Chaos and cups: This week in Middle East football

Chaos and cups: This week in Middle East football
Blog: A tempestuous end to the Arab Club Championship, Iranian players facing social media enmity over playing Israelis and the Palestine Cup goes to Gaza, writes Uri Levy.
5 min read
07 Aug, 2017
Tunisia's Esperance won the Arab Club Championship amid chaotic scenes [AFP]

The Arab Club Championship came to a chaotic end on Sunday night with the final between Esperance Taraji Tunis and Al-Faisaly Amman.

Neither team lost a match throughout the whole tournament and met in the final for a true thriller. The Tunisians went up for a 2-0 advantage just before the hour mark, with a brace by Bguir, include one dazzling free kick.

Al-Faisaly, who had a brilliant tournament with two victories over Egyptian mega-club Al-Ahly, came back thanks to goals from Zuway (74') and Bani Atiya (87').

But in extra time, the atmosphere turned aggressive, and after an ambivalent call by Egyptian referee Ibrahim Nour Al-Din, the Tunisians scored the third from Dhaouadi.

The whole Jordanian bench ran towards the referee in rage, while police officers and security guards surrounded the official. Extra time eventually continued as planned, but Al-Faisaly couldn't score an equaliser.

The club completed its third triumph in the Arab Championship, and won a lucrative bonus of $2.5 million. Hard luck to Al-Faisaly, who gave all they had. Esperance haven't lost a match since March, and look like a very solid team as the new 2017 season begins.

The Arab Club Championship was a great success, with quality matches, and a brilliant Twitter broadcast - even if fans and clubs did have to put up with poor refereeing throughout.

The regime's villains are the heroes of the people

In the Europa League 3rd qualifying round, Greek club Panionios, with its Iranian duo, Masoud Shojaei and Ehsen Haj Safi - both national team players - played host to Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv, for a fight for a playoff spot.

The Iranian stars did not play in the game's first leg, held in Tel Aviv, as they refused to travel to Israel. But they took to the field for the second leg in Athens.

In the match itself, Shojaei and Haj Safi began dominant, and then the mess began. Fans online began to speculate over their future in the national team, and local media began discussing the punishment the two would face when coming back to Iran.

The saga gained criticism and praise, all at the same time.

While the media and some fans were furious at the pair playing an Israeli team, other fans and high-profile footballers including Ali Karimi, Sardar Azmoun, Farhed Majidi and Mehdi Taremi all expressed their support for the national team captain, Shojaei, and Haj Safi.

In 2004/2005 Vahid Hashemian, then Iran's striker, played with Bayern Munich against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Champions' League, and wasn't fined, banned or otherwise punished. It will be interesting to see what the Iranian authorities' final reaction to this story will be.

The Iran Football Federation has indicated that an investigation is underway, and that a decision will be made only after a discussion with the two players.

In a funny coincidence, in the same match, in Maccabi's team, there played one player of Iranian origin. Ofir Davidzada's father was born and raised in Iran, and emigrated to Israel.

In the end Maccabi won 1-0. While sports have been known to ease political tensions in some cases, the Iranian-Israeli rivalry is unlikely to disappear so fast.

European football in the desert

A day earlier, Hapoel Be'er Sheva secured another season of European football, after eliminating Bulgarian champions Ludogorets. The Israeli team came into the second leg with a 2-0 advantage, but the Eagles from Razgrad opened strong - and led 3-0.

Be'er Sheva, who qualified last season to the Europa League's final 32, played poorly and looked on the fast-track to elimination. At that exact moment, the team's striker, Mohamad Ghadir, scored a goal from inside the box, giving the team a huge push and helping the squad to survive the final minutes before the whistle.

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Be'er Sheva will now play Maribor from Slovenia in the Champions' League playoffs, and then it will be decided whether the team will qualify for the first time in history for Europe's premier football competition - or if they will ply their trade for another season in the Europa League.

In wither case, another season of European football will be played in the Negev desert.

Palestine Cup goes to Gaza

Since 2015, the beginning of August has seen one of the more interesting cup finals of the year - the Palestine Cup - a double-header between the cup holders from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Ahli Al-Khaleel from Hebron have won it twice in two years, beating Gaza's Ittihad Shujaiya in 2015 and Shabab Khan Younis in 2016.

This year, after only eleven players of the Hebron team were allowed by Israel's military authorities to cross into Gaza, Ahli lost 2-0 to Shabab Rafah in the first match in the strip.

Al-Ahli couldn't handle the Gazan heat, one player was injured, the second goalie came in as a sub, and goalkeeper Azmi Shweiki started to play as a defender.

The second leg in Dura, Hebron, kicked off four days later. Rafah managed to get travel permission for 14 players of their 23-member squad, but nevertheless succeeded in their mission - a 0-0 draw after ninety minutes that marked an historic moment in the competition: A Gazan club is taking the Palestine Cup home. Mabrouk to Rafah.

Refugees welcome

At the end of last week, the Egyptian Football Association passed a series of new bylaws, including a rule that allows each team to register up to two Palestinian or Syrian players as domestic players. The EFA has decided to open its gates to players who come from places in the region in a state of turmoil.

Despite this, in 2017/2018 it is still illegal to have a non-Egyptian goalkeeper.

ENPPI signed Palestinian-Chilean Jonathan Cantillana a week ago, and look to be enjoying the new rule. Abdallah Jaber and Shadi Shaaban also tried to sign for Egyptian teams, but the fact they hold Israeli citizenship meant the deals fell apart.

While Palestinian citizens of Israel are still blocked from playing in Egypt, it now seems like Egyptian football may become a new venue for Palestinian and Syrian stars to show off their talent. Syria's Ahmed Al-Salih has already reportedly been contacted by Al-Ahly.

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.