Algeria's epic clash: This week in Middle East football

Algeria's epic clash: This week in Middle East football
From Algeria to Saudi Arabia, catch up on the clashes of football titans in the Middle East and North Africa this week.
5 min read
08 Mar, 2017
Football in Algeria is much more than a sport [Bab el-Oued neighbourhood-AFP file photo]
Middle Eastern football is known for its fierce derby games; each country has its own fierce rivalry.

The Derby of Algiers - USMA (Union Sportive Médina d'Alger) versus MCA (Mouloudia Club d'Alger) - is, however, something else entirely.

Football in Algeria is more than just a sport. Here, it symbolises politics, identity and a reflection of the local clash of civilisations and societies in a country that was only freed from colonial French rule in 1962.

The Algiers Derby, which dates from 1940, represents the two-sided history of one of the most complicated and beautiful cities in North Africa.

While MCA kept its Muslim roots from the Kasbah and Bab Al-Wad, the Muslim neighbourhoods of the city, USMA, or Ittihad, left religious connections behind following independence, and became more identified with the Algerian post-war narrative.

Both teams usually play their matches at the modest Omar Hammadi Stadium in the city, but the Algerian Derby has its own stage: The 5th of July 1962 Stadium, a modern colosseum of 80,200 seats.

The 67,000 tickets sold out within just a few hours of the box office opening on Thursday afternoon securing an electrifying environment for Saturday. And that’s exactly what happened.

Both teams decorated the stands with impressive fan signs, and the game got underway. MCA fans kicked off with a pyrotechnics show, and their team were sparked into action.

Mouloudia went 2-0 up after only ten minutes of play, displaying powerful football and a complete control of the field. Seguer and Bougueche scored. But when Ittihad fans might have thought the derby would be green and red all over, Rabie Meftah, the national team's defender, pulled one goal back, 2-1 to MCA - and before the crowd could sit down again, Benyahia scored a terrific equalizer and made it 2-2. The stadium was in flames

The second half cooled down, and the match finished in a draw, helping league leaders, Sétif, pull six points ahead of their two main rivals for the title.

The Arab world is full of great rivalries, but the Algerian one is definitely one of the greatest among them.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia held its breath, as Ittihad Jeddah and Al-Hilal from Riyadh met for the Saudi El Clásico

Meanwhile, in the Gulf

In the Emirates, the title race got itself a serious tilt on Saturday evening, as the previously unstoppable leaders, Al-Jazira, lost to former champions, Al-Ahli Dubai, at Al-Rashid Stadium, Dubai.

The league's top scorer, Ali Mabkhout, missed a penalty on the 68th minute, but immidiatly collected the rebound and converted, 1-0 to Al-Jazira.

Al-Ahli are going through a problematic season with new ownership and difficulties in contract renewal negotiations over the club's biggest star, Ahmed Khalil.

Salmeen Khamis equalled the score eight minutes later, but then Al-Ahli went down to 10 players, as Khamis Esmaeel saw his second yellow card and was sent off.

Game over for Fursan? Guess again. Six minutes before the final whistle, Ghanaian megastar Asamoah Gyan found Everton Ribiero inside the box, and the Brazilian scored from close range.

Al-Ahli up 2-1, leaving just six points at the top of the table between Al-Jazira and Al-Ahli, who are just seven ahead of from Al-Ain.

Al-Jazira has dominated the Arabian Gulf League this season, and if they will miss out the title it will be one of the greatest shocks of the competition.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia held its breath as Ittihad Jeddah and Al-Hilal from Riyadh met for the Saudi El Clásico.

The Blues of Ramon Diaz arrived for battle in the league's first place, while the Tigers of Jeddah were ranked fourth.

Some 53,656 fans gathered at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah to see Tunisian striker Akaichi producing a curling finish, after a Fahad Al-Muwallad assist. 1-0 to the Watford-esque black and yellow stripes of Ittihad at half-time.

Ten minutes into the second half, Al-Hilal scored a controversial equalizer. An Ittihad defender was injured in the box, but Al-Hilal did not stop the match for treatment and Carlos Eduardo scored from close range.

In response, Ittihad players attacked Eduardo and a brawl erupted. The local fans began throwing everything to hand - mainly water bottles - towards Al-Hilal players. The sporting value of the match was lost, and Syrian starlet Omar Khribin doubled Al-Hilal's advantage in the 83rd minute.

It was all over in added time, as Nawaf Al-Abid scored from the penalty spot for Al-Hilal, making it 3-1 to the visitors. After 20 games in 2016/17, Al-Hilal is looking confident in going all the way to grab the championship title, after a long six years without triumphing.

In Lebanon, five teams decided to suspend their participation in the Lebanese Alpha League, in protest at the biased refereeing favouring the bigger clubs, Al-Ahed and Nejmeh

Levantine blues

Monday brought two surprising breaking headlines.

Turkish coach Tayfun Korkut has been named as Bayer Leverkusen's manager until the end of the Bundesliga season. Korkut, a former Turkey national team player who was born in Germany, took the job in Leverkusen after coaching several teams in Germany, including Hannover 96 and Kaiserslautern.

Despite a lack of success in his last job at 'lautern, Korkut arrives at Leverkusen after the team lost 6-2 to Dortmund on Saturday and coach Robin Schmidt was sacked. It has been a disappointing season for one of Germany's top clubs. But this is perhaps the biggest role for a Turkish manager in Europe since Fatih Terim was hired as AC Milan coach back in the summer of 2001.

Monday kept providing Middle Eastern football headlines, as in Lebanon, five teams decided to suspend their participation in the Lebanese Alpha League, in protest at the biased refereeing favouring bigger clubs such as Al-Ahed and Nejmeh.

Salam Zgharta (ranked second after losing to Ahed 1-0 thia past weekend), Ijtimaee, Tripoli, Nabi Chit and Tadamon Sour all joined the boycott.

Despite a good season overall in Lebanon after years of football instability, it is disappointing to see the professionalism of the game getting hurt by basic things like match officiating. Perhaps the option of inviting foreign referees to the Lebanese League is required to the find the right level of objectiveness and professionality.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here