x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Move to Lyon was worth the wait for Hamdan Al Kamali

The Emirati defender talks about adapting to life in France, his first-team ambitions and why more of his countrymen should join him in European football.

Al Kamali says he had interest from South Korea, Switzerland, France and the UAE while he was at Al Wahda. Ashraf Al Amra / Al Ittihad
Al Kamali says he had interest from South Korea, Switzerland, France and the UAE while he was at Al Wahda. Ashraf Al Amra / Al Ittihad

Four years. That is how long Hamdan Al Kamali waited to move to a European club, and the first thing he had to contend with as soon as he arrived in Lyon in January was snow.

His loan signing from Al Wahda coincided with a particularly cold winter in France's east-central city. Al Kamali conceded it took some getting used to.

"I knew it would be colder when I came over, but it was actually snowing in the first week," he told The National this week.

"Training was very difficult for me, in the snow and the rain, but since then things have got better."

That is an understatement. It has been an incredible first six weeks for Al Kamali, who has already made his debut for Lyon's reserve side, a target that seemed achievable nearer the end of his initial six-month loan spell.

His was a steady performance at centre-back in the home match against Bourg Peronnas, though it helped that he was playing alongside Dejan Lovren, a first-team player who is working his way back to full fitness after an injury.

Lovren is one of the players who has been on hand with advice and kind words since Al Kamali joined the Ligue 1 side.

The fact that he speaks English, like Gueida Fofana, the goalkeepers' coach Joel Bats and, crucially, the first-team coach Remi Garde, has helped the Emirati settle.

Lyon won the game 4-2, despite having the striker Jeremy Pied sent off with 10 minutes to play: the team, OL2, are now seven points clear in France's CFA league, which is essentially the fourth division.

Before he was able to have a settled run in the side, Al Kamali was back with his compatriots, as part of the Olympic squad that needed to beat Australia and Uzbekistan to qualify automatically for London 2012.

The UAE dream was still on after a 1-0 win over Australia, although French reports claimed that Lyon, who had released Al Kamali despite it not being a recognised date in the fixture calendar, were furious that the defender had not played in the game.

Al Kamali started against Uzbekistan (apparently after Jean-Michel Aulas, the Lyon president, had been assured that Mahdi Ali, the Olympic team coach, would pick him), a game the UAE won 3-2.

"I told my teammates after the Uzbeki game that I don't want to be the only Emirati player in Europe," Al Kamali said. "We have a lot of good players in my country, they are good enough to play in Europe, and I think in London at the Olympics we will have a chance to prove it.

"It's a great opportunity for all of us and that's why we were so pleased to have qualified. I know that after the Olympics, you will see other players coming, trust me."

What about those four years he waited?

Well, Al Kamali is now 22 but he was 18 and had just led the national team to the title at the Under 19 Asian Cup when calls from Europe first arrived.

"Back then, my team didn't want to lose me, and so they said no."

It was the same story last autumn, too, when Lyon came knocking. They were not the only ones.

"There were two clubs from [South] Korea who wanted me, a team from Switzerland, also Monaco in France, and two sides in the UAE who wanted to pay Dh30 million for me. But still the club said no."

Al Kamali took matters into his own hands, reportedly making himself unavailable for Al Wahda's matches, which led to him being dropped from the Olympic team squad and then banned by the Football Association for his club's Pro League match against Al Shabab.

His version of the saga is more prosaic; he seems understandably reluctant to go over old ground.

"From my point of view, it went like this: Lyon wanted me last year, my club said no.

"Then two months ago, Lyon came back. By then we had a new president [Sheikh Saeed bin Zayed] and he said, 'Let Hamdan play in Europe, it will be good for him and it will be good for us.'

"Oh, I was so happy. It's been very good for me and for the country."

But as the pioneer, surely Al Kamali feels some pressure to succeed?

"No, not at all," he said. "I have support from everyone here and that makes me feel a lot more relaxed.

"The players, the coaches, even the president: they are behind me and helping me. So, there's no pressure, no."

Aulas has been in Abu Dhabi this week, and conceded that he is looking for investment in the club, who may lose out on €20m (Dh97m) if they fail to win a place in next season's Champions League.

Lyon are without a shirt sponsor for next season and are looking to do a deal on the naming rights of the new stadium, which is scheduled to open in 2014 and will be part of the European Championships two years later.

If Al Kamali is conditioned to whispers suggesting that his move is a business one, or at least a precursor to a financial partnership, he hides it well.

"I have come to Lyon to play football, not just to train," he said.

"My target is to play, first in the reserve team and then in the first team. I want to show what I can do, and already I feel like I'm getting better.

"I am adapting now and I'm learning something new in training every day.

"I work hard, but I know my country wants to see me play, to get some games, and I will do my best to show people in my country that I can do that."

There may be opportunities in the first team sooner than is assumed, given various issues surrounding the centre-backs.

Cris, the captain, is injured again and, with his contract worth an annual €4m, is unlikely to get a new deal in 15 months.

Lovren should be his natural replacement but injuries mean he has played fewer than half of Lyon's matches this season.

John Mensah has played once all season while Bakary Kone has the most appearances with 19 starts since signing in the summer from Guingamp.

It is Garde's willingness to pick Samuel Umtiti, just 18, who started the season just hoping to get some games in the OL2 side, that gives Al Kamali the greatest hope he can make an impression this season.

Umtiti is a France Under 19 international who completed five successive league matches after the winter break, and came on as a substitute in last weekend's win over Saint-Etienne.

He is not the only youngster Garde has trusted.

Clement Grenier, 21, has emerged this season as a replacement for Yoann Gourcuff, the playmaker signed from Bordeaux for €22m who seems certain to leave the club this summer.

Maxime Gonalons, 23, is close to a France call-up. Alexandre Lacazette, 20, has scored seven in his past 11 games.

"There are a lot of young players here which is encouraging to see, and their quality is really good," said Al Kamali.

"The football here is much faster and there is more power. The players use their bodies more and are quicker with the ball at their feet. You have to have quick feet and that's something I am working on, too."

Al Kamali eats regularly at Lyon's Tola Vologe training centre and has an individual training programme designed to improve his strength.

"The food here is good, everyone is looking after me and it feels like one big family. I know you have to eat well and train well and when it all comes together, it can be worth it."

Al Kamali's initial deal is a six-month loan with an option to extend for a further year.

Given his progress so far, and the fact that Lyon's coaches are impressed with the defender's quality and mentality, he could yet play a part in their chase for third place in the league.

"I've played for the reserve team and played well, and I feel good about my form now," he said.

"I know that it can be difficult in Europe but I'm here to make the most of this opportunity. I am giving everything I've got to play in the first-team."

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