“The best player in Asia” – so why is Omar Abdulrahman still playing in the UAE?

“He’s the best player in Asia. A special player. A great player.” – Croatia coach and former Al Ain manager Zlatko Dalic

“He’s just got that arrogance about him. The cheekiness to try and nutmeg and he’s a very quick thinker.” – Australia defender Trent Sainsbury

“A very good player, a very good talent. It’s important for him, for Arab players, for the country also [to play abroad]. Omar can be a pioneer and make it easier for other to follow.” – Xavi Hernandez

Jean-Pierre Rivere thought he had struck gold. Where other clubs had failed, Nice found themselves in the enviable position of having a genuine chance of signing Asian football’s finest. Initial discussions had been held and rare voices of encouragement emanating from the player’s close-knit camp implied he would be genuinely open to a move to the Cote d’Azur. A formal bid was lodged.

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But that optimism quickly faded. Al Ain officials stopped answering the phone; deadlines were set, revised and predictably ignored. Nice owner Rivere lost patience and instead turned his attention to Wesley Sneijder, with an all-too familiar story playing out: Omar Abdulrahman was not going to be leaving the UAE for Europe.

Since 2012, the will-he-won’t-he narrative has defined the career of the man they call ‘Amoory’. The 2016 AFC Player of the Year has long been a considerable fish in a very small football pond in the Emirates and even the AFC Champions League, yet Nice joined a long list of clubs – also featuring Manchester City, Arsenal, Benfica, Hamburg, Valencia, Espanyol and Basel – who have failed to prise him away from Abu Dhabi.

City came the closest. Omar impressed while on trial in 2012, and the club’s hierarchy were excited at the prospect of having a UAE international they could call their own. However, a combination of work permit issues – Abdulrahman had made fewer than 10 senior appearances for his country, who were ranked outside FIFA’s top 50 – and the player’s own reluctance to be sent on loan to Belgium or France to circumvent the red tape proved problematic.

The globalisation of football and the digital age has largely brought down the curtain of mystique on players operating outside the traditional football heartlands of Europe and South America, but Omar remains one of the last true “have you heard of…?” stars.

His Carlos Valderrama-esque afro adds a further layer of intrigue to an off-kilter, oft-lackadaisical No.10 who possesses an unorthodox football brain and a willingness, for better or worse, to look for the killer pass or dribble whenever he has the ball.

At his best he is joyous to watch, with Luis Suarez and Ryan Giggs among his admirers. His wizardry at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, where the UAE finished third, ensures he retains revered status among the football community Down Under.

City were the wrong club at the wrong time in his career, but appealing offers since then have been continually rejected. With each unsuccessful attempt to take him to Europe, it’s becoming increasingly likely that Omar, now 26, will never make that step.

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Everyone in UAE football has an opinion on where would suit him best; everyone, that is, except Omar himself. He regularly pays lip service in interviews, insisting he would love to ply his trade in La Liga or the Premier League, but actions speak louder than words.

The Nice story does, however, offer a slight glint of hope: for the first time, Omar demonstrated a proactive desire to test himself outside the UAE. Whereas Al Ain previously acted not only as his employer but also his personal counsel, an agent has now been given tacit approval by the Abdulrahman camp to explore potential opportunities overseas.

His contract also expires this summer, with Al Ain and Omar curiously slow to agree fresh terms. But while there may be a subtle change of tact from the player, the same financial, cultural and personal roadblocks remain. Such obstacles may be conspiring to have a detrimental effect on his career, further shrinking his window of opportunity to explore the game outside of the Middle East.

Only the Vatican City can boast a larger proportion of immigrants within its population than the 83.7 per cent of the eight million who call the UAE home. Oil has played a significant role in its establishment as a major transport, tourism and sporting hub in the last 25 years, but so too has the importing of skills. The development of the nation’s most talented footballer is no different.

Of course, Omar’s story is considerably more complex than your average expatriate who arrives for beaches and brunches – the ties that bind him to the UAE are myriad and deep.

Born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents, Omar honed his skills playing street football with his three brothers. Saudi giants Al Hilal were the first to show genuine interest but it was Al Ain, 600 miles across the border, who offered a more appealing package to the youngster and his family.

The Boss (among football’s truly great nicknames) not only signed Omar, they also gave contracts to brothers Mohammed and Khalid and provided the Abdulrahmans with Emirati citizenship. For a family with its roots spanning two very different Gulf States, this gesture provided a welcome sense of security and belonging.

And as his career has progressed, so too has the protection afforded to Omar by his employers. It’s undeniable that the 26-year-old has been good for UAE football, but this has been a mutually beneficial relationship that has developed a sense of unbridled loyalty which seems increasingly difficult to break.

Omar’s starring role at the 2013 Gulf Cup – he was named Player of the Tournament – saw him gifted a substantial financial bonus and a Bugatti Veyron. He’s been feted by the nation’s rulers and earned lucrative sponsorship deals with the government-owned telecommunications giant Etisalat, alongside landmark deals with Nike and Pro Evolution Soccer which boosted his profile immeasurably.

On the face of it, Al Ain’s steadfast refusal to entertain ideas of their superstar leaving enhances this sense of obligation within Omar to repay those who have helped him. However, the club’s true motivation extends beyond football considerations.

The Arabian Gulf League’s 12 clubs are all owned by sheikhs, with each ruler treating their team as an extension of themselves. Given Al Ain’s president is Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s de-facto leader due to Sheikh Khalifa’s recent health problems, keeping hold of the country’s most well-known footballer has become a matter of national importance. Rulers, after all, are never prone to selling off the crown jewels.

Unsurprisingly, Omar has been richly rewarded for his performances. His current contract is worth around £75,000 a week – tax free – with extra bonuses and “gifts” regularly received from the club’s benefactors. Moving to Nice or Basel would involve a significant pay cut; after five years of substantial wealth and an opulent lifestyle rivalled only by the game’s highest earners, this creates an additional layer within his conundrum.

Culturally, he’s also a product of his environment. With its restrictions on free press and strict government control on education, free thought isn’t exactly encouraged among UAE citizens. Although there’s been a marginal generational shift within millennials as an independent, university-educated middle-class grows, people still largely do what they’re told and follow familiar paths set by their elders. Ambition isn’t necessarily discouraged, but neither is it fostered with any great zeal.

In a football sense, both the UAE and Al Ain have built their attacking schemes almost exclusively around Omar since 2012. Most footballers want the ball as much as possible, to play the game how they want to; Abdulrahman is one of the few individuals on the planet who’s been able to experience such freedom with a football.

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However, the last 12 months have brought a slight change. The UAE’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, in which Omar only briefly flickered, saw the successful but sycophantic Mahdi Ali dismissed. After the rather clumsy and brief tenure of Edgardo Baize, Italian coach Alberto Acheron has been tasked with instilling greater discipline in the Whites’ squad on and off the field.

That was emphasised in January when, following two penalty misses in the Gulf Cup final defeat by Oman, it emerged that Omar, striker Ali Melkhout and injured full-back Mohammed Fawzi had broken curfew the night before the match to visit a shisha bar. Such indiscretions may previously have been swept under the carpet, but Omar and Mabkhout – the UAE’s second-best player – were instead given four-match suspensions and the UAE FA were sure to make a very public show of the punishments.

At club level, meanwhile, Omar is no longer the same driving force. A nagging foot problem plagued the playmaker throughout 2017, leading to some inconsistent displays at the start of this campaign. Unlike some of his predecessors, Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic has highlighted Omar’s struggles, while also giving Egyptian midfielder Hussein El Shahat greater responsibility in possession.

A newly-introduced wage cap within UAE football also means the domestic game isn’t the same goldmine it was during Omar’s ascent to fame. The concern is that, while the landscape may be altering, the 26-year-old has stood still.

Sport360 football correspondent Matt Monaghan, who’s watched Omar closely for the last five years, explains: “For too many years, Amoory has been indulged and spoiled. It’s been made obvious to him that an escape from his comfort zone at Al Ain would be very difficult. He’s not shown any inclination to rock the boat and move west.

“Blame for this has to be shared. From the player himself, the club and the coterie of advisers – mainly drawn from his close family – who surround him.”

Indulged on and off the field, Omar is plateauing at an alarming rate as he approaches the peak years of his career. It could be a blip, but after World Cup failure and Al Ain’s defeat in the 2016 Champions League final, it will require a significant degree of self-motivation to reverse the recent trend.

The Asian Cup on home soil next January gives him a target to work towards for the national team, while he’s also likely to agree a new contract with Al Ain. Should Omar move abroad, though, the most likely destination is now Saudi Arabia – where he’d also be lavishly remunerated under a similarly mild level of scrutiny – rather than Europe, even if Turkey remains a credible option.

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Omar has already worn the colours of Al Ahli Jeddah in a bizarre agreement in which Al Ain allowed him to play for a rival Gulf club in an exhibition match against Barcelona in Doha. An outrageously gifted talent used as a political tool – this was his career in a microcosm.

Yet throughout Omar’s rise, there’s always been an element of Western logic applied. We’re conditioned to expect individuals, particularly athletes, to always want to challenge themselves, often at a personal cost. The reality, though, is often laden with hypocrisy.

Most people remain in the country, city or region of their birth because of a sense of familiarity, loyalty and security. Omar is no different and it’s made him a very rich man in the process. Any calls for him to move on have come from outside, not those he holds closest to him.

Amoory remains popular among his team-mates and those who have played or worked closely with the attacking midfielder describe him as fiercely loyal and protective of his family. He’s also considered “polite” and “nice”, if “a little laid back”, and is perhaps reluctant to destroy the image he has built.

His continued employment in the Emirates is, however, holding back both his career and Gulf football. If the UAE are to become more than just a good-to-average national team whose club sides make more than just an occasional impact in the AFC Champions League, local talent needs to move overseas. This would provide younger players with a pathway and inspiration beyond the comfortable, with emigrating footballers almost certain to develop both on and off the pitch while plying their trade in an unfamiliar environment.

Unfortunately, Amoory is a victim of an inertia that means we may never learn how good a player he could have been. This is not, however, a situation exclusive to those who reside within the borders of the United Arab Emirates.

“The best player in Asia” – so why is Omar Abdulrahman still playing in the UAE?
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