‘Building bridges for rising stars.’
Anywhere he looks at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, Ramy Rabia will see this tournament slogan. He might be forgiven for wondering whether it applies to him. After all, the Egypt captain has already forced his way into the senior national team and become a highly rated regular with Cairo giants Al Ahly, winning the national title, the CAF Champions League and competing in the FIFA Club World Cup. Who needs a bridge built when you’ve already arrived?
But this is not the way Rabia sees it. While two successive defeats at Turkey 2013 have dented his morale, the 20-year-old’s performances for club and country have established him as one of the hottest properties in African football, leading to media speculation linking this “wonder-kid” with moves to the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea, Lille, Manchester United and Schalke.
While proud to wear the colours of Ahly, his hometown team and arguably the biggest club in Africa, Rabia does have a dream. The 20-year-old has become infatuated by the English Premier League; by its history, its famous clubs and its fast, physical style of play that fits his own attributes to a tee. England, he told FIFA.com, is where he wants his bridge to lead.
“The English league is definitely my favourite,” he said. “I don’t have a particular team I support but I love watching all the great sides: Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United. That’s the kind of football I love and my hope is definitely to play there at one stage in my career. It’s my dream, and I think it’s the kind of league that would suit me.
"Some English clubs have been mentioned as being interested in me, and I know Arsene Wenger said some nice things about my performances for Al Ahly at the Club World Cup. I don’t know what will come of that but I know I need to do well here and show everyone that I am a good player.”
There would, of course, be no better opportunity to impress an English audience than when Rabia and his Egypt team-mates go up against the Three Lions on Saturday in their final Group E fixture. Highlighting his own attributes has, however, become the least of the big centre-half’s concerns after Iraq inflicted Egypt’s second 2-1 defeat in as many matches. That result, allied to England’s failure to win either of their two matches, has added a win-at-all-costs element to the sides’ looming showdown. The Pharaoh’s coach, Rabie Yassin, knows that the task facing his side could hardly be any more stark.
“We need to win - that is our only option,” he said. “The defeat to Iraq was a big disappointment; I take full responsibility and apologise to the Egyptian people. We haven’t changed anything from the team that won the African Championship and I don’t think we’ve played too badly, but this is the nature of football: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But, again, I ask that people blame me and not the players. They are young and have their futures ahead, so we must look to find excuses for them.”
This gesture might have been gracious, but allowing his coach to shoulder the burden of responsibility was never likely to sit comfortably with Rabia. As captain, he readily accepts his own share of blame and, moreover, is desperate to repay Yassin for handing him the armband in the first place.
“It’s a very big responsibility for me to be captain and a very big honour too,” he said. “I really appreciate the coach putting this faith in me, especially because I missed all of the friendly matches and the preparation work before this tournament due to an injury. I only came back a few days before our first game, so I didn’t expect this honour and I know I owe the coach a lot. As captain, I have been trying to speak to the players and build their confidence back up because I can see that some of them have been nervous about playing in a World Cup.
“We all know we should have done a lot better. But the most important thing for us now is to win and give the Egypt fans something to cheer, because their support for us here in Turkey has been great. The players are all hurt by what has happened but we have looked closely at our mistakes and everyone is determined to turn things around. We still believe we can do something.”