Conspiracy and heartbreak: This week in Middle East football

Conspiracy and heartbreak: This week in Middle East football
A state sell-off of Saudi Arabia's super-clubs and bizarre allegations of conspiracy against Iran have not made up for the disappointment of defeat in the Champions League final.
5 min read
28 Nov, 2016
Omar 'Amoory' Abdulrahman was inconsolable after the defeat in the AFC Champions League Final [AFP]
The eyes of all Middle Eastern football fans were these week on the Asian Champions League final in Al-Ain, but before that match kicked off we were all treated, yet again, to a demonstration of how the region's political relations and ethnic tensions can interfere in the beautiful game.

Saudi privatisation

In Saudi Arabia, the government announced a plan to privatise the country's football clubs.

The decision has been discussed during the past year, but was approved this week by King Salman Abdulaziz and the cabinet. By next season, mega-clubs such as Al-Hilal, Al-Ahli, Ittihad and Al-Nasr - that for years have enjoyed seemingly endless state oil money to enhance their capabilities in competitions both foreign and domestic - will be standing on their own feet.

These clubs have in recent years surged ahead from other Saudi clubs, and are all counted as strong sides across Asia.

The privatisation process comes as part of a much larger project to encourage sports activity in wider groups of society. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is implementing sweeping reform plans to diversify the kingdom's economy away from oil, and to create and encourage the Saudis into better leisure pursuits and healthier lifestyles.

Only the future will tell what this state sell-off of football clubs will lead to.

Iranians blame AFC for corruption

Almost two weeks after the most recent 2018 World Cup Qualifiers, one match is refusing to leave the headlines.

Syria "hosted" Iran in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, due to the security situation in its own country. The match - more a mud-wrestling show than pro-soccer clash - concluded in a horrific 0-0 tie at the Tuanku Abdul Rahman Stadium in Seremban.

Mudbath: The pitch for the Iran-Syria game was destroyed
by monsoon rains in Indonesia [AFP]

Before the match, the Iranian delegation had multiple complaints against the stage chosen for the match, as serious monsoon rains ruined the pitch completely.

Carlos Queiroz, Iran's Portuguese coach, was furious with the Asian Football Association at the pre-game press conference, and during the match argued with Iraqi referee Ali Sabah Al-Qaysi.

After the game, Iranian FA President Mehdi Taj also criticised the AFC decision to hold the match in such conditions, and claimed it was fixed to "tackle" Iran's efforts to qualify for the World Cup.

And in the past week, a conspiratorial six-minute video was released on Vimeo, going viral across Iranian social networks and football websites. The video presents a complicated theory of alleged corruption by AFC representatives and match officials, all in order to harm Iran.

The video exploits international tensions between Iraqis and Iranians, relying on the nationality of the match referee, and hinting at ethnic tension between Arabs and Persians, while describing the whole scene as an Arab "scam" by AFC officials.

Reactions to the video range between supporting the theory to categorising it as "racist" and "another Iranian paranoid conspiracy".

Iran is top of Group A and are on their way to Russia, but if they lose points in future games, this match in Malaysia against Syria - together with the tensions arising from it will be back faster than a defender chasing a long ball.

Amoory's tragedy

The second leg of the Asian Champions League Final, between Al-Ain from the UAE and Korea's Jeonbuk, took place on Saturday in Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al-Ain.

More than 23,000 fans squeezed into the stands, creating an amazing atmosphere along with the stylish opening ceremony. After a 2-1 victory in the first leg, Jeonbuk focused on defence, targeting Al-Ain's biggest star, Omar Abdulrahman. Amoory languished under the closeness of Choi Cul Soon's marking, and struggled to produce his regular form.

Al-Ain pressured constantly, but it was Jeonbuk that got on the score board first; a corner to the unmarked Gyo Won Han who scored an important away strike, making it 1:0 to the Koreans.

Al-Ain answered immediately from a corner of its own. Caio lobbed the ball and it was Al-Ain's Korean midfielder Myong Joo Lee who knocked it into the left corner to draw level at 1-1.

From this point, Al-Ain struck in anger repeatedly ay Jeonbuk's goal, and the match intensity stepped up a couple of degrees. the most crucial moment of the match came in the 40th minute, with a penalty awarded to Al-Ain.

While everyone expected Amoory to take it, the man of the hour left the shot for Brazilian striker Douglas, who sent it embarrassingly wide. The stadium was left in complete shock and tensions edged ever closer to boiling point, with staff on the benches getting into the excitement with a short brawl between the two holding up the match for few minutes at the end of the first half.

The second half was an intense fight, with Jeonbuk's keeper, Soon Tae-Kwon, putting up a remarkable goalkeeping display against any effort from the Emiratis in purple. Amoory had one last chance in the 94th minute, but mirroring Lionel Messi in the 2014 World Cup final, sent it far away from goal.

The draw at the final whistle left Jeonbuk winning 3-2 on aggregate, and led to explosive scenes of ecstasy among Korean fans

The Korean team have emerged from the scandal of being caught bribing referees to the honour of the greatest club title available on the continent within just a few short months.

Omar Abdulrahman won the tournament Most Valuable Player award, but still couldn't provide a smile. And how could he? Al-Ain was close to the title for the first time since 2003, but will have to wait yet longer.

Until then, Amoory - the best player in the Middle East - will be remembered as the one who did not take that crucial penalty in the Asian Champions League final.

An interesting development in Saudi football, old demons between Iran and the Arab countries, and a huge disappointment for the whole region in the Asian Champions League final, which has not seen a Middle Eastern champion since 2011. In Amoory we trust, for 2017.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East.

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