Introducing, Omar Abdulrahman – The Fresh Prince of Asian Football

January 2015, it’s the AFC Asian Cup quarter-finals and Japan are playing the United Arab Emirates. The match was poised at one goal apiece, and penalties were set to be the decider. For the UAE, this was already their best performance in the competition since 1996, when, as hosts, they finished as runners-up, losing to neighbours Saudi Arabia, so the players on the night knew no matter how this night ended, they had already become history-makers back home.

Some would say the Emiratis were lucky to be able to take the game to a shoot-out, and they could be justified. Japan were wasteful with their chances, while the UAE didn’t show the attacking prowess that had carried them so far in the tournament. Nevertheless, it was going to penalties to decide who would enter the last four of the competition and to determine the legacies of some of the players left on the pitch. Amidst a hostile crowd in Sydney, Keisuke Honda stepped up, but his horrible night was completed with a poor penalty that blazed well over the crossbar. With the advantage in the hands of the UAE, up stepped Middle Eastern football’s poster boy, Omar Abdulrahman.

As his five-foot, eight-inch structure stepped up to the spot, he never looked confident. Constantly looking up and down, first staring at the top row at the stadium and then at the imposing Eiji Kawashima in goal, this penalty seemed certain to be just as bad the one that preceded his. Now in the box, he put the ball down on the spot, pecking a kiss at it, carelessly listened to the referee’s instructions and took five steps back with a face that had uncertainty written all over it. One stare at the goalkeeper and after that came one of the calmest yet most dominating skills in football – a cheeky, albeit expertly conducted, Panenka to dazzle the watching world.

For a man that stepped up with seemingly the least bit of confidence, to pull off something as perilous as this would never have been expected. His mannerisms said this was going to Row Z, but his feet never quite understood the same language. The goal gave the UAE the lead and they carried on from there, despite a scare along the way. Shinji Kagawa’s miss in a sudden-death situation gave Salam Shaker the incentive to go on and finish the night, and he did. The UAE’s fairy-tale would have another chapter to it.

The Middle Eastern country would later lose to hosts and eventual winners Australia in convincing fashion in the semi-final, but to some consolation, beat Iraq to finish third in the competition. Amongst the Team of the Tournament was Omar Abdulrahman and for scouts and coaches the world over, this was an open invitation for them to be left impressed. A player many had touted to be seen on international television week in and week out had just bewildered at a major international tournament for his country and could represent the Middle East on the biggest stages in Europe.

However, it’s been over two years since that tournament and the question still begs: why hasn’t Amoory, as they call him in the UAE, played in Europe yet? On the face of it, a player of his skill and immense technical ability, he should have been at the heart of any midfield, playing regular Champions League football, but the story goes even deeper. Football has reached a point where it is almost mandatory for any player to prove himself in the top leagues in Europe to be taken seriously, or to be regarded as a top-level talent, but has always either rejected a move himself or has had his club reject it to be successful with their own ambitions.

It is unclear how much he earns at his current club, Al Ain, but it is for sure that he earns a lot more lucratively than he would at any club in Europe. His decision to avoid moving far west is understandable – he is the poster boy of the region, the man on every billboard in the UAE and he has everything that his personal life would require: his own people, his own language and, most importantly, his own amenities. Middle Eastern footballers haven’t had the best time when moving abroad, with Oman’s Ali Al-Habsi being arguably the only prominent figure to have enjoyed relative success in the region, so Abdulrahman is possibly playing it safe and keeping his feet where they are best rooted.

And then there’s his club’s unwillingness to sell as well, which prevents his move abroad. Most recently, it was French club Nice who were interested in him, offering a one-year loan deal with an option to buy at the end of that spell. A move there would have given him the chance to play Champions League football for the upcoming season and the chance to team up with some of the finest talents in France including Jean-Michaël Seri, Dante and a certain, combustible Mario Balotelli, but the offer was rejected due to his club’s poor position last season in the Arabian Gulf League – the top tier in the UAE – and the fact that they were in the middle of an AFC Champions League campaign.

There is no doubt that Amoory has what it takes to make it as a top-level professional, his peers have admired him for years and his quality is such that he has barely had a poor, inconsistent spell with Al Ain. Some of the modern greats in football including Xavi and Ryan Giggs have vouched for his talent and for the sake of Arabian football, Abdulrahman should make a move to Europe. His transfer would create a pathway of opportunities not only for those in the UAE but for the rest of Asia as well and if it’s not on a high already, it would take his image to the highest possible limit and enhance his reputation in the Middle East.

“It is important for him, for Arab players, for the country also, to play abroad, in the future, to be a competitive country, yes it’s good for them. Omar can be a pioneer and make it easier for others to follow.”

– Xavi.

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For Abdulrahman, the biggest stage seems to add no pressure on him. He first made his mark in Manchester at the Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford. It was the Summer Olympics and the UAE were playing an Uruguay side consisting of Edinson Cavani, Gastón Ramírez and a thoroughly jeered Luis Suárez. The South Americans sealed a narrow 2-1 win that afternoon, but it wasn’t any of their superstars that caught the eye, it was indeed Omar Abdulrahman, who stole the show with flashes of brilliance and unlike Suárez, was given a more rousing reception whenever he had the ball at his feet. His fizzy hair was donning the number 15 shirt, and while everyone anticipated the number 10, Ismail Matar, the former golden boy of the UAE, to be the standout player for the Emiratis, they were left astounded by the unexpected hero of that afternoon.

A thoroughly exceptional performance that day saw him play a huge part in the UAE goal as his delightful pass from the halfway line using the outside of his wand of a left boot created a huge chance for Matar to give UAE the lead, which the captain neatly tucked away. He carved out several finer opportunities for his teammates and was the prime playmaker on the afternoon, but unfortunately, Uruguay’s star power got the better of the Arabian minnows on the day. The most reputed player on the pitch and the pantomime villain of Old Trafford, Luis Suárez, appreciated the efforts put in by Abdulrahman so much so that he offered to trade shirts with him at full-time – a distinct and very well-deserved gesture from one of the world’s best footballers.

Amoory took centre stage once again in the next game against hosts Great Britain at the historic Wembley Stadium in the capital, this time coming up against the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Craig Bellamy and Ryan Giggs. However, another valiant effort amidst an enthusiastic London crowd ended in defeat and this time it was Giggs who went over to the UAE locker room to have a chat with the man himself. The two opening defeats ended the country’s chances of progression even with a game against Senegal left to play, but in the group of death, such a result was expected. Despite that, Omar Abdulrahman probably gained more than he lost – the attention of international crowds and the appreciation of some of his more esteemed fellow professionals.

“The number 15 (Abdulrahman) is a very good player who plays beautiful football. He’ll be one of those players we should keep an eye on in the future.”

– Micah Richards, Team GB, Summer Olympics 2012.

Following the Olympic Games, Abdulrahman had a trial with Manchester City – the club run by the royals of Abu Dhabi, but it is unclear whether it was work permit issues that blocked the deal or his personal preference to remain in the UAE and develop. A year after that, a loan deal with Portuguese giants Benfica was in place, but, this time, it was refused by the player himself.

And while the offers kept on piling up for him, he kept his feet on the ground and continued to excel in the UAE. His club, Al Ain – the most successful in the country – have enjoyed his services and since 2008, have won three league titles, two President’s Cups and reached the AFC Champions League Final in 2016, losing to South Korean side Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors over two legs. 2016 was arguably the best year of his career. His side’s progress in the continental competition earned him the AFC Asian Player of the Year honour, given to the best player playing within the confederation at the time and if they hadn’t already, fans around the continent gave Abdulrahman the respect he deserved and his consistent performances were praised by them and pundits alike.

It was evident that Asia had the player they never quite had before. The continent is famous for developing aggressive midfielders and ball winners like Park Ji-Sung who was often the engine of the Manchester United midfield or attacking players with flair to settle a game – Son Heung-Min is a recent example after his sensational goal-laden campaign with Tottenham Hotspur. Over the years, Mat Ryan and Zhang Linpeng have developed into supreme footballers in goal and in defense respectively, but Abdulrahman is the most talented fantasista of this generation and only Hidetoshi Nakata from yesteryear comes to mind when discussing artistic qualities in that particular position. it’s very rare that the continent has a player of his quality and by staying there, he is building a legacy that will be quite difficult to overtake.

His brand image and the attention he receives can be matched by no other player in the UAE’s history. As mentioned, he is the face on several huge posters locally, but he is also now celebrated internationally.

Omar Abdulrahman with Neymar

Amoory holds major endorsements with international sportswear company Nike and was on the global cover of Konami’s popular football video game Pro Evolution Soccer for its 2016 edition alongside Neymar.

“I’m so proud of him and proud he is the best player in Asia, because he’s my player and part of my team, which means my team was great also. He played very well for the national team, he was my captain and won eight man-of-the-match awards in Asia. A special player, a great player. I’m glad to have him.”

– Former Al Ain manager Zlatko Dalić on Omar Abdulrahman’s AFC Asian Footballer of the Year success.

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The numbers behind his success are as good as it gets. His 204 Al Ain appearances in all competitions have seen him bag 55 goals and 101 assists and since his senior debut for the club in the 2008-09 season, he’s gone on to win nine trophies which is an average of a trophy per season. This has been one of the most successful phases of the club’s history and Abdulrahman has been central to the rise, while at the same time, he’s handled himself well with the national team. The Riyadh-born player made his senior debut in 2011 and has over 50 caps to his name – a fine record considering he is just 25 years of age. Perhaps his biggest success came with his country in 2013 when the UAE won the Gulf Cup of Nations – a bi-annual tournament held between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Rather unsurprisingly, Abdulrahman was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player and he scored the opener in a 2-1 extra-time win in the final.

A large chunk of Abdulrahman’s repertoire has been established by his performances for the national team. In a World Cup qualifier against Malaysia in 2015, he racked up six assists in a mammoth 10-0 win for his country. Although Malaysia aren’t amongst the higher order of footballing nations in Asia, successfully creating six goal scoring chances and running the midfield and attacking line as he did that day is no easy task. And in May 2017, in one of his best performances donning the purple of Al Ain, he propelled them to a 6-1 win over Iran’s Esteghlal, in the AFC Champions League scoring twice to become the competition’s top scorer that season and setting up one other to overturn a 1-0 deficit and add Al Ain’s name in the mix for the quarter finals as they gear up look to win the biggest tournament in Asia for the first time since 2003.

For Omar Abdulrahman, it has always been a case of when rather than if he will play in Europe. However, as the years go by, many do get a feeling that the inevitable may not actually take place. There is no need to explain that he has what it takes to make it, for he has been doing that himself over the last few years. As he hits 26 in September, this won’t be a more perfect time for him to change the atmosphere and keeping the reward, benefit and potential opportunities, not only for himself, in mind, he needs to make the move just as he hits his peak. A talented individual no doubt, but the last two words of the phrase “best Asian footballer in Asia” need to be knocked off for him to solidify a greater status in the international game.

Karan Tejwani

Student, Manchester United supporter and former scorer of the extraordinary while on the pitch.