings; I wasn’t used to that. In Sweden I was training in the evenings because you had to work because the pay wasn’t that good, or there was no pay. So when I came to Egypt I had a really hard time in the first month or two to adapt to training in the mornings every day.
The big difference is if you compare between Egypt and Europe, the style of training is very difficult because in Egypt the pitches are so hard and you don’t have the same quality pitches. So for my body and me it was a big shock to be jumping around on very hard surfaces. I was bleeding all over the place at the beginning. Obviously because I didn’t have a good technique at the beginning, but I had to learn or I would have killed myself. It was a great experience. Elbows and hips were bleeding, but even the experienced keepers had those kinds of injuries once or twice so I wasn’t alone, but it was very tough.
What can a club like Zamalek do to become like a successful European club?
I think Mido is trying to take his experiences from Europe, and I think that’s good, because in Egypt there are so many people with different opinions that have influence on who to play, and in Europe it’s just the manger. It’s the manager who dictates [like what Mido is doing]. One thing I noticed which was really nice but it was a shock for me was to have so many fans on the training pitches, especially in Zamalek and Ahly, but you don’t have that in Europe.
In England, you had no one on the training ground so it was easier to focus on what you had to do and not train because of the spectators, and that influenced me as there was no one on the training pitches, not even journalists, except for Champions League when UEFA had those rules; but in Egypt, everyone could watch the training.
Did that make you self-conscious?
You know how it is in training, you maybe in a bad mood or not having the best training session and I think it affects people more than they think. You always have to be smiling. You know the fans, they support a few people, obviously they support the club, but at my time in Egypt you gave money to the fans so they could cheer you up in training. For me it was like ‘WHAT’?
So players would give money to the fans?
Yes, so they would cheer you up more, support you more than your team-mates. You don’t see that anywhere in Europe, and as a goalkeeper, you are three fighting for one place and if the second choice keeper gives more money to the fans they will start to support him more. You know it’s not realistic.
Did you ever consider towards the end of your career going back and playing in Egypt?
I did actually, I went to Egypt and got a few offers from Egyptian clubs and I considered it for a while, but at that time I had a family and kids and stuff, and after a long time I took the decision to stay in Europe. After Arsenal, I struggled to find clubs – or the right club – but I took the decision to stay [in Europe] and that took me to the World Cup. It was a big move so I took the decision to stay, but maybe in the future I could do something like Mido, like organizing a club, but I don’t know, I haven’t taken that decision.
Do you have any aspirations to go back as a manager?
Maybe, but I still have a family and kids and it’s a big step to take. To living in a house in Sweden to living in Egypt, a lot of things have to fall in place and logistic-wise, it’s a bit difficult. Obviously my kids are in Swedish schools, I have three sons, so it’s a big step to take and it’s something I’d have to consider once or twice.
Do your sons play football?
My oldest son, 12, does, my middle one, 6, just started.
Maybe start your own little football team?
[Laughs] no, but three sons are enough.
What do you think it’s going to take for the new young Egyptian players like Mohamed Salah to succeed in Europe?
First of all, I think it’s great that Egyptian players [are going to Europe] because they have the quality to take the step and I have always said that, but I think they had problems before to adapt to the European lifestyle and it has affected their way of playing. There are a few players who have done it very well. Nowadays, Egypt has become more connected, it has the internet you can easily socialize with your family back home and I think all those small bits and pieces affect you as a player because Egyptians are so patriotic so I think it’s good for them. But I also think that it’s good that they can stand on their own legs and start a life in Europe and adapt to European life.
There are quite a number of Egyptian players in Europe now, it’s getting hard to keep track…
It’s more for you guys to work on but at the same time it’s really fantastic because I think it’s good for [Egypt to get] experience from good quality leagues and it’s quite ironic because Egypt won the African Cup of Nations three times in a row, and after that, when Egypt were struggling in the national team, people started to notice the player and they have come abroad and done really well.
Do you think the Port Said disaster influenced players to leave?
Yes of course, it has been a problem for players to leave and they would leave to the Turkish league, and to be fair 10 years ago the Turkish league wasn’t the best. Now it’s becoming much better, but 10 years ago they would be going to smaller leagues and you would see neighbours [African countries] going to play in France, stronger leagues and you were wondering why. And obviously, the Egyptian League was the strongest in Africa so it was very difficult for the players to leave the clubs, and to be fair the players who played in the big clubs in Egypt made a good living.
They didn’t feel the need to go?
Football-wise maybe, but they have their families and good salaries and to be fair and if you made good money in Egypt the living there is so much cheaper than in Europe so at the end of the day what you get goes into your pocket. You had a good lifestyle in Egypt. It takes time you have to start somewhere and you have to adapt and I think Egyptian players in the past had difficulty with that.
Egypt, Sweden and The Decision
The main question most of our reads want to know, you had the choice to play for Egypt, Finland and Sweden, what made you chose Sweden?
First of all, the question came up when I moved to Arsenal, before that, Egypt was a little bit interested. Obviously because I played in the Swedish league, it was easier for them [the Swedish national team] to see who I was and how I was playing, and then when I moved to Arsenal, Egypt were more wanting me to come to play for Egypt and I still hadn’t heard anything from Sweden, but then I broke my leg. I had 6-7 months to a year off football, so I didn’t have to take the decision. So when I came back I was searching for clubs, it took me almost a year to get back after that in 2005. Then the Swedish national team coach called me when I was in Norway and said that he wanted to pick me for the World Cup squad, and at that time it was a really easy decision to know that, ‘okay, I’m going to be in the World Cup in two weeks time’, I couldn’t say no. The other thing I had been living my whole life in Sweden and playing in Sweden almost my whole life, and I didn’t hear anything from Egypt at the time I came back, and I didn’t want to call Egypt and say ‘I’m playing again’, I don’t feel that was my duty to do that.
So did the Egyptian national team contact you?
Yes, in 2002, and they wanted me to come to a friendly game but a week after that I broke my leg.
If you hadn’t broken your leg, it could have been a totally different story?
Yes, absolutely, and I spoke to the boss about it, Arsene Wenger, when I got the call up [from Egypt] and I asked him what do you think and he said ‘to play international football in a national team gives you experience’ and he said ‘why don’t you do it?’
At the time El-Hadary was the number one Egyptian keeper, would you have enjoyed the competition?
Yes, I think at the time Egypt had really good goalkeepers. I’m really good friends with Nader El-Sayed, and he was a very good goalkeeper as well and Egypt didn’t really have the need as much as Sweden at the time. If you look at the top 5 keepers in Sweden at that time, Egypt had the better goalkeepers. I knew the competition was going to be really hard but at the same time that’s what you live with, it’s competition every week.
Being Swedish, Egyptian and Finnish, how has the impact of the three cultures benefited you?
It gives you different types of eyes and gives you different experience. I am trying to take good things from Egyptian culture and from the Swedish – and Finnish is almost the same. I am trying to take the best from both sides and to have open eyes on knowledge helps. Because a lot of problems in the world arise when you don’t have knowledge about something. You can have discussions and debates with people in Sweden about Egypt and it’s easier for me to explain, and in the same way, I’m talking to Egyptians about how it works in Europe in a different way because I’m living in it so of course it helps.
We have seen over the years many Egyptian players put Egypt as their second priority and decide not to play for the Pharaohs. Do you think some players put the Egyptian national team second because of the lack of organisation?
It’s difficult to say, I think it depends on what you have to cope with. In my case, I was playing in Europe and it was easier to play for the Swedish national team. I had more friends in the Swedish national team. It’s difficult for me to to say how others think about it but I think when you have gatherings, it’s very long gatherings in Egypt for a lot of players. In Egypt, if they have a national team game, they need up to two weeks before [to prepare], it was like that at least when I was playing. You don’t have that at all in Europe. You know how it is, if you have a national team game on Wednesday, you meet up on Monday and you’re back at the club on Thursday; so it’s only 4-5 days. And if you have family, like in my case I have a wife and three sons, it’s difficult to be away for two weeks every time it’s a national team game. At the same time, the club’s wouldn’t allow you to go for two weeks because there are rules. But I don’t actually know why, it depends on what you have to compare with. It’s very difficult and I think from player-to player [it varies]. It’s like the World Cup is the biggest thing you can play at if you’re in the national team, and if it’s Italy [i.e. in El Shaarawy’s case] that goes to the World Cup and European championships every time, it’s [easier] or at least you have that in your pros if you’re comparing pros and cons.
You played against Egypt with Sweden in a friendly, what was it like?
Yeah, I played 45 minutes in Cairo. It was fantastic. It was an amazing feeling to enter the stadium and you hear the support I had, I didn’t know what kind of reception I would get but I got a fantastic reception and actually the Swedish players were a bit amazed as well when they saw what kind of reception I got. But then Egypt was much better, we lost 2-0, but it was nice to be there to meet up with some friends. For me, I enjoyed it.
Time at Arsenal
How would you describe your time at Arsenal?
Fantastic. Even if I broke my leg pretty early on, it was fantastic. I came to a club that was winning. I had Freddy from Sweden to help me and everybody welcomed me really well. During the two years I was there, we won almost everything. The last season we didn’t lose a single game in the Premier League. I was there at the right time.
What was it like to be part of the ‘Invincibles’?
It was fantastic. When you win that much as we did, in the first year we won the FA Cup then in the second year the Premier League. The only thing was in the Champions League we didn’t get that far, only the quarter-finals.
Was the breaking of your leg the lowest point in your career?
The thing is a lot of people tell me you had a lot of bad luck when you broke your leg, but at the same time I came from Sweden, a good team in Sweden, but if I had broken my leg in Sweden, I would have never had the chance to play in the Premier League or Champions League. I had a good run before I broke my leg, so if you look at it that way, yes it was the hardest blow for me career-wise, but at the same time when it happened I wasn’t upset. It was meant to be and I had to fight to get back. But for me the hardest time football-wise was when I thought it was going to be much easier to find a club, but I realized it was really difficult to find a club that suited me. I left Arsenal in the summer 2004 then I went searching for clubs till Brighton came up in March 2005 and I played there for three months, and they were struggling in the bottom of the league and we ended up staying in the Championship. I had a good time in Brighton as well but it was a big difference if you compare clubs.
What was your best moment at Arsenal?
I have two actually, I can’t say only one it’s my two debuts, in the Champions League and the Premier League. It was against Tottenham actually in the Premier League and we won 3-0 and Thierry Henry scored an amazing goal, and in the Champions League it was my debut against PSV Eindhoven and both were clean sheets so perfect starts.
What do you think of Arsenal at the moment?
Too much ups and downs to be honest, they were doing really well for a while and then at the end they have started to struggle. Last two years they were struggling in the beginning and then they had a good run towards the end, and now it’s the opposite. They had a great start up until Christmas and then they started to struggle. I would love to see them playing more consistent in their performances, like you can’t lose to big teams away. It never would have happened when I was at the club, we had a really good backbone in the team and I feel they lack that a little bit.
Do you think Arsene Wenger’s time is up?
No, I think he has time left at the club but this summer will be so important to him, and if they don’t qualify for the Champions League, it will cause problems. But they are in the FA Cup final so hopefully they will win something. I think that will give him more time.
What was it like to be coached by Wenger? What was he like as a manager?
He made you feel like you were the most important part of the team to every player, even the substitutes. He relied on your abilities. I think I felt so good because when I played, he never doubted any player or me he put on the pitch and that’s his biggest strength and keeping the team together.
How would you describe Ibrahimović?
I think he is a winner. That’s it. If you had to say one word about him, he’s a winner. Everywhere he goes he wins if you look at the teams he’s played for, I think in the last 8 years, he won the league 7 times or something. It’s amazing. I don’t think you have anyone who has done that in so many different clubs.
Who was the greatest player you have played along with?
Thierry Henry. Because those two years he won the Premier League most goals, he was the best player of the league both years, he was amazing those two years. The only thing that didn’t make him win the Ballon d’Or was because Ronaldinho was amazing. It’s like Messi and Ronaldo, I feel he deserved to get that title at least once.
You made a documentary on child marriages in Egypt, what was that experience like for you?
In Sweden, I do a lot of charity work and I went to Egypt because I wanted to go, and I went with an organisation called PLAN. It’s like UNICEF, I went to Cairo for 3-4 days. The thing is I always go to Egypt, I wouldn’t say the posh plays, but the places I know, Mohandessin, I go to Zamalek for example, but this time I went to little more like.. [poorer places] and to sit with her and speak to her about her life experience it was breath taking. It was a nice trip to do but it was so hard to see what some people in Egypt have to go through when it comes to early marriages. Thing is, when you go to Egypt as a tourist you don’t see these things. You see it’s dirty you see maybe people aren’t having the best time, but to sit and talk face-to-face with someone who really experienced a hard life and sitting with her son who was three and hearing her story, you started to cry, it was so difficult. Yet it was so necessary to give information to the Swedish society to know that people really need this money.
In the future, is that something you’re planning to do more often, charity work?
I do, I am an ambassador for this organisation in Sweden, one of many, and I’m doing like charity events and collecting money for people in Egypt to get a better place to stay.
Do you do football punditry these days?
Yeah, I’m an expert commentator on Bundesliga for Eurosport and it’s a really good league to be honest, it’s amazing. This weekend [April 12] I did Bayern Munich against Dortmund, last year’s Champions League final. It’s an amazing league to be fair, unfortunately there aren’t that many viewers in Sweden who follow the Bundesliga, because Eurosport is not a main channel, but it’s a pleasure to do games every weekend.
The thing, is quality-wise, they [Bundesliga] are the third in the world after the Premier League and La Liga. They went past Serie A when you look at the rankings and it’s always packed stadiums, the clubs are rurally healthy money-wise. Like Bayern Munich for example, they have played over 200 games with a full house home and away. The tickets are very cheaply priced compared to England, it’s half price almost, and I think that’s very helpful, instead of having very expensive tickets they have cheaper ones but they fill the arenas and every one can afford to watch their team. For example, when Arsenal went from Highbury to Emirates, Highbury was always packed it was a small stadium compared to what they could have, but the tickets are so expensive to watch football in London. And it’s not only Arsenal, if you go to the other big clubs in London or England it’s expensive.
Do you know of any young Egyptian footballers that are under the radar?
I watched the African Nations and I loved watching Gedo. He had a great tournament when he played and I obviously I don’t know many young players in Egypt to be honest because it’s very difficult for me to follow that, but I think they have a bright future and I hope so. Now it’s easier to leave the clubs to go to Europe, I hope it’s a positive thing.
Finally, what’s your opinion on Salah?
Really good, he really took that step and he went to an amazing club and the thing is it’s all up to him and that’s what the good thing is. It’s like you can’t do one good game and be satisfied, and it feels like he has done something, he has to be consistent. I think it was good for him to be in a smaller club in Europe first and get some experience on how it works then take that step. He has really done it. The next couple of seasons will be his time I think when you are in a big club like he is now he has everything served, now it’s up to him to take it and grab it.
Ahmad Yousef and the KingFut.com would like to thank Rami Shaaban for his time and wish him all the best.