SOMETIMES, ALL YOU HAVE TO DO is watch a single play to figure out if someone is a real player or not. Other times, it’s even simpler – and all it takes is watching how a player carries himself, teetering on that fine line separating cockiness and confidence. It doesn’t take long to notice, but when you see it, you try and freeze frame each moment of brilliance blending a player’s vision, flair, composure, confidence, and the orchestral control of a football pitch. Omar Abdulrahman, a player some regards as the “Emirati Iniesta” or “Emirati Maradona”, encapsulates these attributes with the fluidity and freedom of movement reminiscent of a street footballer balancing creativity and flashy play with simplistic brilliance.
Born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Abdulrahman began his professional football with Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal as a youth player but didn’t sign a professional contract and instead made the move to the most successful football club in the United Arab Emirates, Al-Ain under the condition he and his family could gain Emirati citizenship with the move. At Al-Ain, he quickly imposed his skillful style of play before tearing his cruciate ligament two years in a row. Despite the severity of his injuries, especially for a player so young, Abdulrahman attracted the attention of the Abu Dhabi group and went on a brief trial to Manchester City before returning to Al-Ain. The 24-year old attacking midfielder has been heralded as one of the brightest young talents in Asian football by FIFA in 2013.
The big, and possibly multi-million dollar question, is if and when Abdulrahman will make the leap to European football? Gone are the days when a player can truly be considered a top talent without testing his mettle against the world’s best on the prestigious stage of European football league and cup competition. Abdulrahman, unlike many of football’s elite young talents, has been afforded the opportunity to hone his craft and perform under the radar in continental competitions like the AFC Asian Cup, the under-23 Persian Gulf Cup of Nations, the Asian Games, and the Gulf Cup of Nations in addition to international play at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Such a journey has seen Abdulrahman amass over 150 first team appearances for Al-Ain, earn 13 caps for the United Arab Emirates under-23 side, and 53 for the senior national team. The startling figure, however, is less about his appearances and goal scoring exploits and more about what a player of his caliber and cerebral prowess offers to his teammates in assists. Few players have honed the craft of playing provider for their team’s goal scorers the way Omar Abdulrahman has in his career to date.
For his club side Al-Ain, Abdulrahman has embraced his role of supplier and he’s provided more assists as he continues to dominate the midfield and attacking third in club competition. Internationally, Abdulrahman has 17 assists in 32 appearances – the statistic alone tells potential suitors and educated football minds this player is not only unselfish in the attacking third, but he’s devastating on the dribble, with his ball distribution, and has the ability to unlock opposing backlines seemingly at will. The thought of the Emirati Iniesta supplying European football’s most lethal strikers is enticing.
Such exploits haven’t gone unnoticed by European clubs and scouts. Approaches from Manchester City, Arsenal, Benfica, Borussia Dortmund and Galatasaray haven’t panned out. In 2012, Manchester City was reported to have offered him a four-year deal only for his work permit application to be rejected. Perhaps there is more to this delayed move to a more well-known football stage than just the football. A move to Europe would place a star player in a talent-rich player pool where Abdulrahman would initially be a squad player.
The jump to a bigger league could possibly result in a pay cut as the European wage structure has to accommodate teams comprised of high earning stars with more global appeal on a single wage bill. Ultimately, the decision rests on the Omar Abdulrahman’s ambitions as a footballer. The way he plays suggests he’s the star and therefore has carte blanche to make mistakes, try new tricks, and make the game about him, whereas in European football, the stakes are greater as are the personalities.
To date, Abdulrahman’s wage has never been publicized and most likely wouldn’t be revealed until another serious offer sparks the cat and mouse transfer saga. The reality is football is just as much about the play on the pitch as it is the negotiations in the boardrooms. Abdulrahman represents a region and as the golden child of the UAE Arabian Gulf League, he’s already a player who commands the massive appeal. Omar Abdulrahman’s play is not without its critics either. The type of football that wows the audiences in the league he plays in can be seen by any number of players on rosters of the juggernaut sides of European football. In January 2015, Australia branded Abdulrahman as “lazy” before the Asian Cup semi-final and swore the Socceroos would give him hell during the match in a match Australia went on to win along with the Asian Cup Final.
Describing the Emirati playmaker, Sainsbury said: “Very tidy on the ball, not the hardest worker and I think we can exploit that.” The Australian defender who himself plays for PEC Zwolle in the Eredisivise went on to recognize the swagger and confidence Abdulrahman possesses. “He has just got that arrogance about him. He has got the cheekiness to chuck in a nutmeg here and there and he’s a very quick thinker on the ball. So if we can counteract that and get in his face and not let him get his head up, hopefully we can stop him. If we can keep him facing our goal, then he’s not going to be able to face forward and play that killer ball. So to keep him playing backwards would be a good plan for us.”
Omar Abdulrahman is a special talent. What makes him great where he the big fish in a small pond might be what ultimately holds him back from a move away from the UAE. His playing style attracts tough tackles and harsh treatment and the football is faster and more demanding defensively in all of the top European leagues. Where Abdulrahman would get the benefit of the doubt in the UAE Arabian Gulf League abroad, he would be treated as just another player. A player with a history of cruciate ligament injuries is also a potential red flag for would be suitors as his pace and durability would surely be exposed in sides that aren’t built around him.
For a player regarded as a national treasure, leaving might not necessarily result in greener pastures abroad. Selling a star player to a continent of the biggest and brightest names of world football is of less benefit to the Emirati club than it would be for a club needing the financial boost of the sale. The transaction would be less about the money and more about the recognition of the brand that his Omar Abdulrahman and Emirati football – both of which are uncertain in European football’s marketing arena, which is ever-changing and as competitive as the football.
What is most astounding about Abdulrahman is something that can’t be tracked and turned into a metric – his confidence. Players who express themselves on the pitch are a sight to behold. In the big money world of the global game, it’s important to remember that the allure is always the football before the paycheck for many children around the world. That version of the game knows no borders. Ability-wise, there is no reason why a player of his ability can’t go to Europe and succeed and continue to grow.
The question remains whether the Omar Abdulrahman who plays with the zeal and boastfulness of a child playing for the love of the game would be the same player in Europe. Such conjecture is inexact, but the world of football is one where players often can’t win for losing. European football might diminish the bright light within such a creative player. Remaining in the United Arab Emirates will consign him to the “what might have been” category. The quandary ultimately reinforces the reality that the most important team a player can be on is his own. Regardless of what the future holds, the game is lucky to have such a talent emerge from a region that no doubt has several more undiscovered diamonds in the rough.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3