Rami Shaaban: From a broken leg at Arsenal to the 2006 World Cup
“That has been my career the whole time; so many ups and downs,” says Rami Shaaban. And after listening for over an hour as he vividly discusses it, with all its twists and turns, you can’t help but feel that is a considerable understatement.
From the Swedish fourth tier to training sessions in front of thousands of riotous fans in Egypt. From the Djurgarden bench to Champions League and North London Derby glory. From a double leg break and a year out of the game to starting for his nation at a World Cup.
Ups and downs? You’d better believe it.
The period of Shaaban’s career that best encapsulated that rollercoaster were the months leading up to Christmas Eve in 2002.
Shaaban was in his first season at Arsenal after signing from Djurgarden and was walking on air. An injury to David Seaman had seen him play three times in the Premier League and twice in Europe.
His mother had come to visit him for Christmas and, as is tradition in Sweden, was preparing Christmas dinner for that night.
He went to training as usual. “We had a small game and Dennis Bergkamp tried to lob me,” Shaaban says. “So I went backwards and tipped the ball on the crossbar.”
Shaaban, on his back, saw the ball bounce down and attempted to kick it. So did Martin Keown. “I managed to kick the ball and he managed to kick my leg. I heard a bang, but I didn’t feel any pain. My leg went numb. You know when you sleep on your arm? The sensation of the leg was like that.”
Keown jogged away, oblivious to what he had done. But others came rushing over. Then came the doctor and long-time club physio Gary Lewin. Not only had Shaaban’s right tibia and fibula been snapped, but the nerves were severed too.
In the ambulance, Shaaban phoned his mother to explain what had happened. But, he says: “She didn’t believe me. I think I said it to her like seven times. She still didn’t believe me because I was in no pain. Then finally she understood.
“I had the surgery the same night. And the players came to visit me which was nice. And then I struggled for a while.”
Again, an understatement. And we will come to why later.
Shaaban, who now owns a company that imports fruit and vegetables from Egypt to Sweden, had signed for Arsenal in August 2002, completing a rise as vertiginous as it was unlikely.
Even becoming a professional football had seemed a distant prospect for much of the then 26-year-old’s life.
Born to a Finnish mother and Egyptian father on the outskirts of Stockholm, Shaaban had grown up playing football, but not taking it entirely seriously.
He was never in an academy. He played ice hockey in the winter and dabbled in basketball too.
At 19, he was conscripted into the Swedish army, where he was placed in the Athletic Platoon. Again, football was not the focus. He played bandy, an ice hockey-like game played with a ball not a puck: “We had [bandy] practice for two hours every day and then we went out shooting.”
He still managed to keep goal for the amateur B team of second-tier football club Nacka FF, but once his year of national service came to an end, he was thinking of quitting football.
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“My parents got divorced when I was 15 and my father moved to Egypt,” he recalls. “I made my decision to go and study economics at the American University [in Cairo].
“I arrived in June  and there were no lectures. So a month passed, and, like everything in life, when you don’t have it, you miss it. That was the case with me and football.”
He decided to pick it up again. Fortunately, he had a way in. Shaaban’s paternal grandfather had been president of Zamalek, one of the superpowers of African football. Soon, he began training daily with Zamalek’s Under-21s.
“It was so hard,” he says. “The facilities were very poor. I hurt myself everywhere. Elbows, hips. [It was a] totally different style of training. But I adapted.”
Three months later, he was training with the first team in front of the club’s fiery supporters. “Every day, five, six thousand at practice. They sang and cheered and maybe if you weren’t doing so good in the game before, you’d get stick.”
His degree had gone out of the window. Yet with two Egypt international goalkeepers ahead of him, Shaaban quickly realised he would not play at Zamalek.
He moved to a smaller club and made his top-flight debut. But, unprepared mentally, he struggled. The environment was unforgiving: “In Sweden, it’s, ‘Better luck next time.’ There, it was, ‘What the hell are you doing? You’re useless.’”
At one of his many lows, he decided to move back to the land of his birth. Nacka FF were looking for a keeper, and the coach, Soren Akeby, knew and liked Shaaban.
“That’s when I realized all the training I had done in Egypt [paid off],” Shaaban says. “I grew as a person and as a player.”
He quickly established himself at Nacka, then followed Akeby to Djurgarden, a bigger Stockholm-based club that had fallen into the second tier. Together, they helped Djurgarden back to the top flight, beating a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his Malmo side on the way.
A high. Of course a lull was to come. Djurgarden signed a teenage Andreas Isaksson from Juventus. Shaaban was relegated to the bench. For a year and a half, he watched, biding his time and training as best he could.
But Isaksson went to the 2002 World Cup as Sweden’s third-choice ‘keeper and when he returned, short of match practice, his form suffered.
Shaaban was thrown in: “It was a derby against Hammarby. And at that time football was so hot in Sweden. The stadium was packed.
“We won the game. I did well… It was fantastic time, I played very well for five, six games. Then suddenly, from nowhere, [Akeby] comes to me, ‘Rami, there is a big club in England that are interested in you.’”
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Not any big club, the one Shaaban supported as a boy, when he’d sat glued to his television set as Anders Limpar jinked up the Highbury wing.
After a UEFA Cup qualifier with Shamrock Rovers, Shaaban flew to London for a two-day trial. “The welcome I got was fantastic, from David Seaman and Stuart Taylor,” he smiles. “I had dinner at Sopwell House with Gilberto Silva. A very nice person, humble.”
Negotiations between Djurgarden and Arsenal were tense, Djurgarden requesting a substantial fee. Eventually, a deal was done. “The scout for Scandinavia at Arsenal was Steve Bennett,” Shaaban says. “I met him when I signed and asked him, ‘How come they picked me?’
“I mean, I played five, six games. I was on the bench for a year and a half. He said, ‘Rami, I have followed you since you played in the second division. I’ve seen that you can adapt. I see that you never complain. And you can handle big-pressure games.’”
Shaaban had made it. “I must have been the worst paid at [Arsenal],” he says. But for the first time, he was a full-time footballer.
Even at Djurgarden, he had kept working for an electricity company. “I wanted to have a backup if football doesn’t [work out],” he says.
He no longer needed a second option. Arsene Wenger made it clear that he and Taylor were in competition for the second-choice goalkeeper spot. And when Seaman was injured in early November, Shaaban was given the nod.
Five months on from sitting on the Djurgarden bench, he kept a clean sheet against PSV at Highbury.
Four days later, it got even better: “My Premier League debut was against Tottenham at home. It was a perfect day, sunny. We were really on our peak, every one of us. I don’t think Tottenham had beaten us in 20 years. Even in the tunnel I felt we were going to win it.”
They did, 3-0, led by their talisman Thierry Henry, who picked the ball up in his own half with 13 minutes gone and proceeded to score one of the great North London Derby goals.
“And then [Henry] is running towards me, the whole pitch and sliding on his knees towards the Tottenham fans,” Shaaban says. “That [celebration] became a statue.
“I was like, ‘Should I slide to him, or hug him?’ It was an awkward feeling. So I just tapped him on his shoulder.”
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Next came Roma at the Stadio Olimpico. Shaaban was under the impression Seaman was back. “Before the team meeting, I said to David Seaman, ‘Good luck.’ He said, ‘I’m not playing.’ I said, ‘What?’”
Again, Shaaban was in ahead of Taylor: “I was so nervous. I wasn’t prepared. Roma’s offensive line at that time was Totti, Batistuta, Montella, Cassano. But luckily, we had Thierry Henry.”
“We were 1-0 down after five minutes. Then Thierry scored a hat-trick. Amazing. We were so happy going back to London that night.”
Yet Shaaban’s joy would be brutally shattered in that freak incident with Keown a month later.
He was positive at first. He still thought he could be Seaman’s long-term replacement as No.1. But, he says, “The hard part was in the spring when David Seaman got injured again and I was with crutches.”
“Stuart Taylor was playing, Valencia away. I realized if I would have been fit, I would have been playing.”
Seaman left and Jens Lehmann arrived, slotting perfectly into the team. Goalkeeping coach Bob Wilson also made way for Gerry Peyton and the atmosphere on the training ground changed.
Off the pitch, Lehmann was “really nice”, Shaaban says: “I liked Jens a lot, but in practice he was difficult. He demanded a lot [of everyone]. He would shout at Sol Campbell, he would shout at the Under-19 player. You knew what you get.”
That, he could handle. Peyton was another matter. “Gerry Peyton was very good with the [goalkeeper] who was playing, but not that good with the others.”
It affected him and he believes it affected Arsenal in subsequent years: “It’s a price I think you had to pay when Jens didn’t play in the first team, when [Manuel] Almunia was playing. They had issues. And I think that’s a lot about who the goalkeeping coach is as well.”
Shaaban suffered injury setbacks and didn’t play a minute all season. Come summer 2004, he was released.
He spent almost a year out of the game, training in Freddie Ljungberg’s gym. Shaaban also went through a divorce and his ex-wife and son returned to Sweden.
Eventually, in March 2005, he picked up a very short contract with Brighton, before moving to Norway to play for Fredrikstad in early 2006.
It was a step down, but it proved the fillip he needed. So good was his form that by June, he was in Sweden’s World Cup squad.
“I made my debut for 45 minutes against Finland two weeks before the World Cup,” he says. Then his old team-mate Isaksson suffered a concussion and he was starting in Sweden’s 0-0 draw with Trinidad and Tobago in the opening game of Group B.
“We should have won it 5-0,” he says. “Shaka Hislop played the game of his lifetime. It was a strange feeling as well because my mom and son were in the stands, I had a clean clean sheet, but we were so upset in the dressing room.
“For me, it was like, ‘I’m back.’ It was the same as with Arsenal. Who would have thought I would play in the World Cup after my last years?”
After Shaaban played in a 1-0 win over Paraguay and a 2-2 draw with England, Sweden were outclassed by Germany in the round of 16 with Isaksson back in goal. But Shaaban had reached the top, representing his nation on football’s greatest stage.
Another injury finally ended his career two years later and he has since used his connections in Egypt to found his current import venture.
Yet when looking at the level he managed to return to after leaving Arsenal, one cannot help but wonder what Shaaban might have achieved in north London were it not for that injury.
Shaaban doesn’t seem to concern himself with what might have been, though: “A lot of people tell me, ‘Oh, you were so unlucky.’
“I see it differently. I see that it was one of the best clubs in the world, with the best doctors, with the best facilities. If it was going to happen to me, this is best place to be. And that was my mindset all the time.”
It’s a mindset that has served him well.
By Joshua Law