Tom MasonComment

THE CROWN PRINCE OF EMIRATI FOOTBALL

Tom MasonComment
THE CROWN PRINCE OF EMIRATI FOOTBALL

The inclusion of a Team GB representative in the 2012 Olympic football tournament ended up being a bit of a storm in a teacup. Weeks of debate about which nations should contribute players to the team, and what that would mean for their participation in future international tournaments, all fell by the wayside as a team comprised of only Welsh and English players were knocked out shortly after limping through a fairly easy group. The tournament as a whole turned out to be something of a dud with poor ticket sales, coupled with an early exit for the hosts, dampening excitement.

This was certainly the case on the second matchday where a bizarre double feature saw Uruguay vs Senegal and Team GB vs UAE in back to back games. By the time Team GB took to the field, a crowd largely made up of families and tourists, the corporate trappings of Wembley and the fatigue of having already watched 90 minutes of football had all contributed to a flat, soulless atmosphere. Still, there was plenty of star power on display: Uruguay's attack was headed by Suarez and Cavani and supplied by Lodeiro and Ramirez who were both hotly-tipped future stars at the time, while Giggs, Bellamy, Ramsey, and Sturridge all turned out for GB – plenty to get excited about. Despite the glamour of these famous names, the most impressive performance on the day came from a more unlikely source.

Aside from having a haircut somewhere between Fabricio Coloccini and Marouane Fellaini, Omar Abdulrahman is not particularly remarkable to look at; a lithe, wiry figure, more broomstick than bulldozer. Even though may not have been physically imposing, as soon as he was in possession he was mesmerising. On a grey day at Wembley, a game that was being played in black and white turned Technicolor every time he touched the ball.

At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking he would be a player in the Dimitar Berbatov mould, sauntering gracefully around the pitch as the game bypassed him. But, despite his languid gait, he was perpetually moving; dropping off in front of his back four, popping up on the wing, buzzing around every inch of the turf trying to create an option. Compared to the positional rigidity and discipline of the Team GB forwards, he was a joy to behold.

When he had the ball he came alive, coaxing his opponents into making a challenge before shifting his bodyweight effortlessly to escape them. He would mine the space in front of the defence to find pockets to drift into, exploiting them by sending team mates into the box with deft touches and passes measured with the accuracy of a Savile Row tailor. It was like watching a pair of silk pyjamas come alive: elegant and luxurious, if a little decadent.

Although his team ended up losing, on a day where he was surrounded big bigger stars, it was he who shone the brightest. He was singled out for praise by Micah Richards after the game and Ryan Giggs reportedly gave him his shirt in the dressing room post-match. At the time he was just 20 and playing for Al Ain in the UAE. It seemed only a matter of time before European football would come knocking.

Except it never happened. Or, rather, it hasn't happened so far. Shortly following the Olympics Manchester City took him on trial. The reports were supposedly glowing but a move to England failed to materialise, although it remains unclear if this was due to work permit problems or the refusal of Abdulrahman to leave home. The following year a loan offer from Benfica was on the table but he elected to remain in the UAE.

Since 2012 he has flourished both at club and international level. His trophy cabinet is well-stocked, with multiple Arabian Gulf League titles to his name alongside several domestic cups and a whole host of individual honours. The 2013 Arab Gulf Cup of Nations was his first taste of international success as he led his team to victory, winning the Player of the Tournament award in the process.

But it was the 2015 Asian Cup where he firmly secured his place in the global football consciousness. While racking up assists in dominant group stage performances against Bahrain and Qatar was impressive, the highlight of his tournament came in the quarter-final against the reigning champions Japan. The game had gone to a penalty shoot-out and it was Abdulrahman's turn to step up. He looked nervous on the walk from the halfway line, like a man striding towards the gallows – bearing his teeth, pulling the collar of his shirt up over his face, tentatively nodding towards the ref. All the apprehension melted away from him as he steamrollered towards the penalty spot, looking like he was going to try to blast the skin off the ball before adjusting his angle of contact at the penultimate second to send the ball delicately looping through the air into the middle of goal, leaving the Japanese keeper helplessly clawing at nothing. It was a moment of sublime confidence in a high pressure situation - one that cements his legacy alongside Pirlo, Totti, and Zidane in the Panenka pantheon.

You need only look at his performance against Malaysia late last year to be convinced of his quality. The Malaysians were vastly inferior opponents but the manner of victory was still impressive – a 10-0 victory with Omar Abdulrahman chalking up 6 assists.  Whipping in crosses from deep, dribbling past players with ease, and operating in tight spaces more effectively than an eight year-old Victorian chimneysweep, the range of his creativity is staggering. At this standard of football, he is less like a big fish in a small pond and more like a Megalodon in a paddling pool.

For the time being he seems content in the shallow water. A recent contract extension reportedly granted him a considerable pay rise, so his wages, and somewhat chequered injury record, may prove off-putting for a number of European clubs who would essentially be taking a gamble on a player who has never played outside of the Middle East. When asked about Abdulrahman, Xavi, who is currently playing in Qatar and coaching at the Aspire Academy, implored him and other talented Arab players to seek a move to Europe where the teams 'work more in tactical training than here'.

While heeding Xavi's advice would undoubtedly pay dividends in terms of individual development and success, there are other factors at play. He would be swapping guaranteed wealth and superstar status for the chance to play at what is currently perceived to be the highest level of club football. There is no certainty that he'd adapt to the lifestyle in a different culture – all too often we've seen players move to big European clubs, struggle to settle, burn out and then move back home. For some, being valued and appreciated at home outweighs the pull of ambition. There's no shame in that.

Besides, Abdulrahman's hitherto resistance to the temptation of Europe is perhaps to be admired. His career thus far challenges our Euro-centric conception of a sport that likes to brand itself as a 'global game'. It reminds us that playing in the Champions League is not necessarily the be all and end all of football and, as traditionally weaker leagues receive more investment and become wealthier, we will start to see the centre of power in world football shift away from Europe. There are plenty of talented players who have so far decided to continue their development at clubs in the Middle East, improving the standards of those leagues through their presence: Abdulrahman's international teammate Ali Mabkhout who has an excellent goalscoring record for the national team and his club Al Jazira; Fahad Al-Muwallad, the shining light of Saudi Arabian football; and Omar Al Somah, a frighteningly potent goalscorer from Syria, to name just a few. Elsewhere, MLS continues to steadily gain popularity as it emerges as a sporting and cultural force in the US, while Alex Teixeira's January transfer to Jiangsu Suning is arguably the first time a player in his prime has elected to move to China when he had big offers on the table. The quality of football being played globally is constantly improving, if you take a broad enough view.

From a selfish perspective, it would be a shame to not see Omar Abdulrahman strut his stuff in Europe, but he serves as a reminder that there is some outstanding talent in the margins of the game, if you just know where to look.

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