For a 20-year-old, Ramadan Sobhi’s career has been quite a journey. He has, in no particular order, played in front of 100,000 fanatical supporters in Egypt, got an opponent sent off after standing on the ball mid-game, fallen out with his coach at al-Ahly and acquired the nickname “Ramadona”.
The Egyptian winger, who has made 16 league appearances for Stoke City during his first season in England, has hardly had time to stop and reflect. On Sunday, he hopes to add another for Mark Hughes’s side at Southampton before taking a well-earned break. Next season, he hopes, will be his big breakthrough.
In July, Stoke signed Sobhi for £5m from Cairo’s al-Ahly with their manager at the time, Martin Jol, unable to hide his disappointment at losing one of his best players. The Dutchman did say, however, that he was not surprised a Premier League club had come in for Sobhi and revealed he had told his good friend José Mourinho to keep an eye on the youngster.
That Sobhi has the quality to succeed on the biggest stage is not in doubt and his journey only adds to the intrigue. In Egypt, with its political problems and lack of a successful strategy to develop young players, it can be difficult for talented youngsters to reach the highest level. Sobhi, however, kept focusing on football matters and had a remarkably smooth rise to the top.
“I went for trials at al-Ahly aged eight and they picked me up from the first moment,” he says. “I faced no real obstacles; I just concentrated on giving my all.”
He makes it sound easy, and for a while it was, the team winning the Egyptian league in his first season. “It was great to play for my childhood team. I attended matches regularly as a supporter, so I felt a great connection with the fans when playing.”
The manager then was Juan Carlos Garrido and Sobhi excelled as the team progressed in the CAF Confederations Cup in 2014, until the pair fell out. “After a game we had a day off and when we returned to training I still felt really drained and had pain in my leg,” Sobhi says. “The game was in front of 100,000 fans, which I wasn’t used to as that is not normal in Egypt. I had always played in front of empty stands. It was really hard to adapt, to face all of those spectators. I felt exhausted and that I should miss training.
“Garrido said I was being lazy, that I was too young to need a rest and that I should be able to play every day at my age. We argued and he accused me of doing something wrong off the pitch, suggesting that I was enjoying myself too much. I told him that I was not doing anything wrong, but he didn’t believe me. I said: ‘You should trust me like I trust you as my coach’ and that it was his choice whether or not to do so, and we left it at that.”
It is perhaps ironic that problems in the Egyptian domestic league – meaning that fans could not attend matches – were the cause for Sobhi’s struggles with the size of the crowd during an important tournament and the catalyst for the fallout with Garrido. Incidents such as the 2012 Port Said massacre, when al-Ahly fans were attacked by supporters of al-Masry, leaving more than 70 fans dead, meant that domestic competitions were suspended for two years. When the games resumed, supporters were initially banned. “Only with a system like in England, which is followed without any exceptions, can we achieve improvements in Egypt,” Sobhi says.
He shot to fame in 2015 when, during a 2-0 derby victory against Zamalek, he stood on the ball. One opponent did not take kindly to the action and lashed out, receiving a red card. “It was not arrogance of any kind,” Sobhi says. “I didn’t do it to prove anything. It was just a bit of skill and it happens here in England as well. In Egypt they just blew it out of proportion, when really it is not a big deal.”
Sobhi is used to being in the spotlight. Early on, there were questions over his age due to his physical and technical attributes and the doubts were used as a stick to beat him with. “I was aware of the speculation. People were always talking about this, since I was 12 years old,” he says. “As I got older and became better known, they dragged it up again. At al-Ahly they carried out extensive medical testing and if anybody was found to have lied about their age they would be released, but they kept me there. That was clear proof that I am the age I claim.
“It was something which people would bring up after I played well; it was fabricated because some people didn’t want me to become successful. After spreading the rumor, people have apologized to me and now it’s not like before. Those people respect me because I am representing Egypt while playing in the Premier League. There is more support now.”
Sobhi has settled remarkably well since joining Stoke. He puts that down to getting married – to Habiba, the sister of his international team-mate Sherif Ekramy – and his Muslim faith. “If you are trying to adapt to something and you don’t feel the pressure of life, it helps. If you are not adapting to the way of life somewhere it would be a big problem, but I am settled. My marriage will give me more support to concentrate on the pitch. I think it was a really good step for me to make.
“Religion is separate from football; it’s a way of living, a personal thing. It does relate [to sport] because believing in God helps you to believe in hard work. It gives you self-confidence because I believe if you work hard, then God will help you to move forward and to progress.”
He is delighted to be at Stoke – citing Marc Muniesa, Ibrahim Affelay and Marko Arnautovic as his closest friends at the club. He says he would like to play more but has no problem with Hughes’s team selections.
“I want to play but Mark Hughes makes the decisions. I did get some chances and I just tried to do my best. If the chance comes again, I will perform better and better. Right now, I’m not playing, but I respect the manager’s point of view. All I can do is work hard, train hard and concentrate.”
When Sobhi has been on the pitch, he has often caught the eye. After one game against Middlesbrough, his team-mate Jon Walters tweeted: “Big mention to “Ramadona” who sent a few Boro defenders home with twisted blood!”
The Egyptian enjoys the praise but refuses to get carried away. “The praise I receive makes me want to give 200%, not 100%. I will never stop dreaming.”