Balls and walls: This week in Middle East football

Balls and walls: This week in Middle East football
Blog: The Hebron derby, the Baghdad clasico and a ray of hope for a end to the sporting aspect of the Qatar blockade.
4 min read
23 Jun, 2017

After a quick international break, this week has seen some serious clashes and cup action across the region.

Saturday night in Palestine was all about the West Bank Cup final, a Hebron derby between Ahli Al-Khaleel and Shabab Al-Khaleel.

For the Red Devils, Al-Ahli, it was the third final in a row, while for Shabab, probably the biggest club in Palestine, it was a comeback after years of absence from the final match.

Back in April, the teams met for an aggressive league fixture that ended up with a 2-1 victory for Shabab.

"After the league derby between us, it was clear that we needed to toughen up our game in order to overcome Shabab," Ammar Salman, Al-Ahli's coach, told The New Arab. And that's exactly what they did.

Dura International Stadium hosted the match, and thousands of fans, mostly Shabab supporters, filled the stands. But after ninety minutes of a physical thriller, the scoreboard still showed 0-0. The match went to a penalty shootout. Al-Ahli's keeper Azmi Shweiky stopped two shots, while Shabab's goalie Ghanem Mahajneh smashed the crossbar, before Ibrahim Habibi coolly netted the final penalty for Al-Ahli, and sent the fans of Hebron's smaller club to celebrate in ecstasy.

It was Al-Ahli's third consecutive triumph in the West Bank Cup. In the past three years it has become routine for the young club to win the cup and go on to beat the leading Gazan team to representing Palestine in the AFC Cup.

For coach Salman, it was a unique day. Salman coached Hilal Al-Quds last season, saving the club from relegation and qualifying for the West Bank Cup final, only to lose 3-0 to Al-Ahli, which he leads today. Salman, a Jerusalemite from Beit Safafa, who played all of his career in Israel and is regarded as Hapoel Jerusalem club legend, brought the shift Al-Ahli needed this season.

When he signed at the club in January, the club was ranked eighth, and the squad was already tiring.

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"My perception is relying on the players' joy and passion for the profession. If they feel challenged and enjoy the training - you can produce more from them," he said.  

Al-Ahli will now play in the Palestine Cup final against Shabab Rafah, and for Salman it will be the first time visiting the Gaza Strip since 1993. "This will be very exciting, as I haven't visited the place in 25 years. It's an emotional moment, for sure."

For the past two seasons of Palestinian football, Ammar Salman has established his trademark as one of the highest quality coaches on the scene. With another year of his contract with Hebron's red side, he and the club will be looking to win the Palestine Cup, represent the Palestinians in Asia and to build a strong infrastructure to lead the club to the only title it hasn't yet won - the West Bank League Championship.

Baghdad Clásico

Sunday evening was a perfect setting for Iraq's match of the season, the Baghdad derby between Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya and Al-Zawra'a. A full Al-Shaab Stadium with almost 40,000 fans was filled with smoke and flame for the biggest match of the Iraqi football calendar.

With both teams chasing Naft and Al-Shorta at the top of the league, but who have played fewer games due to their participation in the Asian continental competitions - every point is needed now.

Al-Jawiya opened with great motivation and went one up after 19 minutes as the team star, Hammadi Ahmed, snatched a loose ball from a defender, went through the keeper and rolled the ball into the open goal.

Al-Zawra'a was pressing high in response, and after almost an hour, Mohannad Abdulraheem, another local star, fired home from close range to finish the match 1-1.

While Al-Zawra'a is now way off the lead with 28 games played, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya has played just 25 matches, and have six games in hand, and can still conquer the league's top spot. The Air Force club can cope easily if the players remain focused, but in any case, the Iraqi League is far from decided.

A lifeline in the blockade?

After a rough two weeks of football sanctions, Saturday afternoon produced a glimpse of optimism for Qatar. Dr Humaid Al-Shaibani, a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council's FA and the Yemeni FA, confirmed that the 23rd Gulf Cup of Nations will go ahead as planned in Qatar, and will not be moved to the UAE - despite the rumours abounding in the Arabic press over the past fortnight.

The decision could be a lifeline for the Qatari FA, which was under serious attack.

It may be a sign of the crisis cooling, and that Qatar's biggest goal, the 2022 World Cup, is not in danger.

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