Master and apprentice: How Hernan Crespo and Soufiane Rahimi created history for Al Ain

Moroccan striker was the Asian Champions League’s dominant figure having been backed by his manager – and hero

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Soufiane Rahimi was not short of role models growing up as an aspiring footballer in Casablanca.

He is the son of a long-serving staff member at Raja Club Athletic, one of Morocco’s most important football institutions, and the family lived on site at the club’s practice ground.

But when the wannabe striker was honing his skills in knockabout matches as a child, in his mind, it was none of the Raja greats with whom he was so well-acquainted that he tried to emulate.

Instead, he tried to imitate the style of his hero from Argentina: Hernan Crespo.

It’s funny how life works out. As Rahimi was accepting the acclaim as the most valuable player in an extraordinary Asian Champions League title campaign for Al Ain at a valedictory press conference late on Saturday night, Crespo entered, stage left.

Rahimi looked across, beamed a smile that showed off his dazzling white teeth, and said to his boss: “I’m talking about you.”

For the umpteenth time that night, they embraced. Between them, Crespo and Rahimi – the master and apprentice – had just created history for Al Ain.

Rahimi’s goals fired the Garden City club to the title. It was Al Ain’s second Champions League crown, first since 2003, and they remain the only UAE club to have won it.

Rahimi’s haul of 13 goals in 13 matches equalled the record individual tally for a season in the competition.

He was the dominant figure by some distance in the final against Yokohama F Marinos, too. He scored the goal which levelled the tie on aggregate early on. He won the penalty – scored by Kaku – that put Al Ain ahead.

He was the player felled when Yokohama lost their goalkeeper, William Popp, to a red card in the 10th minute of first-half stoppage time. Even after that, he might have had another penalty before the half-time whistle sounded.

Then, after the interval, he drilled in the goal that swung the game in Al Ain’s favour for good.

He well deserved the praise that was showered on him. He revelled in it, too, first receiving a booking for removing his shirt so he could hold up the name “Rahimi” more clearly for the cameras. Later, cloaked in a Morocco flag, he received two personal trinkets, as the player of the tournament as well as that of the final.

Amid it all, though, he had enough awareness to credit those who helped get him here.

“I want to congratulate the players and club officials, and thank everyone who supported us all the way,” Rahimi said.

“I remember when I first signed with Al Ain, I sat with the club officials and the priorities for Al Ain was to get the Asian title.

“We prepared well for this title this year. Regardless of some of the results in the league, we competed with big and important clubs, especially from Saudi, and finally we won the title.”

Then, of course, there was Crespo, the coach who tweaked Al Ain’s system to base it all around getting the ball to Rahimi at the apex of the attack.

“When I was small and playing football, he was the player who I chose to be,” Rahimi said. “I never expected to meet him and that one day he would be my coach.

“At the beginning of the year my ambition was to win the Asian Champions League and to shine.

“To credit the coach, he gave me the freedom and trusted me. He showed confidence in my ability, and I would like to congratulate him. He is a good man.”

It seems remarkable, in the aftermath of a Champions League triumph, to think the Ainawi – Al Ain’s passionate supporter base – have not been entirely sold on Crespo.

When the players were having their names read out as the pre-match built to a frenzy, each was cheered to the echo – especially Rahimi’s. And yet the response to Crespo’s was merely lukewarm.

That probably stems from indifferent domestic form. Al Ain have lost six times in the league this season, and have failed to get near Al Wasl and Shabab Al Ahli at the top.

Maybe Crespo’s skills are better suited to continental football, where Al Ain can cast themselves as underdogs. In UAE football, the club known as “The Boss” are expected to dominate. If they fall short, it’s no wonder the fans ask questions.

And yet in Asia, they go up against proper giants. They were outsiders in both their quarter-final, against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr, and the semi against Al Hilal, who have been Asian champions more than any other club.

Yokohama were a more even match in the final, but then consider the fact teams from East Asia have held sway more often in this competition.

“Every time when we faced the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and even the finals, as underdogs,” Crespo said. “At the beginning nobody believed in us, and we did it. These guys, these players, did something big.”

Crespo also went on to point out – twice – that he is no coaching “genius”, and that the achievement is all that of his players. And having one of the calibre of Rahimi certainly helps.

“I have the ambition to reach the top of the game as a player, but I didn’t expect to be the outstanding player,” Rahimi said.

“By hard work and effort, thanks to the prayers of my parents, then finally with the support of God I have been able to achieve it.”

Updated: May 26, 2024, 2:01 PM