Old Trafford has the aura to bring out the best in a footballer. The stadium has seen the most celebrated names in the sport grace its pitch, whether for its tenants Manchester United or any other visiting side.
One such occasion was in the summer of 2012 at the Olympic Games, which were held in London that year. The United Arab Emirates were playing South American giants and two-time World Cup winners Uruguay that afternoon.
Omar Abdulrahman: The Crown Prince of Asia
The pitch had some star quality running around it, with names like Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Suarez represented Liverpool at the time and was expectedly jeered at every touch. A budding Gastón Ramírez displayed his immense potential, amongst so many others.
Uruguay sealed a narrow 2-1 win that day, but it wasn’t any of their glorified names stealing the headlines, it was one from the men wearing red – a young man named Omar Abdulrahman. The youngster astonished the staring crowd and, unlike Suárez, was cheered at every touch towards the end of the match.
He provided a stunning assist that afternoon. From around the centre-circle, he whipped a perfect ball from the outside of his deadly left boot to give his captain Ismail Matar, arguably the country’s greatest-ever player, the ball and slotted away the goal.
Abdulrahman also beautifully carved several other chances, but couldn’t help his country seal a historic win. His day did get better, however. The pantomime villain on the day, Luis Suárez, appreciated Abdulrahman’s talents and offered to exchange shirts with the man himself at the end of the game.
His tournament got even better, in the UAE’s second group game against hosts Great Britain at Wembley Stadium. Abdulrahman put on another fine showing in a 3-1 defeat, earned praise from the likes of defender Micah Richards and this time, had the evergreen Ryan Giggs exchange shirts with him at the end of the encounter.
“The number 15 (Abdulrahman) is a very good player who plays beautiful football, he’ll be one of those players we should keep an eye on in the future.” – Micah Richards in 2012
He was the sole shining light in a rare experience for the country that’s more renowned for its availability of supreme structures and laser-fast cars. With a whizzy hairdo and about the same height as Lionel Messi, the player’s excellent quality and skill makes him unmissable on a football pitch. He’s the UAE’s best player of this generation, and he went on to achieve even greater things after the Olympic Games that year.
Abdulrahman represents Al-Ain FC in the United Arab Emirates – the country’s most successful domestic side with 12 Arabian Gulf League titles and six President’s Cup honours amongst a stacked trophy cabinet. He’s been with the senior team since 2008 and has a brilliant record – 42 goals and 87 assists in 183 appearances and counting.
While not an esteemed goal-scorer, his playmaking abilities and eye for a pass are in a league of its own and always raises the question – why hasn’t he represented a club in Europe yet?
He’s had chances with the best of the best, though. Right after the Olympics, Manchester City, owned by the royalty of Abu Dhabi, offered the 21-year-old a trial with the club. While the report was glowing, it’s still unclear whether it was work permit issues or Abdulrahman’s desire to not leave his country that blocked the move.
Just a year later, there were reports of an imminent loan deal between Al-Ain and Portuguese giants Benfica, but a move never materialised.
But while he remains in the Gulf, success continues to follow with him. He’s won a whole host of honours with Al-Ain on the domestic and Asian scene, being part of the club’s league-winning sides in 2012, 2013 and 2015 as well as the cup-winning sides of 2009 and 2014.
Abdulrahman also helped the club reach the AFC Champions League final this year – losing to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai, but to some consolation, he was voted as the tournament’s most valuable player. That spurred another personal honour and probably the biggest of his career thus far – the AFC Player of the Year, which he won early in December.
“I’m so proud of him and proud he is the best player in Asia, because he’s my player and part of my team, which means my team was great also. He played very well for the national team, he was my captain and won eight man-of-the-match awards in Asia. A special player, a great player. I’m glad to have him.” – Al-Ain manager, Zlatko Dalić
Plus, his accolades and fame in the Middle East and Asia have earned him some fine recognition elsewhere. Abdularahman has earned some large endorsements over the years including the likes of Nike and video gaming giant Konami, who offered him the chance to be alongside Neymar adorning the cover of the world-famous Pro Evolution Soccer game for 2016.
But perhaps his greatest success comes with the national team. He’s gone from strength to strength following his stellar performances at the Olympics and added a first international trophy to his illustrious list of honours – the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations. He was voted as the best player of the tournament following an impressive haul of two goals, including one in the final, and two assists over the course of five tournament games.
Just two years later, he was the star attraction of a UAE side in its golden generation at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, the biggest stage in Asian football. It was there that he truly announced himself to the world. Strong victories in the opening two group stage games culminated with them narrowly losing their third and final encounter against Iran, which meant that the UAE finished as runners-up in the group.
The result pitched them against defending champions and tournament-favourites Japan in the quarter-finals, where after a tough 120 minutes, it would take penalties to determine the semi-finalists. Omar Abdulrahman would step up to be UAE’s first taker, after Keisuke Honda missed the opening spot-kick. It was there that he stunned the world, with a skill that can only be performed with ice-cold nerves.
With a face seemingly lacking confidence, and a walk-up with a sense of nervousness, it looked like Abdulrahman would sky his kick into Row Z at the Stadium Australia in Sydney. But just before he pulled the trigger, he slowed himself down and with a rarely-seen skill, added himself to the pantheon of greats alongside Zinedine Zidane and Andrea Pirlo with the coolest “Panenka” spot-kick you’re likely to see. It was a moment the man himself would’ve been proud of and showed off everything Abdulrahman is about.
The UAE won 5-4, and progressed to the semi-finals where they lost to hosts and eventual winners Australia by a score of 2-0. They did have some reprieve, however, winning the third-place play-off to seal their best finish of the competition since 1996, where they were runners-up, and Omar Abdulrahman was one of the players of the tournament for his excellent showings.
He made his way into the Team of the Tournament alongside Son-Heung Min and Tim Cahill amongst many others.
“Each footballer has a wish to play for one of the big teams in Europe, But I’m still young and I know I must double my efforts to reach my target. There is no specific date for my professional career and I will take it as it comes. I know I will be fully supported by our sheikhs.” – Omar Abdulrahman
The tournament was a glimpse of what Abdulrahman could offer and re-escalated European interest, but nearly two years on, he still remains an Al-Ain player. There is no shortage of interest and he’d add great charisma to any side, but the question is when the move would happen.
Omar Abdulrahman is supremely talented and he’s the best Asian footballer in Asia, but will that tag ever see the last two words cut off it?