Now or never: A move to Europe finally beckons for UAE’s poster boy Omar Abdulrahman

Middle East Football Matters
Al Ain and UAE playmaker Omar Abdulrahman also made a special guest appearance - scoring twice and creating three more goals in Team Salgado's 6-5 win. (Photo: Peter Harrison)

Now the World Cup is over, it is time for the real action of the summer. The transfer season is one global football event open to any country including the United Arab Emirates and while the one transfer that the whole region is waiting for is that of Omar Abdulrahman, there are also others.

But Abdulrahman is the biggest story of all. It is now two years since he wowed the world at the Olympics, standing out especially against Old Trafford against Uruguay. No sooner had the games finished then he was back in Manchester, training with the newly-crowned champion in the blue half of the city.

Pictures of that famous hairstyle mingling with some even more famous global stars on the books of Manchester City suggested a glittering future. The English Premier League giants wanted the Al Ain midfielder to train –and play- on a permanent basis but Abdulrahman refused and returned home.

Since then, the links to Europe have come thick and fast but still he remains at home. If he was Japanese or Korean, he would already have gone. By the time Shinji Kagawa was Omar’s age, he had a Bundesliga winners’ medal on his mantelpiece at home. By the time he was 24, he had added an English equivalent.

There is no one size fits all solution when heading to the big leagues. It is not necessarily a bad thing not to rush off to Europe at the first opportunity. Staying at home for minutes on the pitch can work too but for Abdulrahman, with his 23rd birthday approaching, there’s not much more he can learn in the Garden City.

Take Iran out of the equation then West Asian nations have a poor record of exporting talent to Europe for all kinds of reasons and there is a worry that Omar will follow in the totally domestic footsteps of Ismail Matar and be seen as too important to release. Unlike some, he has the desire to leave, as he stated in May. Some fans at Al Ain were upset at his comments but if they really love him, they should let him go.

But where to? Perhaps too much is made of how a silky player like this is suited more to Spain than, say, England. The best can shine anywhere but in this case, the less physical nature of La Liga should be easier on the player’s slightly dodgy knees. There are clubs in England that suit but the ones you feel would truly value the player, such as Arsenal or Liverpool, would likely be unable to off regular playing time.

It is great to be linked to the big boys but many Asian players who have become stars in Europe did so by moving to a smaller league first. Jose Mourinho has recommended Portugal as a great starting point for the best imports from the east. Benfica have been interested and certainly a move there could be ideal and had Manchester City signed the player, the plan was to loan him to a Portuguese or Spanish team anyway.

Park Ji-sung, the most successful Asian in Europe, believes his western beginning with PSV Eindhoven served him very well. Keisuke Honda also started in the Netherlands to great effect.

Moving over to North Africa, Egypt’s Mohamed Salah got some decent playing time at Chelsea last season after serving time in Switzerland with FC Basel, a Swiss team with a good record of attracting, developing and then selling worldwide talent. It is not a surprise that one of Japan’s hottest properties Yoichiro Kakitani has just signed with the club.

It doesn’t have to be a big club but the right one. Not many UAE or West Asian players go to Europe. A high-profile failure will do nobody any good but it is time for Omar to go.

He could also set a trail for others.

Khalfan Ibrahim – Qatar and Al Sadd, Age 26

It’s probably now or never for the winger. Then 18, he didn’t do enough to be named 2006 Asian Player of the Year and the prize didn’t seem to do him much good either. He has made up for it in recent years and slowly became the national team’s best player. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in talent and is notoriously hard to dispossess when in full flow, with feet as quick as any in Doha. Hasn’t always had the support needed in the national team but was instrumental as Al Sadd took the 2011 Asian Champions League final.

Fahad Al-Muwallad –Saudi Arabia and Al Ittihad, Age 19

Saudi football has been in the doldrums for a few years but with the likes of this teenage terror on the wings, there is once again hope for the fans with the likes of this Al Ittihad star coming through. Can get behind the toughest of Asian defences and is a pretty good finisher, as demonstrated against Guangzhou Evergrande in that 2012 epic Asian Champions League quarter-final. There’s may seem to be plenty of time for this diminutive winger but then his pace is not going to last forever

Humam Tariq - Al Ahli, UAE and Iraq, Age 18

Iraqi players have slowly been moving to Europe of late. Nashat Akram had a short spell in the Netherlands and more recently, Ali Adnan went to Turkey and Saif Salman signed for a Bulgarian club. It shows how hard it is for players from certain regions to break through when such talents are confined to smaller Eastern European leagues but Humam Tariq should aim to go farther west. Some have compared him to Messi and while that suggests the kind of player he is, the teenager needs to forget such tags and keep working hard.

Mohamed Ibrahim - Zamelek and Egypt, Age 22

Egyptian and North African players have longed moved to Europe in much greater numbers than their West Asian counterparts and there are plenty of stars from the region active in the big leagues. Ibrahim is one of those who has come close to heading north on a number of occasions while never quite managing to take that final step. Malaga came especially close to signing the talented attacking midfielder and it’s only a matter of time before a club actually does.

Karim Ansarifard - Tractor Sazi and Iran, Age 24

It’s time to see just how good Ansarifard really is. He has an excellent goalscoringg record at home but has not always shown what he can do for the national team and he was reduced to substitute appearances at the World Cup. There has been interest in the past from the USA as well as Europe as he was one of Asia’s hottest properties two or three years ago. The striker needs to move away from Iran and really test himself.