A couple of weeks on from the Asian Cup final, our Asia’s Rising Stars series continues with Martin Lowe’s look at one of the most complete defensive talents to come out of the Middle East in the last few years. Emerging from a difficult cycle, where a golden generation was finally fazed out, Bahrain equipped themselves well over the last month receiving plenty of plaudits for their new found focus on youth. With European interest already swirling around their top talents, we profile the next player looking to make the jump abroad.
Name: Hamad Al-Shamsan
Position: Centre Back
Predicting the next breakout star to emerge from a tournament such as the Asian Cup is largely a pursuit based on luck. For all the talent in the world, the tournament arena will likely make or break a player, and for all the hype surrounding certain young players prior to January’s continental showpiece, a few found it difficult to live up to the lofty expectations put upon their shoulders.
One man who performed above those set for him, however, was Bahraini centre back Hamad Al-Shamsan. A defender that had only risen to prominence late on in his nation’s Asian Cup preparations, who hadn’t experienced any competitive minutes for the national team prior to the tournament, no senior minutes whatsoever away from Bahrain, all whilst having less than a year’s experience of top flight club football under his belt. The convincing individual performance to come comprehensively smashed what subdued expectations we had of him out of the water.
Al-Shamsan was nothing short of a colossus in the Bahrain back four during the Asian Cup. While his experience on paper was fleeting, he was thrust straight into the fold, slotting in next to the considerably well-drilled Waleed Al Hayam in the centre of defence; the 21-year-old effortlessly looked like a player older than his years. From first glance he really has all the hallmarks of a future national team hero; significant pace, an imposing physique and smooth technique, there are few comparisons to be made with anyone across Asia within his age group.
Be that as it may, his club career had an underwhelming start. Developing with second tier club Budaiya in his formative years, Al-Shamsan’s ascension went up a notch last season, as he led the club to promotion, where they boasted the stingiest defence in the league. With this success the Manama born centre back was granted the big transfer he deserved, moving to the sleeping giant of Bahraini football, Al-Riffa, who had struggled for form over the course of the season, especially in defence, where at times they were pulled into a previously unthinkable relegation dogfight.
Alongside a new coach in Ali Ashour, who led Al-Najma to an unexpected second place finish last season, Al-Shamsan has been integral in the resurgence felt at the club over the last six months. Al-Riffa currently sit top of the pile after 10 matches, an attractive side going forward, but noticeably a more solid defensive unit, having conceded a Premier League low of 8 goals so far. After five years without a title to their name, the second most successful Bahraini club of all time look set to return to championship winning ways this term, while a final appearance in the King’s Cup secured this week looks to add yet more silverware to the club’s significant trophy room.
Al-Shamsan’s move to Riffa coincided perfectly with an upturn in form for the national team. After a miserable start to qualification, that had promised so much on the lead up, Argentine coach Sergio Batista was axed as Bahrain made an example of the exiting golden generation that had clearly seen better days. Into the hot-seat came Czech coach Miroslav Soukup, a comparable unknown, but a man with a fixed vision of building a side in his own image.
Soukup’s reputation, even within Asia (he previously coached in Yemen) was muted, yet he’d already accomplished plenty in his short career, having led his homeland to an Under 20 World Cup final against a Sergio Aguero inspired Argentina team in 2007. With Bahrain having missed out on their primary target of World Cup qualification early on, Soukup was a cheap alternative that could steady the ship and potentially bring through the next generation of players as the cycle threatened to peter out.
In that regard, he surpassed his brief, romping through Asian Cup qualification and going on to make the knockouts in the Emirates. All this was achieved whilst moving on from the likes of Ismael Abdullatif, Faouzi Aaish and Abdulla Al-Hazaa, in favour of fresher blood hailing from the Bahraini Premier League. Wide midfielder Ali Madan, full back Ahmed Juma and imposing striker Abdulla Yusuf subsequently blossomed after being granted consistent game time. The style of play also changed, from a more direct, physical game, to a well-thought-out possession focused system, something that required artistry and calmness from defence; hence enter Hamad Al-Shamsan.
Having been brought into the camp during latter qualification, Al-Shamsan had to wait for his first senior minutes for Bahrain in home friendlies against Philippines and China in September 2018, before being selected for their Asian Games campaign in Indonesia. In those early days, he personified the calmness and responsibility Soukup required, coolly engineering play from defence, having the positional awareness to create space for the midfielders in front of him and the speed to catch out opposition attackers when in reverse.
His performances in Indonesia cemented his potential; guiding Bahrain out of the group stage, on the way to score an emphatic header against Malaysia, before crashing out in the Round of 16 to an impressive Vietnam side. While there were, and still are, some considerable doubts over this age group in particular (this isn’t a side that’s going to easily step into their predecessors’ shoes), Al-Shamsan was becoming the standout player, and so be it he was immediately instated into the starting centre back role at the Asian Cup, his first competitive national team outing, and his first senior appearance outside of Bahrain.
His overall game was deadly on point throughout the campaign, as Bahrain snuck up on everyone by making the knockout stages with a last-minute penalty (something Al-Shamsan himself earned thanks to a striker like feint to draw the foul) against India. While they shocked many in those dying moments, as a whole their performance merited progression. They were breached only twice in the group stage; once a debatable penalty in the opener against the hosts UAE, the second, Thailand’s winner, engineered by threatening space in behind the full backs, the general consensus was that Bahrain in the centre were an immovable force.
Al-Shamsan’s steady distribution, aerial dominance and searing pace in transition (most notably in his chasing down of Udanta Singh in the second half against India) was starting to put the player in the shop window. Their fall to defeat in the Round of 16 against South Korea was a difficult pill to swallow; again the goals came from wide areas, a weak spot where Bahrain succeeded more in an attacking sense than a defensive one.
Evaluating their progress at the Asian Cup, and Soukup’s almost three-year period in charge in general, Bahrain should have moved into a new World Cup cycle with a generally positive outlook. It was a big surprise then, when Soukup’s contract wasn’t extended. Whether he’s ticked the transition box sufficiently or not, we’re left in no doubt that Bahrain have looked a more complete unit under their Czech coach, than they ever had done under more recognisable names of the past, a worrying route in which the BFA will likely progress down once more.
For Al-Shamsan, his mentor at senior level may have exited, but his place as Bahrain’s undisputed first choice centre back is confirmed. The challenge now concerns his ambitions further afield, outside the modest backdrop of Bahraini domestic football. While passages into the Middle East are normally the next steps for stars of the BPL, the recent success story of Abdulla Yusuf, who has taken like a duck to water since he moved to the Czech Republic last year with Bohemians, gives hope to others that a shot at Europe isn’t out of the question.
Al-Shamsan’s Al-Riffa teammate Mohamed Marhoon, five months his junior and another who impressed at the Asian Games, has benefitted the quickest, following Yusuf to Bohemians after the Asian Cup, with the striker set to join Slavia Prague in the summer. The gradual drip-feeding of Bahraini talent into Central Europe, no doubt engineered by Soukup’s involvement of late, offers an avenue through which Bahrain can gradually close the gap on its regional neighbours. Having lacked top level continental football in the Asian Champions League for so long now, these sorts of opportunities look set to rebalance the equation. Given Al-Shamsan’s rise over the last year, he’ll undoubtedly be the next off the production line to be heavily linked with a move away to Europe.