What happens when the hottest talent in Asian football appears at its most famous arena?
We will find out on Wednesday as Omar Abdulrahman and his Al Ain team make the short trip from the UAE to Iran’s famous Azadi Stadium for an Asian Champions League clash with Tehran giants Esteghlal.
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The UAE may have handed Abdulrahman, born in Saudi Arabia of Yemeni descent, citizenship but his left foot comes from a higher power.
The presence of Asamoah Gyan in Al Ain’s attack may still catch the eye of European observers but the Ghanaian’s status as the side’s biggest star is under threat.
The ex-English Premier League marksman could only look on in admiration two weeks ago as Abdulrahman’s stunning volley was the icing on a fine display and a 3-1 win over Saudi powerhouse Al Hilal in the opening game of the continental competition.
Admiration but not surprise. All in UAE and increasingly elsewhere know what the playmaker is capable of. Many are asking whether Al Ain can go all the way and lift the trophy but perhaps the real question is how long can they hang on to valuable prize that they already possess.
The 21 year-old could give West Asia what it has never had – a global football star.
Sure, Ali Daei is known around the world for his amazing goalscoring exploits in the shirt of Iran, Saeed Al-Owairan’s stunning slalom strike at the 1994 World Cup that took Saudi Arabia to the second round will never be forgotten and Javad Nekounam played, and played well, in La Liga for six seasons with Osasuna.
None, though, worked their way into the weekly global narrative of worldwide reports and features. You have to star in the big clubs in the big leagues for that. Park Ji-sung has done it, Shinji Kagawa is doing it and Abdulrahman could be next. It is a question of where and when, not if.
English champions Manchester City already have their eyes on the midfielder.
“Omar spent some time with us following his successful performances in the Olympics last summer,” City’s sporting director, and one-time Arsenal star, Brian Marwood told Al Jazeera.
“[He’s] a very technical player who looked very comfortable. He worked extremely hard and showed a fantastic attitude to training. He came to Manchester with a very positive outlook and showed a really good temperament to enjoy his time while he was with us. We have noticed that his performances have been very good since his return and he’s a player we will continue to monitor.”
“We have noticed that his performances have been very good since his return and he’s a player we will continue to monitor”
Man City’s sporting director, Brian Marwood
The visit to the home of the English champions did not mark his first time in Manchester.
It was in the cradle of the industrial revolution during the Olympics where the wider world got a first glimpse of the finest example of the talent coming off the UAE production line.
Fans arrived at Old Trafford for the UAE’s Olympic debut expecting to see a Luis Suarez master-class and a Uruguay team tipped for a medal but all were overshadowed.
Manchester United’s home is nicknamed the Theatre of Dreams and on that sunny afternoon, especially those first 45 minutes, anything seemed possible when Abdulrahman had the ball and he had the ball a lot. His control in close quarters, his ability to know what he wanted to do before he was in possession, his touch and his passing were a pleasure to watch.
When you look at other Asian stars there is often a moment, a goal, a piece of skill, or a game that makes their name. Park Ji-sung’s came with his goal against Portugal at the 2002 World Cup. Keisuke Honda’s came against Denmark in 2010 while Shinji kagawa’s brace against FC Schalke early in his Borussia Dortmund career turned heads around Europe.
Abdulrahman’s was an assist. Against Uruguay, he collected the ball just inside his own half, quickly turned and released a delicious ball with the outside of his foot that arrowed through four defenders and into the penalty area and into the path of the advancing Ismail Matar who went on to score.
The old stadium has been home to some of the best passers of the ball in European football but even the likes of Bobby Charlton, David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo would have been proud to produce such a pass. Such skills are second nature to the midfielder who is now a star for the senior side, which he led to the Gulf Cup title in January.
If the year started well for player and nation, it could end well for player and club.
Al Ain were the first team to win the Asian Champions League when it was launched in 2003. Abdulrahman has what it takes to lead the team to repeat that feat and he also what it takes to do something that has never been done before by breaking out of West Asia to become a genuine star.