“All we’re thinking about is beating Japan again because that’s the key to qualifying for the World Cup,” said United Arab Emirates attacking midfielder Omar Abdulrahman, a leading light of Arab football and, in the eyes of many, a unique player in this part of the world.
While he tends to make life easier for his team-mates, both at club side Al Ain and for his national team, Abdulrahman asks many a question of opposing defenders. The affable Emirati star is never short of a smile off the pitch either, taking time out to share a word or two with his youngest fans and to take a selfie with them.
A consummate professional, he puts everything into his training, as do all his colleagues in the national team, who are busy readying themselves to host Japan in Al Ain as the third round of the AFC qualifying tournament for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ resumes. Breaking off from his preparations for what is a crucial encounter, Abdulrahman gave an interview to FIFA.com.
The Emiratis made a perfect start to their third-round campaign by winning in Japan, and built on it to reach the halfway stage of the group on nine points, level with Australia and just a point behind Saudi Arabia and Japan. Abdulrahman and his team-mates are acutely aware of the importance of their next assignment, however: “Every match is important but this one is the key to qualification. We have to forget about our win in the away game, though it gave us confidence in our abilities. We want to come away with the three points, which will allow us to move in front of the Japanese and to close the gap on first place.
“We’ve got the weapons to go out and win this match. We’re at home and in front of our fans, who are always there to support us and for whom we always give our all. And then we’ve got our fighting spirit, which will be there from start to finish.”
Abdulrahman and his team have shown before what they can do against Japan. The two sides met in the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup in 2015, with Ali Mabkhout giving UAE an early lead before the Samurai Blue hit back with a late equaliser. When extra time failed to separate the two sides, the Emiratis progressed after winning the penalty shoot-out, eventually going on to finish third in the competition.
Then, in the opening match of the third round of the Russia 2018 qualifiers, UAE came from a goal down to record a famous win in Japan, thanks to a Ahmed Khalil double, a result that has fired Abdulrahman’s dreams of reaching the World Cup: “This generation has a lot of experience. We’ve played a number of high-level matches and that’s given us a lot of self-confidence. We’ll be giving our all to make it to the World Cup.”
It’s not an easy task, but we will try to fulfil the dreams of millions of people. I’ve been dreaming for years of playing in the World Cup and I expect to make it happen.
Abdulrahman has been working his magic for club and country for several years now, regularly showcasing his unique array of skills. A playmaker who likes to find the back of the net, the Al Ain man poses a threat to defences with his set-pieces and late runs into the box. Very much one of the leading footballers in Asia, Abdulrahman was named the continent’s player of the year in 2016, just a few weeks after finishing on the losing side in the AFC Champions League final against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Giving his view on that accolade, he said: “It’s important for players to win individual honours because it motivates them to go out and give their best on the pitch. I was pleased to win the trophy, which is reward for a lot of hard work. My goal now is to help my country qualify for the World Cup.”
Abdulrahman’s performances have earned him comparisons with the great Lionel Messi and the nickname “The Messi of the Gulf”. A keen student of the game, the Emirati idol is always looking to improve his skills and learn from the best: “I watch a lot of matches in Spain, England, Italy and Germany. The big teams in those leagues really deserve to be watched, especially Barcelona and Real Madrid, with Messi and Cristiano. But if you asked me who my role models on the pitch were, then I’d have to say Zinedine Zidane and Andres Iniesta.”
Though he was born a year after UAE’s historic World Cup appearance at Italy 1990, Abdulrahman has since seen the matches his predecessors played on the biggest stage of all: “When I first fell in love with football, I watched those games, which were the biggest in Emirati football history. The new generation needs to know about the big names who took the UAE to the World Cup.”
In signing off, Abdulrahman said he felt the time had come for him to follow in their footsteps and make the dreams of the Emirati people come true: “What we want more than anything is to qualify. It’s not an easy task, but we will try to fulfil the dreams of millions of people. I’ve been dreaming for years of playing in the World Cup and I expect to make it happen.”