Games not war: This week in Middle East football

Games not war: This week in Middle East football
If the Palestinians win the next three games, and if Israel loses to Spain, the FIFA global rankings are likely to shock the world, writes Uri Levy
5 min read
11 Sep, 2017
Since the civil war, no Somali football match has ever been played at night [AFP]

After an emotional international break, club football has returned to action across the Middle East, with historic and symbolic events abounding.

While the leagues in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and beyond enjoyed their seasons' opening weekend, in Qatar, the local Super Cup - the Sheikh Jassim Cup - was held on Saturday night, between last year's cup holders Al-Sadd and a new club named Duhail - the result of the merger between two former mega-clubs, Lekhwiya and El-Jaish.

Before becoming Duhail, Lekhwiya won the Qatari Stars' League last season, and coach Djemal Beladi was looking for another trophy for the team cabinet. But it didn't go well for Beladi and his new club.  

Al-Sadd, who dominated last season in their cup-winning campaign, opened the match in terrific form, looking shiny and sharp.

Algerian striker Baghdad Bounedjah scored twice to put the Saddawies 2-0 ahead after only 20 minutes. Spanish legend Xavi Hernandez provided the Algerian with a superb assist for the second goal, reminding the local crowd of his former speciality way back in Barcelona.

Five minutes before halftime, Nam Tae Hee scored for Al-Duhail in order to make it 2-1.

When Almoez Ali scored his consolation goal for Al-Duhail it was too little too late

The second half continued in much the same way, with Al-Sadd on imperious form. Bounedjah completed his hat trick, before being fouled in the box 15 minutes before the final whistle.

His fellow Algerian international Jugurtha Hamroun sent the ball in from a free kick and made it a decisive 4-1. Duhail had no answers. When Almoez Ali scored his consolation goal for Al-Duhail it was too little too late - this night in Doha belonged to Al-Sadd and its Algerian superstars.

Let there be (flood)light

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On Friday evening, hundreds of Somalis gathered at the Banaadir Stadium in Mogadishu to watch the country's first football match under floodlight in more than 30 years.

Since the beginning of the civil war, no football match has ever been played at night due to security concerns, as the Banaadir Stadium, which was built in 1956 and is the oldest stadium in the country, had been severely damaged multiple times.

The FIFA-sponsored renovation of the stadium began in 2009 - the first time it had received serious maintenance since the 1980s - and welcomed 15,000 fans to its stands for a youth tournament under the lights. On the pitch, Waaberi District football team beat Hodan District 3-1, and won the tournament.

Somali Football Federation President Abdiqani Said Arab said the renovation of the stadium had turned the country around, and given a huge boost for to sports development in Somalia.

"Football is the main priority of the government and they will use it as a tool of peace building and stability," he told local media.

Stars in Jordan and Iraq

Iraq remains a war-torn country, with few positive international football moments on its home soil in recent years. But this weekend, an all-star team of former footballing greats arrived in Basra, and played against an "all-time Iraqi stars" team.

Rivaldo, Hernan Crespo and friends faced an historic Iraq team. Nashat Akram, Ahmed Radhi, Younes Mahmoud and Basra-born legend Hadi Ahmed - the oldest player on the field at 66 years - all took to the pitch in a team full of Iraqi national captains against the international greats.

The match ended 2-2 and was celebrated as a great success all round.

The visit of the World Stars delegation to Iraq - and Jordan few days earlier - comes as part of a publicity drive by the Iraqi government together with Prince Ali, in order to promote the full return of international football to Iraq, and other destinations in the Middle East.

While Basra fans may have got excited about the match, there is still a long way to go to influence FIFA inspectors, before international football is permitted to fully return to the country.

After losing to Macedonia and Italy, Israel - now ranked 70th - is likely to take a serious dive in FIFA rankings

Rankings set for a shake-up

Despite falling behind in resources, facilities and funds, Syria and Palestine are tipped to overtake Israel in the next round of FIFA rankings.

Syria, ranked 80th, pulled off a draw in Tehran to send them to the World Cup qualifications playoffs versus Australia. They are expected to jump at least to 76th in the world standings.

After losing to Macedonia and Italy, Israel - now ranked 70th - is likely to take a serious dive in FIFA rankings, and is expected to emerge somewhere around the 82nd place on the global rankings. If Israel lose their next match, against Spain, it will be official - Syria will be ranked higher.

Palestine, meanwhile, are the only team to win all their first three matches in the Asian Cup qualification round - with a +6 goal difference - and are currently ranked 93rd.

If the Palestinians get another three victories - beating Oman, Bhutan and the Maldives (a not impossible task) - and if Israel loses to Spain, Palestine will also rise above Israel in FIFA rankings for the first time in football history. And a few years ago, who would have believed that?

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.