Clash of titans: This week in Middle East football

Clash of titans: This week in Middle East football
The capitals of Iraq and Iran were both ignited by two local derbies, which brought more than just football to stadiums packed with tens of thousands of raucous fans.
6 min read
14 Feb, 2017
Cup winners Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (Iraqi Air Force team) played on Friday [AFP]
On both banks of the Tigris River - from the Green Zone to the Mohammed Qasim Road - the Baghdad Clásico swept through the Iraqi capital this weekend. The match between the champions al-Zawraa and cup winners al-Quwa al-Jawiya (the Iraqi Air Force team) took place on Friday afternoon with in an impressive display of passion that only the Iraqi crowd can produce.

The Iraqi league has a 20 teams format with the country's giants - Naft, Naft al-Wasat, al-Zawraa, al-Shorta and al-Quwa al-Jawiya - all fighting for the title.

The league now consists of 19 teams after Erbil Club from Iraqi Kurdistan withdrew from the league in January following claims that the club can't protect its spectators and visiting teams from the threat of nearby Islamic State group militants.

The Iraqi FA refused to assist the club with extra protection, claiming security is the club and municipality's responsibility. After an incident involving IS chants from visiting fans, the club announced its official withdrawal from the Premier League and opted to be relegated to the second tier.

Over in Baghdad, the game was heating up as al-Quwa al-Jawiya - based at the Rusafa district of the city - wanted to make up for lost domestic games due to their AFC Cup run at the end of 2016. Club Al-Zawraa from Karkh are in trouble as both Naft and Naft al-Wasat opened a gap from them in the top of the table.

On match-day, the stadium was already packed out one hour before kick-off. Around 50,000 fans gathered in the "People's Stadium", as two of the Iraq's top clubs prepared for the Baghdad derby.

The match started at a high pace, as the crowd was pushed the players to go on the attack. With the game nil-nil at half-time, it took a while for any goals. Then in the 78th minute al-Zawraa scored from the legs of Alaa Abd al-Zahra after a very nice attack of the hosts. The crowd went nuts and were on the verge of spilling onto the pitch. The game accelerated, and in the 84th minute al-Zawraa won a penalty.

National team star, Mohannad Abdulraheeem went to take the spot kick, but al-Quwa's goalie, Talib, saved with the tip of his glove and kept "al-Nawaris" with just a one goal lead.

With the penalty saved "al-Soqoor" were encouraged and the players rushed forward, which saw Amjad Radhi hit the goal into the next from inside the box to make it 1-1. What a finale for the Baghdad Clásico, and has made both teams desperate for victories in the coming games as the top place is slipping between their hands, which would hint at plenty more action in the Iraqi league this season.

Egyptian drama

More information about the much anticipated Arab Club Championship came in this week with the date set for the tournament: 21 July to 5 August in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

Teams from all over the Arab world will take part in the 27th edition of the lucrative Arab Football Association tournament, which makes a comeback after a four year absence.

Lebanese vice-champions al-Ahed shined in the preliminary round after they eliminated Bahraini Riffa, Palestinian Shabab al-Khalil and Omani side, Fanja. The teams that will take part in this year’s competition are al-Nasr and al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia), al-Ain (UAE), al-Ahed (Lebanon), al-Faisaly (Jordan), Naft al-Wasat (Iraq), al-Ahly and Zamalek (Egypt), Esperance (Tunisia), Fath Union (Morocco) and Tabaregh Zeina (Mauritania) or al-Merreikh (Sudan). The latter two teams will play their Africa Zone play-off round in the forthcoming weeks.

Any clash between a Saudi and an Iranian team will almost certainly reflect the boiling political atmosphere between the two countries.

The Asian Champions League and the AFC Cup draws were also held last week, creating interesting draws for Middle Eastern teams. Seven clubs from the region were trying to qualify for the group stage with the Saudi, Iranian, Qatari and Emirati teams automatically qualifying. 

One of the most interesting clashes in the play-off round was between Tehran mega-side Esteghlal FC who faced Qatar's al-Sadd. The Iranian team were recently troubled by a ban from signing new players but knocked out the Qatari side - featuring Spaniard magician Xavi - with 4-3 victory on penalties, and continued to the group stage. 

There should be some intense regional rivalries in the future rounds. Any clash between a Saudi and an Iranian team will almost certainly reflect the boiling political atmosphere between the two countries.

In the Asian Champions League we have these kind of battles in every group. The most notable clashs are probably in Group A between Iran's Esteghlal and Saudi Arabia's Taawoun and in Group D between Saudi giants al-Hilal and Iranian champions Persepolis. 

The Tehran Clásico

On Sunday afternoon, 78,000 spectators filled the Azadi Stadium in the Persian capital to witness the most important sport event of their season – the Tehran derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis.

In many cases, this derby represents an Iranian "clash of civilizations". The rivalry goes back to the times of the Shah. While Persepolis - founded in 1968 - represented working-class Tehranis, Esteghlal - established in 1945 under the name Taj (crown) - was the favourite of the king and the Persian elites.

Esteghlal are still represented by Tehran's elite - just a very different one than the days of the Shah.

Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, many aspects of local culture and society changed to reflect the new order and even in football. This is how Taj got its new name - Estghlal (Independence), losing its royalist identity.

Meanwhile, Persepolis changed to Pirouzi but the fans failed to adjust to the new name and the club retained its old title. 

Persepolis is now viewed as a symbol of secular values in football, while Esteghlal are still represented by Tehran's elite - just a very different one than the days of the Shah.

The sensitiveness of this clash, between two distinct social groups, has taken a violent twist in the past, involving fans, players, managers and the destruction of public property. Therefore, security on derby day is usually very tight.

In recent years Persepolis have been the better side, winning the majority of the derbies and dominating the local scene. On Sunday, the Tehrani crowd witnessed another turn in history.

Persepolis, the favourite to win the league, took an early lead with a goal from Soroush Rafiei. It looked like another easy game for the team in red but then the Blues woke up. In the 18th minute, Farshid Esmaeli equalised. Two minutes later Ali Ghorbani made 2-1 for Esteghlal and in the 44th minute, Kaveh Rezaei hit in a third to make the score 3-1 for the Independence club.

Both fans were in shock. Persepolis efforts in the second-half led to one goal in the 88th minute, but it wasn't enough. Esteghalal won their first derby since 2011. Persepolis are still at first place in the league, but there will be a hit to morale from this loss and a boost for their city rival. 

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