Ramadan Sobhi: A Legend in the Making

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportApril 5, 2017

Ramadan Sobhi: A Legend in the Making

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    Ramadan Sobhi is a legend of the next generation.

    Some people are calling him Egypt's answer to Lionel Messi, others predict he will one day win the Ballon d'Or.

    So just how has the 20-year-old Stoke City star been elevated to such heights? And if he is destined for such greatness, when will he make his next big move?

    I have been in Cairo, Egypt, this week, speaking to people who watched him emerge with Al Ahly before leaving for the bright lights of the Premier League.

    In this nation of football lovers, they genuinely believe Ramadan is worthy of the hype.

    Here, I take a look at the factors that have helped sculpt a modern-day icon...

The Sobhi Trademark

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    There will come a moment in Ramadan's Premier League career when he will produce a controversial piece of skill that will get the whole football world talking.

    He's done it once. He's done it twice. It's likely he is going to do it again...

    The first time Sobhi caused a stir with his stand-on-the-ball trick was July 21, 2015. His Al Ahly team led 2–0 against rivals Zamalek when he stopped in his tracks to produce the astonishing moment, before continuing to complete a simple pass to a team-mate.

    It caused such anger in opponent Hazem Emam that he kicked out at Sobhi and earned a red card. But it did not put Ramadan off for long.

    Fast forward to the 2015 Egyptian Super Cup—also against Zamalek—and he stood on the ball again, as Al Ahly went on to win 3-2.

    He apologised, saying: "I stood on the ball spontaneously and I didn't mean to insult them. I promise not to do it again."

    But the city was already divided. Zamalek felt it was a sign of disrespect. Fans of Al Ahly lapped it up, and began printing t-shirts to capture the moment.

    Ramadan's agent Nader Shawky believes it is only a matter of time before it is replicated in England. He told me: "This is just the type of player he is. Ramadan does not mean to cause offence with his tricks, but this one in particular has become his trademark.

    "I don't know when he will stand on the ball in England...but I am expecting it to happen."

The Rise of Ramadan

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    Sobhi became famous using a combination of tricks, skills and power. He won two league titles in three years as a first-team player at Al Ahly, and the decision to leave the club caused fans heartache, pain and anger. They had hoped this local lad was going to be their future.

    Ramadan was born in Cairo, joined Al Ahly before the age of 10, and quickly progressed through the ranks.

    He made his first-team debut at the age of 16 and an international debut before the age of 18. But as his form continued, eyes from across Europe began to stare in his direction.

    Head coach Martin Jol desperately tried to hold on to him, but Stoke City had been monitoring performances from afar using scouting software. They decided to push on with a serious bid to sign the player when they heard Chelsea were starting to show interest. They sealed a £5 million transfer in July 2016.

    "People here were angry with me for taking him away from Egypt," Shawky explained.

    "They let me know how they felt but I genuinely think that in the long-term this was a great move for the player and a positive step for Al Ahly. The world knows that this great player came from this great Egyptian club. He had to go to the Premier League when it became possible and this moment is perfect for him."

Premier League Goals

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    With his quick feet, strong physique and good decision-making, Sobhi always had belief that he could make a quick impact in England.

    Away from the pitch, he initially lived in a hotel close to Stoke City's training ground but settled quickly in the area and now has his own home in Alderley Edge, a classy part of Cheshire. He is learning the language fast and plans to marry his girlfriend this year. She will live with him and study in the local area.

    One contact I spoke to described how he initially struggled to understand why he was not getting first-team opportunities, but patience has paid off. On the pitch, he is beginning to make waves.

    Since returning from the African Cup of Nations with Egypt, he has been a regular in the starting XI, and Stoke fans are enjoying his style of play.

    Under the guidance of Mark Hughes, he will now work to improve his output statistics.

    Shawky said: "He is a player who likes to provide assists more than he enjoys scoring goals. That has always been how he is. So he will need to work on how many goals he scores as he starts to mature as a player."

A Big Vision

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    'I have my own style, I want to be different.' That is the response Ramadan Sobhi will give to anyone who asks which great player he aims to emulate.

    Fans have already started to call him Ramadona, a glowing tribute that compares him to Argentina legend Maradona, but Sobhi does not want to get caught up in someone else's hype.

    This is a 20-year-old player who acts 10 years more senior. He is clearly planning every single step on his way to greatness.

    Before every meeting, every interview, he wants to know exactly what discussions are going to entail.

    Between every match and training session he studies games he has played, as well as other matches on television.

    "I honestly believe he has the potential to become a Ballon d'Or winner," FilGoal football journalist Fady Ashraf tells me.

    "It is true that people were sad when he left Al Ahly, but he is going to be an elite player. I don't think it is unrealistic to say he will be one of the best in the world."

Becoming a Brand

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    We have all heard of CR7—but perhaps the future is RS32. For Ramadan and his camp, that's the plan.

    The excitement around Ramadan is huge in Egypt and with his career only expected to escalate in the next four years, it is impossible to predict exactly how much attention he will gain.

    Stoke City got an early indication of just how popular he is on the day he signed, as their web pages were left at breaking point.

    Head of media and communications Fraser Nicholson explained: "When we signed Ramadan, we were overwhelmed on social media by the interest surrounding him. We were inundated with tweets, and at one stage we actually had to put a block on Egypt for our Facebook page because of the amount of traffic—it swamped us!

    "After that, we looked to engage properly; we have set up an Arabic Twitter page to keep his fans right up to date."

    Ramadan's own Twitter page has more than 335,000 followers, and young players in Cairo are already buying into the Sobhi craze. The most popular number youngsters want on the back of their shirts? Thirty-two, of course.

    "I think he is going to be the most popular player of the next generation," Shawky predicts.

When to Pick His Next Club...

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    Chelsea, Manchester United and Man City have all been linked with Ramadan since he joined Stoke, but for now they will have to wait.

    I am told that the player will not be leaving his current club any time soon.

    "This is a great place for him right now," agent Shawky told me. "He signed a four-year contract, and next year he needs to be playing all the time and progressing with Stoke."

    The likelihood is he will remain in the Premier League for some time. He sees it as the most exciting league in the world, the place he can best showcase his talent.

    Liverpool have begun to pay attention to his displays recently. Wherever he ends up will most likely depend on how convinced Ramadan is that they have full belief in his talent.

    In the long-term, his followers believe he should reach for the sky.

    One Al Ahly supporting taxi-driver in Cairo told me: "He can play for Barcelona, he will be the next Messi!"

    It seems the fascinating Ramadan Sobhi story is only just beginning.