Ahead of Egypt's decisive CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Tanzania in June, much of the headlines were not about the Pharaohs' chances of qualifying for the finals in Gabon, but about a teenager who was not making the trip to Dar Es Salaam.
As Ramadan Sobhi, who plays as a winger but can also operate as a classic playmaker or deep-lying forward, was writing school exams he could not travel with the team. The fans' displeasure at him not being able accompany the team to Tanzania speaks volumes about how the 19-year-old has become indispensable for the Pharaohs, even though he has just a handful of caps to his name.
Those few appearances and his sparkling form with Cairo giants Al Ahly have marked him not only as an up-and-coming starlet, but a player with the knack to win matches. That was on full display in March as he helped Egypt qualify for their first AFCON since winning the tournament in 2010. With Egypt 1-0 down in a crucial qualifier in Nigeria, Sobhi was introduced 15 minutes from time and it was his astute defence-splitting pass that allowed Mohamed Salah to notch a crucial equaliser in stoppage time. Four days later he was in fabulous form and scored the only goal of the match in the home leg against the Super Eagles to knock the west Africans out of the running.
Former Tottenham Hotspur striker Mido, now a football coach and pundit, was the last Egyptian player to garner similar attention at such an early stage of his career, having made his senior team debut at the age of 17. It is a mark of his maturity that Sobhi brushes off talk of Egyptian supporters' high expectations.
“I actually don’t feel under any pressure. I’m never worried when I step onto the pitch,” Sobhi, who made his first international appearance in Egypt’s 3-0 victory over Tanzania in their opening Nations Cup qualifier in June last year, told FIFA.com in a recent interview. “The only thing I feel is that I’m shouldering a big responsibility of helping my team win. But, thanks to God, no pressure affects me.”
A team that wants to reach the World Cup must be prepared to play against any opponent.
Sobhi’s words are mirrored on the pitch, with his assured displays making him one of Egypt’s key players as they also seek to qualify for the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time since 1990. “It’s normal for any side to experience a decline in form after a period of huge success. But I’m sure we can win the Nations Cup and qualify for the World Cup, and the current group is mainly made up of youngsters who are hungry for success. It doesn't matter which teams will be drawn with us in the World Cup qualifiers; a team that wants to reach the World Cup must be prepared to play against any opponent.”
A Red Devil for now
Sobhi's talent was nurtured at Ahly and he has quickly become the darling of their fans. He was in the side that won the league in 2014, having been promoted to much anticipation after videos emerged of him tormenting defenders in the youth divisions, drawing comparisons with club great Mohamed Aboutrika.
“I used to skip past challengers in one-on-ones in youth matches, but this aspect of my game has notably improved after I played for the first team," Sobhi said. "In the past, I used to take it too far by trying to sidestep more than one defender and the end result was that I lost possession.”
Sobhi is also aiming to help Ahly return to glory in the CAF Champions League, which they have not won since 2013. He has words of praise for Dutch coach Martin Jol who has helped the team open up a convincing lead over Zamalek since he took over in February as the Red Devils moved within touching distance of reclaiming the domestic league title. “Jol’s treatment of the players has been impressive. In addition to his tactical work which is evident in how the team have become devastating in attack, he is also a lovable man who creates a great atmosphere in the dressing room.”
Talk is that Sobhi may not be there when Ahly try to win a record-extending ninth Champions League trophy, as a number of potential European suitors are looking at him during the summer transfer window. The talented winger is hoping to carve out a successful career overseas to follow in the footsteps of AS Roma’s Mohamed Salah and Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny.
“I don’t have preferences," he added. "It doesn’t really matter if it’s a big or a small club, I’m eager to fulfil my ambition in Europe."