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Asian Football Players in Europe

Asian Soccer / September 15, 2023

United Arab Emirates complete their preparations ahead of their Asian Cup semi final with hosts Australia on Tuesday.

When Asian players start to make names for themselves at home, "the question" is usually not far behind.

It's almost a testament to their talent. At some points someone says: "Yes, but are they good enough for the big European leagues?"

In the case of Omar Abdulrahman, the debate has moved on from can, to should, to why doesn't he?

The United Arab Emirates star was predictably named as the 2016 AFC Player of the Year earlier this week, but it will be harder to continue to lay claim as the continent's best if he does not test himself against quality opposition on a more regular basis.

A scintillating performance for the U.A.E. against Uruguay at Old Trafford in the 2012 Olympics with his trademark passes, turns, tricks and all-round ability outshone Luis Suarez. Since then, all who have seen the bushy-haired 25-year-old have agreed that he has what it takes.

Manchester City in the same Olympic summer were the first, offering a trial that was successful. Yaya Toure said on a visit to Abu Dhabi soon after that he was shocked that "Amoory, " as he is known, then turned down the English Premier League champions. He was 21 at the time, and ever since, the links and rumours have continued: Liverpool, Hamburg, Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus and Barcelona.

Between the first and second legs of the 2016 Asian Champions League final in November which Al Ain narrowly lost to Jeonbuk Motors, Leonardo, a star of the South Korean side lavished praise on the Saudi-born man who has Yemeni parents.

"I never saw a player like this in Asia, " said the Brazilian. "I play against China teams, Australia teams and Japanese teams, and I never saw one player like this."

Abdulrahman has made noises about a departure but has yet to leave his U.A.E. Arabian Gulf League club Al Ain. Last year the midfielder was expected to move on, but another 12 months have now come and gone.

Instead, Abdulrahman returned home to sign a new four-year contract with a reported $4 million a year which, when added to bonuses and other perks, was said to be worth considerably more.

Such (tax-free) wages would be hard to match in Europe. Without a World Cup starring role he would still be seen as a gamble, coming from a country that is little known for football outside Asia. While a first contract may not be as lucrative, it would be up to the player to make sure that the second deal was.

Technically gifted, Abdulrahman has the skills to play at a much higher level than the U.A.E. Arabian Gulf League.

But maybe it is not just about salary for the playmaker who is a huge star at home. Former Mexico and Atletico Madrid boss Javier Aguirre is now in charge of Abu Dhabi's Al Wahda and believes that stars in the U.A.E. have a good life.

"Omar Abdulrahman can play in any part of the world. In my opinion, it is not about money, it is about this kind of life, this kind of pressure, " Aguirre said.

"They are in a comfort zone here."

Xavi, who now plays in Qatar for Al Sadd is a fan and is keen to see Abdulrahman test himself in Europe.

"It is important for him, for Arab players, for the country also, to play abroad, " Xavi said.

"In the future, to be a competitive country, yes it's good for them. Omar can be a pioneer and make it easier for others to follow."

The United Arab Emirates, as well as other Arab nations in west Asia, do not often export players to Europe in contrast to continental rivals Japan and South Korea. It can be because of the clubs that are reluctant to let their talents go.

Ismail Matar was the star of the U.A.E. before Abdulrahman, winning the Golden Ball at the 2003 World Youth Championships. There was interest from Europe but his Abu Dhabi club would not sell.

"The mentality of the owners in the U.A.E. then was that they had to get as much out of their players as possible. It was not possible to go, " he told ESPN FC, though acknowledged that it should be easier now.

The U.A.E. league is one of the stronger leagues in Asia but is still some way off the level of the best in the world. Technical levels are good but it lacks the intensity and the tactical challenges of the big leagues.

Games don't come thick and fast. The action is relatively gentle as are most atmospheres. Attendances are small, with the average below 5, 000, resulting in pressure and attention that just does not compare to what he could get. Abdulrahman deserves a bigger stage.

In the Asian Champions League final, there were two massive games played in front of full stadiums with passionate crowds. It was also noticeable how the 25-year-old struggled, at first, to deal with the physical and energetic approach that Jeonbuk used to try and negate his influence - one that he rarely encounters at home. It didn't take long, however, for him to adapt and start showing his class, even if he could not lead his team to victory.

Such challenges would be more frequent in the best leagues in the world and could only improve him as a player. Then the title of Asia's best would be there for all the world to see.

Source: www.espnfc.com