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He had a trial Manchester City and was lauded by Xavi, so why did Omar Abdulrahman never leave Asia?

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Omar Abdulrahman gave a glimpse of what he was capable of during the 2012 Olympics, providing a memorable assist with the outside of his trusty left boot in the United Arab Emirates’  2-1 loss against Uruguay at Old Trafford. 

It was a the type of touch that saw him once dubbed the ‘Arabian Messi’.

There was a time when talk of a move to Europe refused to disappear – Espanyol coveted him at 17 – and the fanfare around him grew so loud he ended up on the cover of a computer game with Brazil superstar Neymar.

Fans of Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 will remember him – it was the year he was voted the best player in all of Asia. 

Javier Mascherano of Barcelona is tackled by Omar Abdulrahman of Al Ahli in December 2016

Javier Mascherano of Barcelona is tackled by Omar Abdulrahman of Al Ahli in December 2016

So why is a player held in such high regard currently plying his trade in the UAE at the supposed peak of his career? 

The now-28-year-old started carving out a name for himself during the 2010-11 season, a couple of years after his club, Al Ain, granted citizenship to the Saudi-born player and his whole family to encourage him to move to the UAE.

The curly-haired silky-skilled playmaker stepped in to fill Jorge Valdivia’s boots when the Chilean left for Palmeiras in Brazil, and soon found himself as one of the main men.  

By the end of the next season, off the back of his exploits at the London Olympics, Manchester City had seen enough to invite Abdulrahman to train with the likes of Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez.

Abdulrahman shared the cover of the Middle East version of Pro Evo Soccer 2016 with Neymar

Abdulrahman shared the cover of the Middle East version of Pro Evo Soccer 2016 with Neymar

His two week trial culminated in an apparent four-year offer from City, with the club’s then academy chief Brian Marwood saying: ‘He impressed everybody.’ 

The player himself was even spotted watching City’s win over Southampton that season, alongside club chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak. 

But the reported offer broke down due to a wrangle over a work permit.  Under English Football Association laws, to obtain a work permit a player needs to have played 75 per cent of their country’s ‘A’ listed internationals that they were available for over the previous two years. 

Of course, the 21-year-old hadn’t done that yet. The player’s country were also required to be in the top 70 of FIFA’s world rankings but at the time the UAE lay in 121st. 

Abdulrahman of Al-Ahli during the Qatar Airways Cup match against Barcelona in 2016

Abdulrahman of Al-Ahli during the Qatar Airways Cup match against Barcelona in 2016

But the youngster seemed happy just to have been given a shot. ‘Honestly, it was an amazing experience,’ he said. ‘Not everyone gets the chance to train with the champions of England.

‘Once Kolo Toure saw me he asked “are you the UAE player?” and I was surprised he even knew me. He told me “you have the skill and the potential and are here to sign a contract”. And I told him “Inshallah, I hope to… if things go well.”‘ 

City technically could have found a way around the FIFA rules. They would have been allowed to sign the player before loaning him to a country such as France or Spain, where employment laws are more relaxed.

The player's silky skills, precise left foot and distinctive hairstyle set him out from the crowd

The player’s silky skills, precise left foot and distinctive hairstyle set him out from the crowd 

But they didn’t. Instead, the player’s only move away from the UAE was to Al Hilal, the Saudi powerhouses, in 2018. A year later, he was back home playing for Al Jazira. 

Barcelona legend Xavi plied his trade in Qatar for Al Sadd between 2015 and 2019 and seemed certain that Abdulrahman had the ability to make it in one of the world’s top leagues.  

‘It is important for him, for Arab players, for the country also, to play abroad in the future, to be a competitive country. Omar can be a pioneer and make it easier for others to follow,’ he said in 2017, when Abdulrahman was 26. 

'Kolo Toure saw me asked "are you the UAE player?"' Abdulrahman, pictured with Ronaldo, said

‘Kolo Toure saw me asked “are you the UAE player?”‘ Abdulrahman, pictured with Ronaldo, said

He also clearly wanted a move, the move, himself.  ‘It is not necessarily about the country or the city itself [that I play in] but what is most important would be to go abroad and make it as a professional player, and to show what I can do and honour UAE football,’ he said. 

But no move transpired. And the player had enough genuine talent to quash any suggestion that a proposed transfer may have been a marketing ploy for City, or another club, to tap into the Middle Eastern market, similar to what they attempted with the signing of three Thai players in 2007 – Teerasil Dangda, Kiatprawut Saiwaeo and Suree Sukha – who never actually appeared in a competitive game for the club. 

The BBC reported that Daniel Sturridge told him he was talented enough to play in Europe

The BBC reported that Daniel Sturridge told him he was talented enough to play in Europe

Abdulrahman also had genuine high-profile admirers. The BBC reported that Daniel Sturridge told him he was talented enough to play in Europe, Luis Suarez asked to swap shirts and Ryan Giggs sought him out after their match against Great Britain during the Olympics to pass him his jersey.

Among his other cheerleaders were former Japan, Mexico and Atletico Madrid manager Javier Aguirre, Zlatko Dalic – who called him ‘special’ – Sabri Lamouchi, former Inter Milan player and Henk ten Cate, the former Ajax, Barcelona and Chelsea coach who managed Abdulrahman’s current club Al Jazira between 2016 and 2018. 

He said: ‘In my opinion he can play in any league in Europe. Everything he does when he gets the ball alerts the whole stadium because you can expect something good is coming up. He’s a fantastic player.’

Luis Suarez reportedly asked to swap shirts with Abdulrahman, pictured here with Luka Modric

Luis Suarez reportedly asked to swap shirts with Abdulrahman, pictured here with Luka Modric

Apart from showing his skill on an Olympic stage, the diminutive playmaker also used it to go viral in 2016 while playing as a guest for Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli against Barcelona in a friendly. 

Like he did in a penalty shootout against Japan in the 2015 Asian Cup quarter-final, Abdulrahman dinked a ‘Panenka’ penalty past Jordi Masip in the Barcelona goal in his team’s 5-3 loss.    

‘Come for the hairstyle, stay for the skills,’ ESPN wrote of him back in December 2012 when naming him the best Asian player of the year ahead of the likes of Japan’s then Manchester United star, Shinji Kagawa. 

But they also highlighted what might be the crucial point in the tale of Abdulrahman. ‘The one worry is, despite his tender years, his knees are already looking a little worn,’ the glowing report concluded. 

Mile Jedinak of Australia contests the ball with Abdulrahman during the Asian Cup Semi, 2015

Mile Jedinak of Australia contests the ball with Abdulrahman during the Asian Cup Semi, 2015

And indeed his career has been blighted by injury. Twice he suffered long lay-offs due to an injury to his cruciate ligaments.

The thorough medical examinations at top sides will have picked up on any weakness, possibly scuppering one of the dozens of reported possible transfers over the years.

But there may be another factor. The player said he has rejected a loan offer from Benfica in the past and in the summer of 2016 Nice apparently attempted to take him on loan too. 

Adulrahman played against David Luiz in an indoor friendly in Kuwait and grabbed a picture

Adulrahman played against David Luiz in an indoor friendly in Kuwait and grabbed a picture

‘There have been offers, some potential opportunities in Europe,’ he said at the time. ‘But Al Ain really wanted me to stay so the chance to move has not really been there.’  

Like all UAE sides, Al Ain function under the patronage of a sheikh and the club had previously been reluctant to let him leave. 

This may point to a situation where the players move was simply blocked, especially if Manchester City owner Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, also from the UAE, couldn’t negotiate a move. 

The midfielder lists a third place finish at the 2015 Asian Cup among his greatest achievements

The midfielder lists a third place finish at the 2015 Asian Cup among his greatest achievements

ADULRAHMAN’S CAREER SO FAR

2008–2018, Al-Ain (UAE)

2018–2019, Al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia)

2019– present, Al Jazira 

2011– present, United Arab Emirates

Either way, it looks now like Abdulrahman’s chance might be gone. 

Sport 360, a leading sports news platform in the Middle East based in Dubai, UAE, recently led with the headline: ‘Forget Omar Abdulrahman, Ismail Ahmed is porous UAE’s main missing man.’

The publication noted his ‘precipitous rise’ and said his ‘recent fall had mirrored the fortunes of the national side,’ alluding to the ‘Golden Generation’ that emerged at the Olympics where Abdulrahman made his name. 

One thing is for sure. Whatever he does from now on, Abdulrahman leaves behind an impressive highlight reel of tricks, flicks and incisive passes. But whether he goes on to do it at a higher level, away from the comfort of the Gulf, remains to be seen. 

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