Omar Abdulrahman's record-breaking loan move to Al Hilal is Europe's loss
Not many new signings touch down in a foreign country at 5 a.m. to be greeted by hundreds of fans at the airport, but that is what happened in Riyadh on Wednesday morning.
This was no Brazilian or Spanish superstar arriving however but Omar Abdulrahman, the United Arab Emirates international signing for Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal on a year-long loan.
The amount of fans was not the only impressive number. The Saudi champions are reportedly playing around €15 million to Al Ain, the club near the border with Oman that he will return to next August. It is the second-most expensive loan deal in history, behind that of Gonzalo Higuain and his move to Milan in July.
For those outside Asia, these sums may come as a surprise but less so for those that have followed the career of one of the biggest talents in the world's biggest continent.
Ever since "Amoory," born in Riyadh and a boyhood supporter of Al Hilal before he moved with his family to the U.A.E., burst onto the scene at the 2012 Olympics, the 26-year-old has been linked with all kinds of big European clubs. After impressing for his national team at Old Trafford, Manchester City offered Abdulrahman a trial and then a contract. It didn't happen, officially for work permit reasons but the player did not then feel he was ready for such a move.
Understandably so as there was no path for him to follow, no example to take heed of. Few players from Arabian West Asia have made it to Europe -- this can be due to comfortable salaries and environment at home, club owners reluctant to allow big names to leave and a lack of options overseas -- and it was asking a lot for a player, then just 20, to head so far from home.
Staying with Al Ain seemed a solid option though the expectation was that sooner or later, the playmaker would take his skills west and become a pioneer. Here was a player who could show Europe that there was talent in the region. The interest and links kept coming: Arsenal, Barcelona, Juventus and Liverpool, to name just a few.
He showed his skills and growing maturity at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia and was a standout as U.A.E. finished third. The following year, he helped Al Ain to the final of the AFC Champions League only to pick up a loser's medal thanks to Jeonbuk Motors of South Korea. Still, there was the consolation of being named as the 2016 AFC Player of the Year.
The big move was surely imminent and the player had often talked of his desire to head to Europe. There had been signs however that he was happy where he was. A big contract signed in 2015 was reportedly worth $4 million a year, though many thought the actual figure was higher. Already the biggest star in a region where he was feted, Amoory also did not need to move for financial reasons. Still an unknown quantity from an unrated part of the world, he was never going to command such a salary overseas, especially not one that is tax-free.
While moving from Al Ain to Al Al Hilal -- a historically massive club in Asia and one that has serious ambitions to become bigger -- does mark a step up, the deal sadly puts a move to Europe further away than ever.
The player will be almost 28 when the loan ends and he returns to Al Ain. If he has not moved to Europe in the past six years when there has been opportunity and interest, it is unlikely to happen now. There will still be time, just, but few Asian players leave the continent for a big European league at that kind of age.
Just as Abdulrahman seems to do what he wants on the pitch, he can do the same off it. If he is happy in the Middle East, then more power to him and the move to Al Hilal has been a major story in the region.
There are, however, many fans who would have loved the chance to see what one of Asia's most talented players could have done in Europe. It is not likely to happen now and it is Al Hilal supporters, and not just those that head to the airport before dawn, who will be in for a treat over the next 12 months.