x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Baniyas midfielder Amer Abdulrahman out to make a name for himself

The "Zidane of the UAE" may not be as lauded as namesake Omar, but he keeps the engine running in midfield, writes John McAuley.

Amer Abdulrahman, left, helped UAE record an impressive 2-1 victory over Uzbekistan last Friday, orchestrating the assists for the two goals. Karim Sahib / AFP
Amer Abdulrahman, left, helped UAE record an impressive 2-1 victory over Uzbekistan last Friday, orchestrating the assists for the two goals. Karim Sahib / AFP

The Abdulrahman who created and captivated against Uzbekistan last week was wearing a different guise. Typically, a thick mop of black hair elongated his compact frame, as challenges were casually navigated and killer passes delivered when the UAE most needed them.

Yet the jersey did not bear the name Omar, as the country has grown so accustomed to seeing. This was an Abdulrahman, all right, but instead it was Amer, the Baniyas midfielder once dubbed "the Zidane of the UAE".

That tag, though, suggested by World Soccer magazine, never sat well with its reluctant incumbent.

"I honestly believe the title is a bit of an exaggeration because there can never be another Zidane," Amer once said. "Nobody can come close. It was especially difficult for me as I have grown up idolising Zidane."

The France World Cup winner was not the only one worthy of his accolades. Developing his refined game on the streets of Abu Dhabi, Amer counted among his favourite players Andrea Pirlo and Xavi, too. It was no coincidence: footballers of poise and precision thriving against more-robust rivals.

"I always liked challenging myself, and playing against the bigger boys gave me a lot of confidence," Amer once said, conjuring memories of younger days.

He is shorter than Omar Abdulrahman, at 1.68 metres to 1.73, but he is sturdier, at 69 kilograms to Omar's 60.

Amer has long illustrated a capacity to control. His ability to wrest free from congestions in the middle of the pitch was evident throughout the 2009 Fifa Under 20 World Cup, when the youthful midfielder impressed enough to earn World Soccer's commendation.

A pivotal role in victory against Honduras drew particular praise, with the publication later labelling Amer a "star of the future", a player "who could make a difference to any team".

In fact, he had been proving a difference-maker since excelling in the UAE's march to the 2008 Asian U19 Championships crown, his passing and probing soon becoming the hallmark of coach Mahdi Ali's various age-group teams.

The trend continued through to the 2010 U23 Gulf Cup when Abdulrahman, now a regular at Baniyas, collected the tournament trophy and its Most Valuable Player award. Man of the match in two of the UAE's four games in Qatar, he assisted three of Ahmed Khalil's five goals. An Asian Games silver medal, aided by his performances, quickly followed.

Baniyas, then surprise Pro League contenders, profited as well from Amer's steep ascent, although his climb found assistance in the familiar faces of Mohammed Fawzi, Theyab Awana and Yousef Jaber: youth colleagues for club and, now, country.

However, the brotherly bond could not guarantee the 2011 Asian Cup while the domestic season would also ultimately frustrate. Amer missed two crucial months - likewise compatriots Awana and Fawzi- as Baniyas finished second to Al Jazira.

Despite the disappointment, Abdulrahman grew in confidence. When Hamdan Al Kamali was linked with a trailblazing transfer to Lyon, the French Ligue 1 club, his national teammate noted: "It's the hope of all UAE players to benefit from playing abroad and help the national teams with the experiences they will gain from playing in a truly professional competition."

Dreams of foreign conquest were soon extinguished by tragedy much closer to home. In September that year, Awana, then 21, was killed in a car accident as he travelled home from national team training. Amer, although keeping his own counsel, publicly at least, would have felt the loss more acutely than most.

"When I see Amer, I see [Awana]," Mahdi Ali said afterward. "They were always together."

Amer responded with yet more endeavour at Baniyas. With the club mired in the bottom third of the league for the majority of the campaign, he returned from another two months on the sidelines to take them to the President's Cup final - again Jazira won the trophy - and through to the last 16 of the Asian Champions League. Baniyas were the second Emirati side in five years to progress as far, with Amer notching the second goal in the win against Uzbekistan's Pakhtakor that secured their passage.

"Having gone through to this stage we will never look back," he said.

That summer's Olympic Games cast minds farther forward. Expected to form the pulse of Mahdi Ali's team alongside Omar - both exhibit a reluctance to surrender the ball -Amer was wary of the potential granted by a capital showing.

"The London Games mean more than football for me," he told the Football Association's website. "The time has come to look for a chance to play in Europe. The Spanish Liga is my favourite, but any other chance elsewhere will do.

"I need to attract the attention of the players' agents, who will be keeping an eye on the stars of the future. Hopefully, I will be among them."

Personal performances did not mirror the promise. Amer struggled against Great Britain and Senegal, yet the blot was merely temporary.

With Baniyas once more flourishing at home, Amer shrugged off injury to join the UAE at January's Gulf Cup and, deep into extra time in the final, provided the pass that allowed Ismail Al Hammadi to clinch the title.

The confetti still swirling, Abdulrahman was back at his inventive best last Friday. Against Uzbekistan, in a crucial 2015 Asian Cup qualifier, and with Omar in the stands nursing a sore knee, Amer passed twice to deliver goals to teammates and victory to the UAE. Omar's omission, through injury, had been negated.

"We have seen Amer's return from injury … that he is as good as any other with good skills and talent," said Mahdi Ali. "I'm very happy for him."

Much like the Zidane comparisons, though, Amer will seek to deflect praise.

"Football is a team sport and no matter how good you are, you need the support of your teammates and all those around you," he said in 2011. "Without them, you are nothing. I'm just glad the fans appreciate my style. I thank them and thank all those who have helped me through the years: my parents, siblings, coaches - especially Mahdi Ali - and all my teammates."

Linked by their name and by talent, the UAE is likewise thankful to have the two playmakers.

 

jmcauley@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE