Al Ain v Yokohama: Final conjures memories of Omar Abdulrahman and what might have been

Golden boy of UAE football was the star of the 2016 Asian Champions League but heartbreak in the final was followed by years of injury setbacks

Omar Abdulrahman and his Al Ain teammates following defeat to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the 2016 Asian Champions League final. AFP
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It was figured to be Omar Abdulrahman’s crowning club glory.

Al Ain were one match from becoming kings of the continent for the second time in their history, the UAE’s sole Asian Champions League winners set to emulate that vaunted class of 2003.

As captain and principal protagonist, Abdulrahman was expected to not only deliver the trophy Al Ain coveted above all else, the title they had chased through a generation and more, but deliver on his billing, too.

Abdulrahman had been the tournament’s standout. From 12 appearances until the final, he was named man of the match eight times, however much import can be attached to that.

In the quarter-finals, Abdulrahman led Al Ain through a testing night in Uzbekistan against Lokomotiv Tashkent, if not quite with his ability on the ball, but his gumption to galvanise. With his team 1-0 up at half time and on aggregate also, Abdulrahman gathered his teammates in a huddle on the pitch before heading to the dressing room and rallied the troops. Al Ain won through, Caio Lucas’ goal enough.

After the semi-final first leg, following another dominant display in a 3-1 victory that included a converted free kick either side of two assists, beaten El Jaish manager Samri Lamouchi labelled Abdulrahman “absolutely the best player in Asia”.

“He is an unbelievable player,” Lamouchi continued. “I love him a lot, but it’s not only me. All coaches want a player like him. Because he fights with heart, and he is also a very nice playmaker with an amazing left foot.”

In the return match in Qatar, Abdulrahman struck the opening goal in a 2-2 draw that sealed Al Ain’s return to the final for the first time in 11 years. Of Al Ain’s five goals across the tie, Abdulrahman had a direct hand in four. Even before the showpiece, UAE football’s “jewel” was considered a shoo-in for Asian Player of the Year.

“It is true that every player wishes to win the title of best player in Asia, but my focus is always on helping Al Ain win titles and championships,” Abdulrahman said. “The prize for best player is worthless without winning the Champions League trophy.”

Yet, ultimately, Abdulrahman would capture only one. In the final against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, he was well below the standard set, even if in the first leg in South Korea, Abdulrahman created the opener for Danilo Asprilla in a 2-1 defeat.

Deployed at the tip of Al Ain’s attack, Abdulrahman could never really break free from man-marker Choi Chul-soon, his input near completely blunted. It repeated in the return at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Choi again superb in shadowing his rival’s every move and thus shackling Abdulrahman’s influence.

2016 Asian Champions League final – in pictures

When the South Korean could not, Abdulrahman surprisingly passed a penalty, and the chance to level the tie, to striker Douglas. The Brazilian, often derided, blazed over. It proved the decisive blow in Al Ain’s quest for the cup. Abdulrahman and Co lost 3-2 on aggregate.

Perhaps appropriately, the last kick of the final fell to Abdulrahman, backed into the corner by the opposition with no way out. Upon the whistle, Abdulrahman covered his face with his shirt and sank to the turf. Then came the tears, Abdulrahman soon consoled by teammates and the Al Ain backroom staff.

“The game of my life”, as he declared pre-match, had been anything but. It turned out to be his lowest ebb. When Al Ain needed it most, Abdulrahman could not muster the magic.

Of course, the following week, not far away in Abu Dhabi, Abdulrahman was celebrated as Asia’s best. Even with the Champions League having slipped from grasp, talk focused on what came next.

One more stab at the continent’s chief club crown – Abdulrahman, player of the year gong in hand, stated as much – and then Europe? At 25, the time felt right.

There had already been interest in the past, with Arsenal, Hamburg, Valencia and Benfica credited as admirers. Before all that, following a 2012 Olympics in which he formed part of an enterprising UAE side, he had trailed at Manchester City. In 2017, Nice submitted a concrete offer for a loan.

But Abdulrahman never went, for a variety of apparent reasons. Work permit issues. The financial intricacies of any prospective deal. Al Ain’s determination to keep hold. Abdulrahman’s decision to stay put.

Since, the playmaker’s playing career has been pockmarked by injury and inconsistency. His return to Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia in 2018 was over before it truly began, his third significant knee surgery terminating his time there.

Abdulrahman would go on to represent Al Jazira, released as a free agent in early 2021 as he recovered from another lengthy injury, then Shabab Al Ahli and, most recently Al Wasl.

2024 ACL final first leg – in pictures

In the four years since the Covid-19 pandemic shut down football, Abdulrahman has featured in 19 UAE top-flight matches. To be fair, he undertook national service but, when he came back to the pitch again at the beginning of the 2023/24 season last August, that famous mop-top mane shorn tight, it felt a make-or-break campaign.

It concluded in October. An unused substitute in Wasl’s 1-1 home draw against Ajman, Abdulrahman was later released in February and thus finds himself once more without a club. He turns 33 in September.

As Al Ain contest the Champions League final second leg this weekend against Japan’s Yokohama F Marinos, like 2016 trailing 2-1 heading into the decider in the Garden City, the mind casts back to Abdulrahman at his peak, some eight years removed, his future full of promise.

When all is said and done, and even with the dizzying domestic successes with Al Ain and the regional and international with the UAE, he has left us wanting – wishing for – more. Regrettably, Abdulrahman represents a talent, undoubted and then dulled by injury and inactivity, never fully realised.

Updated: May 24, 2024, 6:09 AM