Arsenal Football Club has enjoyed strong support in Sweden for decades. This can in part be explained by a relatively high level of representation of Swedish players over the years. Plenty of young Swedes were enthralled by seeing players like Anders Limpar and Stefan Schwarz in that glorious red and white shirt.
Rami Shaaban was one of them, and years later he would sign with the Gunners during their perhaps most successful period. In an interview with local fan club Arsenal Göteborg’s podcast, Rami discusses the twentieth anniversary of Arsene Wenger, tells the story of how his transfer almost never happened and explains why the invincible season leaves him with mixed emotions.
Would you say playing for Arsenal was your boyhood dream?
Yes, it was. It was a crazy experience, whenever Swedish television showed a game from Highbury I noticed the camera angles were somehow different. I liked everything you got to see, not only the great football.
Yes, the cameras almost made you feel as if you were there in person.
Exactly, they were almost at the same height as the players back then.
I understand Limpar was the reason you became an Arsenal fan, but who would you single out as favourites in the squad when you were there, as well as today?
When I was in the squad a lot of players were bloody good. Henry stood out, he had a couple of amazing years when I was there. To have been there when he peaked was incredible. These days I like Peter Cech, as the goalkeeper I am. Ospina also did very well when he has been given the chance, so I’m happy with the goalkeeping situation. As I’m half-Egyptian, it was great when Elneny signed as well.
He’s a player close to my heart, I love him.
I’m surprised he has not been given more playing time, he’s been doing bloody well when given the chance.
Regarding Henry, how was he on the training ground? In games he was incredible but was he always 100% in training or did he save energy for game night?
He was obviously incredibly competitive but you can’t do one hundred percent in every training session as well as every game. Sometimes in practice he was into it, but honestly you didn’t quite know where you had him. Vieira was the same, he could be useless at the training ground but come match day you knew he would be great. In training he could almost look torpid at times but he showed you (his quality) when it mattered.
When you stood in goal during trainings and Henry would finish, did you feel inferior or did you feel like you were up to it?
My attitude was that I was always up for it. You learn as well, the most difficult finisher in the club was Nwankwo Kanu. He was completely unpredictable! Speaking of Henry, after training with him you somewhat knew the pattern of his finishing.
A low finish by the opposite post?
Pretty much. They would often end up in the goal either way.
What is your best memory of your time in the club?
It has to be signing on. There are many things, and it all went by so fast. I couldn’t believe I was there, very late in the transfer window and it almost didn’t happen. There was a lot of back and forth during the negotiations, and it was a very stressful week before it was all done.
Was it Djurgården (the selling club) that were messing about?
Well, I understand them. Arsenal is a massive club, and they figured they (Djurgården) could pay more than they wanted. At the same time they (Arsenal) are not stupid, I had done around six games in the Swedish premier division and was benched at the time and I had two months left on my contract. One day my lawyer said it was done, the next day it was off, several times. I tried playing down the expectations to those around me, and was disappointed several times. Eventually I bought myself out of my contract, because Arsenal was where I wanted to go. After all it was my favourite club, and they were good as hell at the time.
This is giving me goose bumps; it must have been stressful being so close to your favourite club.
Yes, it was unreal. Once it materialised, it became a memory I will never forget. My debut game was in the Champions League at Highbury, that was another unreal experience. It ended 0-0, and Kolo Toure was sent off in the twelfth minute.
Regarding Arsene Wenger, or the Boss as you refer to him, he is celebrating twenty years at the helm. What would you consider his three most important moments?
Number three would be signing me! Jokes aside, winning the double the year Freddie (Ljungberg) scored decisive goals in the FA Cup and in the league. The second experience is a sad one, the Champions League final in 2006. I was there, and I understand how much it meant for the club. To be within one game of all that glory, and all that it means for the manager, for the squad and for the crest itself. Had they won it, it would easily top my list.
Number one has to be the 2003/2004 season. That will never happen again, I was there and I remember the run-in so well. I was on the bench a bunch of games, and it was such a feeling. We were close in the cups as well. Losing those games probably took us through the season unbeaten, so it was well worth it.
It was hard to be on the bench every game. It was an ambition of the boss to go undefeated, it’s somewhat bittersweet for me but it was amazing. However it might also have been a factor in me not getting another contract at Arsenal, Wenger said he would like to see me play more but he couldn’t give me the chance when an undefeated season was within grasp so Lehman was in goal every game.
I understand it, I would have done the exact same thing but that is part of the reason I wasn’t allowed to showcase my skills in the last Premiership games. Looking back, when Arsenal had won the league early on, keepers like Stuart Taylor got enough games to get the medal but it was a difficult situation for me. I knew if we had lost a game I could play, maybe all the remaining games.
In your opinion, is humility a trait which Wenger looks for when he wishes to sign a new player?
I think so. I feel like it’s important to him that you respect one another. In my opinion that’s one of his strengths, every player has got to feel like a pivotal piece in the team. Even if you were number twenty-three, you felt like you were important and I believe that builds a strong group.
It felt as if you were starting to establish yourself when you unfortunately got severely injured, do you agree?
In my opinion, yes. I got the feeling I was signed to replace David Seaman, although I would not have been able to do so that year. It started well, I got playing time and I did bloody well. Then my injury happened. Seaman was on an expiring contract, and later left for Manchester City.
Of course I would have loved to play more, but you have to be realistic and I realized what he had done for Arsenal, and out of respect I had no problem granting him more playing time his last season. I stayed behind and tried lifting him up instead, I was hoping I could take that step the following season.
You have given a picture of a great team spirit, who was the most fun to be around and who did you spend the most time with?
My first time I lived in a hotel, and Gilberto Silva had also just arrived. We spent a lot of time together at the hotel. After that it almost automatically happened that me and Fredrik (Ljungberg) were hanging out. We lived in the same area, and as time went we became closer. The biggest characters around the dressing room were Ray Parlour and Dennis Bergkamp for sure. Me, Fredrik, Pires, Vieira and Henry all lived in the same area so every now and then we would meet at a local café. I ran into Pires the last time I was in London, and we had breakfast together.
Who was the biggest talent outside the senior squad?
That has to be Fabregas. I think he was 15 or 16 when I arrived, we played together a bit in the B-side. He was timid but great on the ball and he kept developing rapidly. He didn’t have a dominant feature other than perhaps passing, but he was already very rounded and complete as a player. Comfortable on the ball and wise despite his youth.
When you go to Arsenal games, what is the reception like?
I don’t go to the pub, I stay behind the scenes a bit. I’ll go and say hi to a few people, all the players have left but some of the staff is still there. Fantastic people, that’s another thing for which Wenger deserves credit – people enjoy working there and they have a player’s lounge where former players can meet. We still have a lot to learn in Sweden.
To round it off, will the Arsenal win the league this season?
I think so, I’m an optimist!
This has been an excerpt from a longer interview conducted by Filip Tolf and Tobias Johannison, with certain questions sent in by listeners.
It was summated and translated by Theodor Landén for Arsenal Göteborg. We can be contacted on Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org, we watch every game together and are always happy to welcome Gooners passing by our rainy town.