Galas and goodbyes: This week in Middle East football

Galas and goodbyes: This week in Middle East football
Blog: Riyad Mahrez named African footballer of the year, Queiroz leaves Iran's national side and Lebanon's superstar packing his bags for Isfahan. Plus the return of a Syrian hero?
6 min read
09 Jan, 2017
Algeria and Leicester striker Riyad Mahrez was named Africa's footballer of the year [Getty]

The biggest headline of Middle East football this week came from Africa.

While the national teams are preparing for the Africa Cup of Nations, Algerian Riyad Mahrez was elected in a shining gala event as the best African footballer of the year.

The North African had a remarkable 2016, chosen as Premier League PFA Player of the Year after scoring 17 goals - and leading Leicester City to their first Premier League title in club history. Mahrez grabbed 361 votes, and was chosen ahead of Gabonese Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Senegalese Sadio Mané. Mabrouk ya Riyad!

Pan-Arab Football

The Arab Club Championship is always a thrilling competition. Arab teams from across the Middle East, both in Asia and North Africa, compete to be named the best Arab club.

On Tuesday, the second Asian Zone preliminary round held its first major clash - the Lebanese Al-Ahed hosted Palestinian Shabab Al-Khaleel at the Beirut Municipal Stadium.

Al-Ahed, Lebanon's Alfa League runners-up last season, is enjoying a terrific period. Qualifying for the AFC Cup semi-finals a few months ago, they have been producing exciting football and sit atop the Lebanese table, together with Ansar.

Shabab Al-Khaleel, meanwhile, is having a nightmare season in Palestine. After buying all the leading local stars - and the Chilean-Palestinian duo Alexis Normabuena and Pablo Tamburrini - the team has failed to preform, and is ranked only sixth in the Dauri Muhtarifin.

The news of the Palestinian team making its way to Lebanon quickly echoed through Israeli media, as Shabab Al-Khaleel has six Palestinian-Israeli players on their squad.

Lebanon and Israel have no diplomatic relations - and it is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter the Cedar country. But despite speculation of investigations and detentions, the Lebanese Border Police did not detain any of the players, who all enjoyed great reception at the Rafik Hariri Airport, and a sporting approach throughout the whole visit.

The game itself was held in chilly Lebanese capital, and the weather seemed to have a significant impact on Shabab's goalie, Toufic Ali Abu-Hammad. An amateur mistake by him led to a goal by Mohamad Kdouh, who clinched a goal from a close range.

Kdouh, 23, is the youngest scorer ever in the Arab Club Championship. Ahed won 1-0, and now all eyes will be set on Amman, where the second leg is planned to take place later this week.

Striker Riyad Mahrez is adored
from Leicester to Algiers [Getty]

Iran's winds of change

A mini-earthquake hit the Iranian Football Association and the national team's World Cup aspirations this weekend, as head coach Carlos Queiroz, handed in his resignation.

The Portuguese-born Queiroz - a former coach of the Portugal national side - indicated his reasons for resignation were a conflict of interest in the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign, and the involvement of agents and others in the team preparation plan. He later released a statement on his Facebook page.

The storm apparently began with an argument between Queiroz and Persepolis coach Branko Ivanovich, over the justifications for the national team to have a training camp outside a FIFA date. In this blogger's opinion, the hugely talented Queiroz - a former deputy to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and believed to be Fergie's choice for his successor - will be back in his position within two weeks. 

With Queiroz at the helm, Iran won first position in its World Cup qualifying group, and became the highest FIFA-ranked Asian team.

When minnows make history

There was spectacle and sensation at the United Arab Emirates President Cup, as Hatta Club made history and reached the semi-finals for the first time ever. The modest club from Dubai, which usually fails against bigger clubs, eliminated the Emirates Club on the weekend, with a lucrative 2-1 away victory.

Brazilian Samuel Rosa and Emirati Maher Jasem completed a comeback for Hatta, who will now try to continue their journey all the way to the final.

The President Cup quarter finals produced another shocking surprise, with Al-Nasr Dubai who kicked out the purple giants from Al-Ain, in Al-Ain!

The only goal came from the feet of Jasem Salman, who made it a tiny but huge 1-0 victory. The aspiring team of Omar Abdulrahman now bids farewell to another title dream after the loss in the Asian Champions League final last November.

A Lebanese goodbye

In the Lebanese Cup, Shabab Al-Sahel hosted league leaders Ansar for a quarter-final match that included a farewell to one of the league's most valuable players. Rabih Attaya is leaving the club for Iranian side Zob Ahan in Isfahan. The 27-year-old midfielder has been an important figure in Ansar for the past five years - and couldn't ask for a more heroic farewell match than yesterday's.

Shabab Al-Sahel led first, eventually pushing to a 3-1 scoreline, but thanks to Attaya's quality and focus, Ansar equalled the result in the 91st minute. Attaya provided two assists, and when the match went to penalties, his boot was decisive and helped his team progress to the semi-final.

Attaya is a legend in Lebanese football and it will be exciting to follow his career in Iran - a tough league providing quality competition. Good luck Rabea!

Can a rebel become a patriot?

Al-Ahli Jeddah striker Omar A-Somah is probably the best Syrian footballer in the world at the moment. Born in Deir ez-Zour, a city today occupied by the Islamic State group, he has scored 90 goals in 84 appearances for the Saudi national ambassadors. As the leading Arab scorer in the past few years, he is admired all across the Middle East.

But A-Somah hasn't become part of the Syrian national team, now reviving after some time of dormancy. Why? Like many other things in our region - because of politics.

During the 2012 West Asian Championship, after a game with the Syrian national team, A-Somah waved the rebels' flag, a move that he knew there would be no way back from.

He was banned from the team, one of the Assad regime's best PR tools. A year later the Syrian FA tried to call him back, but it was too late. A-Somah rejected their calls and tried to get Saudi citizenship.

But there have been rumours spreading this weekend in Syrian social media. An image of the Syrian national team was posted on Instagram. A 'Like from A-Somah was enough to set the country's social networks on fire.

Whether or not the story is true, the truth does remain that a majority of Syrian football fans want to see A-Somah back on the national team, irrespective of his support for either the Assad regime or the rebels. If he returns, no doubt many Syrians would rejoice. Omar, the ball is at your feet!


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