Omar Abdulrahman, with Al Ain and UAE on the rise, can once again catch European eyes
As another new season begins, the poster boy of UAE football remains exactly where he was 12 months ago, when his star shone brightest, when blue-chip sponsors circled, when the summer was spent away from the glamour, but under the full gaze of observers, nonetheless.
There were rumours and reported high-profile bids, detailing seductive offers from outside the Emirates. Pursuers purportedly included Arsenal, Valencia and Hamburg.
England, Spain, Germany: Europe’s three foremost leagues, all linked to the region’s No 1 talent.
Omar Abdulrahman, Al Ain’s most coveted creator, had lifted his club to a second successive top-flight title, only months after hoisting the UAE high above its peers.
The 2013 Gulf Cup was Abdulrahman’s tournament. A superb solo goal in the final against Iraq helped seal the trophy. With it came the competition’s MVP award.
As did a Benfica proposal for a year-long loan, which Abdulrahman rejected. Apparently, it was his decision. For their part, Al Ain would not hold back a player who deserves to carry the UAE flag across Europe and the world.
“A national treasure,” said Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed, chairman of the Al Ain board of directors.
So where would he go? Abdulrahman has been asked often enough. Loyal to the club that provided the initial opportunity, he has never hidden his desire to continue his development beyond Al Ain, either.
“This is a great motivation and challenge,” he told The National last year. “If teams are coming from the English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A or the Spanish La Liga, I’d wish to play in any of them. There are lots of players who people say can’t cope in certain leagues, but end up doing well.”
The last line references fears that Abdulrahman is too delicate, physically, to survive in a major European league. Those concerns hold weight, so to speak, because at a wispy 1.67 metres and 60 kilograms, the rigours of a prominent European league would represent a challenge.
Yet, he sought to correct that before last season. At Al Ain, Abdulrahman embraced a programme to strengthen muscles, then was sent to the United States to work on an upper body that, should a transfer abroad materialise, would require a considerable upgrade.
The lower limbs are a worry, as well. Before his 21st birthday, Abdulrahman underwent two major knee surgeries, stealing 18 months of competitive action.
When Cosmin Olaroiu, his former coach at Al Ain, was asked last year if his star pupil should be allowed to plot a path to Europe, the Romanian said Abdulrahman deserved as much, although he added a quick caveat.
“Omar has great potential and can grow, but he has to train in a different way,” Olaroiu said. “Here we train, but think about it: how many games did he play during the Olympics, with the national team, at the Gulf Cup, in the Pro League, the President’s Cup?
“We’re not so willing to let a player like Omar rest. If he doesn’t have time to train properly, his ability will stay the same in the future.”
That appeared to ring true during 2013/14. Having played almost nonstop for two years, for club and country, Abdulrahman’s body broke down again. Niggling muscle injuries stunted his season, and he managed only 17 appearances in 26 league matches. Predictably, his form suffered.
The January transfer window passed without the usual speculation. The clamour had calmed.
Abdulrahman will still speak – eyes wide – of the London Olympics, of sharing a pitch with Ryan Giggs and with Luis Suarez, of playing on the pitches at Wembley and at Old Trafford, of his subsequent trial with Manchester City. During the latter, Kolo Toure told him he was gifted enough to earn a permanent contract.
But can his dream still be fulfilled? There is the school of thought that Abdulrahman and Al Ain should have cashed in when his stock was sky-high. That a 22 year old, who possibly has not reached his athletic peak, had somehow missed the boat. That perhaps he has it so good in the UAE – comfort, celebrity, a big fish in a small pond – that the motivation is not really there. His photo decorates roadside billboards, larger than life.
Surrounded by family and friends, and feted by fans, why would he surrender it all?
Yet Abdulrahman regularly reiterates a desire to spread his wings. His heart is “always in Al Ain”, as he said following his man-of-the-match display in May’s President’s Cup final, but he is ready for that move outside the UAE.
“It’s a dream of any player to go abroad,” Abdulrahman said. “To play in Europe as a professional and to show the world that UAE football is advanced and developed.”
The past few months have advanced his cause. The standout player in the President’s Cup final, Abdulrahman departed Zayed Sports City Stadium not with colleagues on the team bus, but escorted from the grounds in a separate vehicle, with trophy in hand. Al Ain’s two most prized possessions, together. To use common vernacular, he is VVIP.
Then came the first leg of the Asian Champions League quarter-final. Abdulrahman shone against Al Ittihad in the first leg, teasing and goading until his side clinched a 2-0 victory.
The reverse fixture was easily negotiated, as Abdulrahman scored the second goal in a 3-1 win. Al Ain will hope for another supreme display in next week’s last-four encounter with Al Hilal. He is integral to their chances.
One more lead performance, and a final appearance, and Abdulrahman likely will be the continent’s most-fancied footballer again. With the UAE, he has the Gulf Cup and Asian Cup in coming months, providing another platform to showcase his capabilities.
He turns 23 later this month, but the season ahead already seems crucial to his career. For now, Abdulrahman remains rooted to the Garden City, yet he is in the last year of his contract. Al Ain will need to extend his deal – talks are said to have begun – if they plan to eventually extract a large transfer fee, something west Asian players do not usually command. Any move would surely include sizeable performance-related bonuses.
The real bonus would be witnessing a young talent swap the cosiness of familiar surroundings for a chance at the big time.
Staying in the UAE means Abdulrahman could stagnate and never realise his full potential. Talented Ismail Matar, a player Abdulrahman cites as an inspiration, has enjoyed a celebrated existence with Al Wahda and the national team, but the what-ifs endure.
What if, too, countryman Hamdan Al Kamali had made more of a six-month loan spell with Lyon in France? This might not be a make-or-break season, given Abdulrahman’s age, but this should be his moment to finally broaden horizons.
“I’m still young, I’m not in any rush,” he said last year, as he basked in the glow of that Gulf Cup triumph.
“I’m comfortable here. So it doesn’t matter if I’m still with Al Ain at age 21, 22 or 23. It’s only if I get the right offer that I’ll leave. It needs to be the right opportunity.”
Given the dual campaigns for Al Ain and the UAE through 2014/15, opportunity knocks.
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Updated: September 11, 2014 04:00 AM