Lebanon forward finds international exposure in an unlikely place
Before arriving in the UAE at the end of September, Hassan Maatouk had scored 89 goals in 120 appearances across six seasons for his Beirut-based club Al Ahed.
He had been voted as the best player in Lebanon for three consecutive seasons, had won three Premier League titles, three FA Cups, one Federation Cup, three Elite Cups and two Super Cups.
Yet, not many scouts from the European leagues must have been aware of the fleet-footed winger. A one-year loan deal with Ajman, however, has put Maatouk in the shop window and given him the kind of exposure he could only dream of at home.
With Diego Maradona being here and players such as Asamoah Gyan, Grafite and Luca Toni making the UAE their new home, the Pro League has been gaining an audience around the globe and Maatouk did himself a huge favour by scoring twice on his Ajman debut on October 10 - an Etisalat Cup match against Al Nasr.
The second of those goals was an absolute stunner from 25 yards. Picking up the ball from just inside the Nasr half, Maatouk dashed in from the left before smashing the ball into the top-right corner. In the stands, the Ajman management and fans were on their feet applauding their new signing.
"The first match is always very important and, thanks to God, I played well and scored two goals," Maatouk said. "It gave me a lot of confidence."
Since then, the 24-year-old Beirut native has scored five more times for Ajman, but goals alone do not truly show the kind of influence Maatouk has on the pitch.
A natural when it comes to scoring goals, he is not merely a goal poacher. Playing on the flanks, he has been able to make the most of his natural abilities. He is fast and his direct runs at defences can be a nightmare for them. He also has an ability to weave his way around defenders.
Abdul Wahab Abdul Qadir, the Ajman coach, was aware of these qualities, but not many others at his club seemed to know a lot about Maatouk, at least not before he played for Lebanon in their 3-1 victory over the UAE in World Cup qualifying in Beirut on September 6.
The Iraqi manager had a tough time convincing his bosses and he is pleased to see the player repaying his trust and converting the sceptics.
"Maatouk is an excellent player," Abdul Qadir said. "He is very fast, beats many players and works very hard in the game."
From an early age, Maatouk was identified as one of those rare players capable of turning a game and, coming through the youth system at Ahed, he made his first-team debut at the age of 17. He began as a centre-forward, before moving to the wings.
"I played different positions, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right, sometimes in the centre," Maatouk said.
"That depends on the coach and what position he wants me to play."
Theo Bucker, the Lebanon national team coach, once described Maatouk as a player who "comes around every 10 years" and "is almost impossible to substitute".
Maradona, the Al Wasl boss, seems to be reaching that opinion as well and he recently described the Lebanese as an "outstanding" player.
"Maradona is the greatest player and we all know that," Maatouk said. "To hear him talk about me is really good and it gives you a lot of confidence. But this is only my first season here and I still have a lot to do. I want to perform even better next year."
Maatouk, however, may not be in the country when the new season starts. Scouts have been appearing regularly in the stands at Ajman games and he has been linked with a couple of European clubs already.
First there was news of the German club Borussia Dortmund's interest in the diminutive winger and now reports have linked him with a possible move to Olympique Marseille in France. Ibrahim Toure, Maatouk's former teammate at Ajman, moved to the Ligue 2 team Monaco in January.
Maatouk is aware that representatives of Marseille have been at some of Ajman's recent games to watch him, but he said there had been no formal approach.
"They have not entered into any direct negotiations with me or my agent," he said, adding that talks have already begun with Ajman to extend the loan deal for another year. "If I manage to seal a move to France, it will be really great for me because that is one of my goals - to play in a top league.
"It was really important for me to play in a professional league like the Pro League and that is the reason I moved from Lebanon. I have learnt a lot of things here and there are many things I will be working on for next season.
"If the move to France happens, great; if not, I will stay at Ajman. I have time till the end of April to decide, but one thing is clear: if I stay in the UAE, I will be at Ajman. I will not leave this club, except to go to Europe."