A transfer with wide repercussions was concluded this week in Saudi Arabia.
It did not pertain to the latest globally renowned name to sweep into the Kingdom. This one had a distinctly, local flavour.
Al Hilal hoovering up premium talent is an age-old story. Rarely, though, have the record 16-time Saudi Professional League champions completed deals with bigger ramifications than their acquisition of Al Shabab prospect Abdullah Al Hamdan.
Unmatched influence upon Saudi Arabia’s prospects are dictated by the 21-year-old’s progress, or lack thereof, in the coming years.
Reach his potential and the Green Falcons hold a long-term answer to their problem position. Suffer arrested development, however, and the ascension initiated by Bert van Marwijk for the World Cup 2018 cycle will continue to stutter.
It is not hyperbole to declare Al Hamdan could be Asian football’s defining player for the 2020s – for good, or bad. A bold statement, of course, not based on current attainment.
Son Heung-min’s crown won’t be relinquished anytime soon taken by a striker with just two goals in 15 SPL games this term.
But rare ability is exemplified by eight assists from these appearances. A tally two greater than any other player in the division, plus three greater than combined outputs of celebrated future team-mates Andre Carrillo (three) and Sebastian Giovinco (two).
A return of four strikes from 11 caps also exemplifies bountiful promise, plus a lineage which includes ex-Shabab Abdulrahman Al-Hamdan as his father.
— AlHilal Saudi Club (@Alhilal_EN) January 26, 2021
It is simple to understand why Hilal were so eager to secure a five-year contract once the ex-Sporting Gijon loanee becomes a free agent in the summer. Especially in the face of great rivals Al Nassr’s aggressive Saudi recruitment drive.
It is also simple to see why Al Hamdan has been pegged as the belated figure to fire the Saudis to a first Asian Cup success since 1996, or maintain their spot at the World Cup after a painful 12-year absence.
It was at the global tournament in Russia where inadequacies up top became apparent.
Mohammad Al Sahlawi went from 16-goal hero of the qualifying campaign, to a forlorn presence. He’s not played internationally since.
This was already a tournament too far for ageing 2014 AFC Player of the Year Nasser Al Shamrani.
Saudi Arabia would then go into the 2019 Asian Cup with electric Al Ittihad winger Fahad Al Muwallad as a ‘false 9’. They would exit, unsatisfyingly, at the round of 16.
Enter Al Hamdan. He’s been a bright spot throughout Herve Renard’s, coronavirus-interrupted, tenure.
His opening years in Shabab’s first team, though, have been less predictable. Impacted by the SPL’s expansion to seven foreign players, opportunities up top are limited.
Only 55.8 per cent of his 43 top-flight run-outs have been starts. A tale repeated across a division where none of the 16 teams has an undisputed Saudi starter up front for 2020/21.
This competition will be further intensified at Hilal, where mere domestic dominance is never enough.
Ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis has proved an immovable object to the 27-year-old Saleh Al Shehri, a Saudi striker who scored an exceptional 16 times in 25 SPL matches for Al Raed throughout 2018/19. This figure from just one season is more than three times Al Hamdan’s career total (five).
A dream scenario is that Al Hamdan receives an invaluable education alongside Gomis throughout next season, before taking over when the veteran’s lucrative contract expires in June 2022.
But is it realistic at a club which demands the absolute best for their storied ‘No9’ position? Al Hamdan, in the era of seven foreigners, will have to do something utterly extraordinary to convince them not to buy a non-Saudi of similarly exalted standing to Gomis.
A situation, then, with plentiful possible outcomes. The whole of Saudi Arabian – and Asian – football should watch how it plays out with interest.
Know more about Sport360 Application