MENA Sports Wrap: Gaza continues to take centre stage in football
Gaza remains at the front of football fans minds' in the Middle East, but in Iraq there have been rare celebrations after a colossal win over a well-funded Saudi club.
Baghdad's Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya faced Al-Ittihad this week, a Saudi side replete with big names following a recent multi-million dollar spending spree. The David and Goliath match ended with a surprising result.
Meanwhile, hardcore Celtic fans from The Green Brigade ultras, who have for weeks been at the vanguard of Palestinian solidarity in Europe, remain banned from matches. The club has said the ban is not over their pro-Palestine activism.
Fanfare and a firing: Saudi team Al-Ittihad's star recruits defeated in Iraq
Karim Benzema, N'golo Kante and the rest of Saudi football team Al-Ittihad arrived in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil on Saturday, to much local excitement.
The team were in town for an AFC Champions League group stage match with Iraqi side Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, a Baghdad team with a proud and successful history but without the international star power Al-Ittihad has acquired in a recent Saudi spending spree.
Neither Iraqi Kurdistan, nor Iraq proper, gets much in the way of visits from world-famous footballers. But Iraqis are fervorous in their love for football, especially the El Clasico rivalry between Real Madrid - the team for which Benzema was a talisman over a decade - and Barcelona.
The players met with Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, and grandiose graphics of Benzema dressed in traditional Kurdish clothing with the Erbil citadel as backdrop were produced by local media.
Al-Ittihad are one of the Saudi domestic league's most prestigious teams, and were last year Pro League champions.
PM @masrourbarzani welcomed @ittihad_en and world-class footballer Karim Benzema.— Kurdistan Chronicle (@KurdChronicle) November 6, 2023
Al-Ittihad and al-Quwa al-Jawiya are in Erbil for an epic AFC Champions League match.
Erbil is designated the home ground for Iraq’s al-Quwa al-Jawiya due to the stability of the Kurdish region. pic.twitter.com/OBIeif4PyP
The Saudi Pro League is going through a big shake-up, receiving injections of hundreds of millions of dollars so that it can meet the Gulf kingdom's ambitions for it to be among the best leagues in the world. Benzema and Kante were among Riyadh's biggest coups.
But the Saudi team have had a bad run of late, including a string of domestic league losses that have left them languishing at sixth in the table. Their losing streak followed them out of Saudi Arabia, and they were defeated 2-0 at Erbil's Franso Hariri stadium.
Al-Ittihad remain top of their AFC Champions League group, but the series of losses were enough for the club to sack manager Nuno Espirito Santo on Tuesday, after a stint as coach that lasted 16 months. Assistant coach Hassan Khalifa will assume the helm until a replacement is found, the club said in a statement.
The triumphant Iraqi players won more hearts by parading the Palestinian flag after the final whistle.
Palestine flag ban debated
Celtic's Green Brigade remain locked out of Celtic Park after pro-Palestine demonstrations over the past month sparked controversy in Scotland.
The Celtic ultras have been barred from home and away games by the club, which supporters said was over their traditional support for the Palestinian cause.
This included raising dozens of Palestinian flags at the North Curve and banners condemning Israel's assault on Gaza.
The club has now said that the Palestine flag is not banned but that the Green Brigade had flouted health and safety rules.
Celtic fans out in force on huge national demo for Palestine in London pic.twitter.com/DOehyVM2Qt— Liam O'Hare (@Liam_O_Hare) October 28, 2023
"In short, as a result of the accumulation of unacceptable behaviours, the lack of compliance with the Ground Regulations, the Rail Seating Safety Code of Conduct and requests by the Club, it is not considered possible at the moment to manage safety within Celtic Park with ‘Green Brigade’ members in the stadium," Celtic FC said in a statement.
"It was therefore necessary to suspend the Season Tickets of all Season Ticket holders who have registered with the Ticket Office as being part of the ‘Green Brigade’ supporters' club."
The club said this affected 267 supporters and they will be fully refunded.
Celtic's Green Brigades have made countless political statements at matches via tifos and banners.
The Scottish club's main support base is from Ireland and the Irish diaspora, many of whom are sympathetic to Irish Republicanism and international struggles such as the Palestinian cause.
There have been numerous shows of support for Palestine since Israel launched a devastating assault on Gaza on 7 October.
Videos have shown scores of football fans in Indonesia raising placards that formed a Palestinian flag across the stand. This was reportedly in defiance of a ban of the Palestinian flag, which FIFA denied saying no such restrictions on the flag and that Palestine is a member of the footballing body.