Playing on the streets as a kid in Ethiopia, Yohanes Zewdu dreamed he could become a famous soccer player. He believed it was possible. He prayed for it. He was dedicated. But there was a problem.
"There we didn't have an actual soccer ball," he said. "Where I'm from, you buy milk in a plastic bag. And then we would find trash and other stuff -- whatever you can find. Paper or socks. And you stuff it in there and you make a soccer ball. That's how I would spend my days." For Zewdu, it wasn't much of an issue. Not at the time. It was all he knew and he loved to play.
After moving to the United States when he was 10, that playing career never took off. He played into high school in Las Vegas before reality finally caught up with him. His eventual career path, though, might be more unlikely than had his original dream come true. Over the past decade, Zewdu has transformed himself into someone else: Johnny Vegas. A concierge, a lifestyle manager, a guy high-profile soccer players go to when they're looking to have a good time.
Need a yacht? Call Johnny. Need a hotel suite? Text Johnny. Need a dinner reservation? Hit up Johnny on WhatsApp.
When he started working as a valet attendant at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, there would have been no way to predict that job would lead him to where he is now: living in Dubai, running his own business catering to the rich and famous and gearing up for the World Cup.
Zewdu recalls with vivid clarity the day he first set foot in the United States. The move was made possible through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which uses a lottery to make 50,000 Permanent Resident Cards available for people all over the world who meet criteria involving education and work experience. His dad, who had left Ethiopia to study chemical engineering in Russia, qualified and was among the roughly 5,000 people from Ethiopia selected that year.
"I remember driving from LAX to Las Vegas and seeing all the cars on the freeways," Zewdu said. "It didn't matter what I saw, it was a big deal. That moment I will never forget because it was surreal for me. I had never been in this type of amazing opportunity that was out there when we got to Las Vegas."
It was hard at first because he didn't speak English, but as he learned the language, it became easier to adapt. Sports helped. There was soccer, of course, and basketball, too, but as it became clear his professional soccer aspirations weren't going to materialize, he started thinking about what else he could do. He studied aviation in community college, then branched into other subjects at UNLV. Nothing really stuck.
"It was good for the family, it was good for my mom and my dad to see me in college and school," he said. "But for me, mentally, it wasn't really sitting down for me. So, I went into the casino business. That's where I realized I really liked to engage with people."
It was a seductive scene. One day there's Michael Jordan, the next it's Leonardo DiCaprio. Some of the wealthiest and most famous people in the world would come and go, and here was Zewdu taking it all in up close, not too far removed from the days spent kicking a makeshift soccer ball on the streets of Ethiopia.
A chance encounter changed everything. Zewdu heard a man speaking French near the valet stand and approached him with a cheerful, "Bonjour." When the man responded in rapid French, Zewdu had to stop him, "I'm sorry, man, I don't speak French. But Franck Ribery is my favorite player."
The man got excited. He opened up his phone to show Zewdu pictures of him and Ribery. They were close. He promised that when he visited Las Vegas the following year, he would bring a signed Ribery shirt. The sentiment was nice, Zewdu thought, but he didn't expect him to follow through. A year later, Zewdu was working at the Aria Resort and Casino when the man showed up at the end of his shift, unannounced. He had asked around to find Zewdu and came bearing gifts.
"That right there showed me something," Zewdu said. "It changed something in my life because I saw someone hold their promise, hold their words." To show his appreciation, Zewdu told the man he would get him a comped room. He didn't have the authority to do that, so he paid for the room out of his own pocket. Impressed by this young valet, the man made another promise: "Give me two weeks. I'll have another surprise for you."
Zewdu was sitting at home, drinking tea and watching Oprah with his mom when the phone rang. He was going to let it go to voicemail and only picked up upon his mom's insistence. On the other end of the line: French international and then-Arsenal midfielder Samir Nasri. It took Zewdu a moment to process what was happening, but he collected himself in time to understand that Nasri was looking for some help navigating Las Vegas and was under the impression that he could help.
"That was the moment that led to my company becoming what it is today," he said. "He was my first client. I made that happen for him in Vegas. And that was it. Then it became a domino effect. He told his friends. Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and so on."
That's when he became Johnny Vegas.
On his first trip to Las Vegas, former Netherlands international Ryan Babel took a liking to Zewdu right away. Having broken into the Ajax first team at 17 and soon after securing a high-profile move to Liverpool, Babel was accustomed to star treatment. But in Vegas, he was a bit of a fish out of water; Zewdu assured him it wouldn't be a problem.
"It was something about his kindness and him being genuine to make sure that I would have a great time," Babel said. "It ended up being a great first Las Vegas experience, partly due to his help and recommendations of where to go. Then we stayed in touch."
That cycle continued for a few years. Zewdu kept working at various casinos while he grew his own company, Kloudout, and expanded his client base. Babel would later introduce Zewdu to a Los Angeles-based promoter, who introduced him to United States international DeAndre Yedlin. This, Zewdu said, was another pivotal moment.
"[Yedlin] invites me to go to Newcastle. I stay at his house, we drive to the stadium together," he said. "I'm there as a regular guest on holidays. I take care of him and his family, so on and so forth." Through Yedlin, he met several other Newcastle players and was exposed to the world of luxury holidays in Europe. It was in Ibiza, Spain, with Moroccan international Achraf Lazaar, Zewdu said, where he concluded that he needed to move across the Atlantic and try to take Kloudout in a new direction.
In Las Vegas, Kloudout was designed primarily for hotel booking, but that wasn't his sweet spot. He had become more of a luxury concierge and saw the opportunity to break into the world of lifestyle management, offering similar services as a concierge would, though not just limited to vacations.
Leaving Vegas was a risk. The main advantage was that he had local knowledge and relationships, especially after working in the casino industry for a few years. The drawback was that most of the relationships he had developed were with soccer players, whose long seasons provided short windows and limited opportunities to visit. Most of those guys wouldn't need the same help in Europe, either.
It was that process of elimination that led Johnny Vegas to Dubai. It was easily accessible from Europe, a booming holiday destination and a place where his Vegas experience would be an asset. "I was nervous to go there, but when I really arrived, I was like, 'Wow, where am I?'" Zewdu said. "It was a mix of New York and Las Vegas and Miami and LA. It's all smushed in one city."
Part of Zewdu's job is problem solving. Often on the fly. On a different trip to Ibiza, a wealthy client enlisted him to rent a yacht to throw a party. The one he secured was big -- just not big enough to host the amount of people the client wanted to take aboard. They rolled the dice and set out with about 10 too many people, risking large fines from local authorities and a potentially problematic situation for the charter company.
Things were running smoothly until the boat broke down. They needed to call for help to get back to shore, which would trigger a visit from a police boat. It was clear they were over capacity and while that might not necessarily seem like a major problem, Zewdu had relationships to maintain and had to think about future business opportunities that could be impacted.
"I was scrambling to try to figure out how to get everybody out so we wouldn't get in trouble," he said. "So I was able to get a helicopter to come and swoop some people out of there. Instead of leaving, [about a handful] people just got into the helicopter and it was hovering. They're partying from the top and other people are partying from the bottom. So it became this insane, unrealistic situation where the helicopter kept hovering and everybody is just going crazy."
As word came that the police were on their way, the helicopter left the scene and a few others went into hiding on the yacht. "You're in a position, as a concierge, where you have to think outside of the box for how to fix a situation where you are in and these type of unfortunate circumstances," he said. "I think that's one of the most craziest experiences that I have had, where I almost had a heart attack."
Former France international Bacary Sagna first met Zewdu through Nasri after an Arsenal game. "He was in the family room, so when I went to see my family I got introduced to him," Sagna said. "The relationship was good right way. I think we are quite alike. He has a very positive soul and he's always happy, always smiling, giving out good energy. It's a genuine energy, which is important to me with the people I surround myself with."
Sagna wasn't a client right away, but after Zewdu moved to Dubai, the two linked up. Whenever Sagna asked for Zewdu to arrange something, he's delivered, and the two have grown close -- to the point Sagna refers to him as his little brother.
"He knows many sportsmen and many businessmen, but what amazes me the most is the respect they've got for him," Sagna said. "Because he's from Las Vegas. He's a little kid that managed to get trust from the biggest businessmen. When you see this and when you see how much I respect him, it talks for itself."
When United States and Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie visited Dubai in 2021, Johnny Vegas was his man on the ground, too. "He had never been to Dubai before and we pretty much did everything for him, A-to-Z," Zewdu said. "We took him to a private zoo, where we were able to see tigers, lions, these other exotic animals. We took him to the desert. We took him on a yacht and showed him what the Middle East and Dubai is all about."
Johnny Vegas' Instagram feed is a carefully curated collection of photos depicting a lavish lifestyle that Kloudout seeks to offer. There is Johnny in Dubai. Here he is in Spain. Los Angeles. Las Vegas. More recently, in Doha, Qatar, as ahead of the World Cup, Zewdu is hoping to capitalize on Dubai's proximity. They're about 45 minutes apart by plane. For months, he said he's been working on travel and entertainment accommodations in the region for all types of clientele.
"You have two types," he said. "You have people who just want luxury. To stay in Dubai, fly a private jet in and out for games. And then you have the football fans that really want to be part of the atmosphere, ambience and where their teams are training. If you are an American, we are here on the ground in Doha or Dubai. We are here to help. Like a navigation and information desk. We really want to bridge the gap between the American culture and this culture."
Zewdu's relationships have what made Kloudout run. It was his expedience, his attention to detail and, most importantly, his personality that allowed it to exist. For it to grow beyond its niche, it will again test the 35-year-old's business savvy.
"I've been visiting the United States for over a decade, and I have the feeling that in the United States, if you wanna be successful, you need to kind of also be an a--hole," Babel said. "A little bit coldhearted. I feel like the nice people they get run over. At least, that's the vibe, the energy that I get a lot of there. But when you look at Johnny, he was able to keep being genuine and trying to do good business and fair business with people."
"For me, he's the exact same person in terms of energy compared to when I first met him and today. I've seen the growth and normally with growth and success, it's very human being to change a little bit and to forget how you started up or to forget where you came from. I don't have that feeling with Johnny at all."
Today, few, if anyone, refer to Zewdu by his real name. One U.S.-based agent told ESPN he had never heard of Yohanes Zewdu. How about Johnny Vegas? "Oh, yeah. I know Johnny."