How the Olympic football tournament could lead to stardom for Saudi class of 2020

Tue, 2021-07-20 11:00

More than 50,000 football fans went to Old Trafford in the summer of 2012, expecting to see a Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani masterclass as Uruguay took on the United Arab Emirates during the London Olympics. Instead, it was Omar Abdulrahman who stole the show.

The playmaker, then only 20, put on a virtuoso performance to thrill the crowd, which included this writer’s brother who texted at half-time to ask about the bushy-haired player wearing the number 15 who provided a wonderful assist for Ismail Matar to open the scoring. 

It was a career-changing game for the Saudi-born star who was soon back in England’s northwest, trialling for Manchester City.

According to the club, “Amoory” was offered a contract and a likely loan move to Spain but preferred to stay with Al-Ain. The interest never went away, however, and there were links with Arsenal, Barcelona, Juventus and other leading clubs in the years that followed.

Abdulrahman never went to Europe and the soon-to-be 30-year-old failed to take his chance. Only he knows if that is a source of regret. What can be said with certainty, however, is that the Olympics gave him an international stage on which to show his talents early in his career.

The same opportunities could happen in Japan for the best young players in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who kick off their Olympic campaigns on Thursday against Ivory Coast and Spain, respectively.

These stars have few chances to appear in the international spotlight, and one benefit of playing against Spain, Argentina and Australia (Egypt) and Ivory Coast, Brazil and Germany (Saudi) is that there will be a lot of eyes on these games.

The unique nature of the 2020 Olympics should also help — there will be no fans, fewer journalists than usual and few, if any, scouts making the journey to Japan in the middle of a global pandemic that has delayed the games by a year and cast a shadow over the entire event.

“The Olympics are not a high priority when compared to the U-17 or U-20 World Cups or even some of the continental youth tournaments,” a leading scout told Arab News. “But it is still one attended by plenty of scouts, and any player who shows his potential will get noticed.”

Instead of traveling around and picking which games to attend, everything now will be done online.

“That may make it better for players who don’t play for the traditional powers. In the past, you would go there with an idea of who you wanted to watch and focus on their games, but now it will be open for everyone. It’s not a good idea to travel to Japan at the moment and while it is always better to watch players in person, with no travel everyone will have more time to watch more games and see more players.”

That could be good news for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, especially the latter. It is no secret that Saudi players rarely go overseas and the squad that touched down on Tokyo’s Narita Airport at the weekend is fully a domestic-based roster, the only one of the 16 nations taking part (ironically, Egypt’s only overseas star, Ahmed Hegazi, plays in Saudi Arabia, for Al-Ittihad).

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It is a great opportunity for Abdullah Al-Hamdan, Saudi Arabia’s 21-year-old striker, who could follow in the footsteps of Abdulrahman and make an international name for himself. Al-Hilal swooped in February to take Al-Hamdan away from Al-Shabab on a five-year deal. The Riyadh rivals were a little upset at seeing the talent they had helped develop at the club for years head across the city to the defending champions and, given what he is capable of, that bitterness is understandable.

While Al-Shabab may take time to come around, the rest of Saudi football have high hopes for the powerful striker who does not seem to have any weaknesses — good in the air, on the ground, and capable of creating goals as well as scoring them.

There have been concerns over the firepower of the Young Falcons in the big games against Ivory Coast, Germany and Brazil. If Al-Hamdan can step forward and get on the scoresheet, he will not only give the team a chance to improve a dismal Olympic record but also show that he is the ready to be the main marksman for the senior side for the next decade. With qualification for the 2022 World Cup due to start in September, and in a league where so much of the striking talent is foreign, Saudi Arabia need the Al-Hilal star to be as good as he can be.  

A six-month stint with Spain’s Sporting Gijon in 2019 gave Al-Hamdan a taste of Europe. He has already had a taste of being a full international player, and now the Olympics will provide a perfect chance to make a global name for himself.

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Omar Abdulrahman did it in London and Abdullah Al-Hamdan can do it in Tokyo.

It is no secret that Saudi players rarely go overseas and the squad that touched down on Tokyo’s Narita Airport at the weekend is fully a domestic-based roster. (Twitter: @saudiolympic)
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