Heartbreak and golden boys: This week in Middle East football

Heartbreak and golden boys: This week in Middle East football
In the Asian Championship League, Arabs received heartbreaking news this week with Al-Hilal's dramatic loss, but on the other side of the world, Egyptian golden boy Mohammad Salah is compensating.
5 min read
27 Nov, 2017
Mohammad Salah is becoming a mega-icon in his native Egypt [Getty]
Football is more than just a sport. It is a field of representations and dreams for nations, groups, peoples and individuals.

In many ways, Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal is its country's "dream team". The club always attracts the best players; always fighting for all the titles and inspiring millions across the Arab world and Asia, with pride, honour and glory.

At least, that's usually the way it goes.

On Saturday, after a tremendous season under Argentinean coach Ramon Díaz, the club lost in the 88th minute to Urawa Red Diamonds from Japan, losing out on the Asian Champions League title, breaking millions of hearts across the Middle East.

After the Blues of Riyadh ended their home game in a 1-1 draw, they went to Saitama with nothing but goals on their minds.

With Brazilian star Carlos Eduardo left out due to an injury from the first leg, much of the region's expectations fell on the shoulders of Syrian star Omar Khribin. And it didn't go well as the team failed to find the Japanese net, ably defended by goalie Shusaku Nishikawa.

Rafael Silva, Urawa's Brazilian striker, managed to score a beauty in a late counter-attack after Salem Al-Dawsari's red card left the Saudis down to ten men.

It was fitting that Silva was the player to score again after scoring the all-important away goal for the Japanese in Riyadh, where he was harassed by the host club's fans with racist chants.

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Silva's goal killed the Arab dream. After four Arab national teams qualified for the World Cup, another dream emerged - three Arab teams to qualify for the Club World Cup next month. But now, the dream of an Arab celebration in the UAE is gone, as the Hilalees won't join Wydad Casablanca and Al-Jazira Abu Dhabi as the MENA region representatives at FIFA's club competition.

After a great year for Al-Hilal, with a first championship title after some years, a great coach and a terrific franchise player in Khribin, now it's time for questions.

After the shock termination of Edgardo Bauza's contract as national team coach after just five friendly games, rumours in the Gulf are suggesting that Díaz, thr former Argentina and River Plate coach, will receive an offer for the Saudi national team post. It is still unlikely that he will take it, but the loss in the Champions League final definitely hasn't helped make the situation any clearer - with such a disappointment for the most popular club in Saudi Arabia in particular, and the region in general.

Mohammad Salah proves to be worth his weight in gold

A One Man Egyptian Show

When Liverpool bought Mohammad Salah in the summer, it was mentioned here that the deal was a "Win-Win" situation for both sides. Back then, Salah was a good prospect, after an excellent season at Rome in Italy's Serie A - but with a bitter memory of his previous stint in the Premier League at Chelsea, three years previously.

Fans on Merseyside were optimistic, but nobody believed that the 25-year-old Egyptian, who was born in Nargig, a small village near Basyoun, Gharbia, 150km from Cairo, would have such an immediate, indispensable and lethal impact for Liverpool.   

In 20 games this season so far, Salah has scored 15 goals, provided four goal assists, and has been chosen twice for the Champions League player of the week award and twice as Liverpool's player of the month, He is carrying the world-famous team on his shoulders.

If that wasn't enough, this weekend he scored a crucial goal against his infamous former club, Chelsea, and in an act of class, he did not celebrate - in order to share respect for the victims, casualties and survivors of the horrific terror attack in Sinai.

Alongside Senegalese forward, Sadio Mané, Salah is slowly but remarkably taking over England - and suddenly his current club looks like just another step in his high-flying career.

"He should, need and will play for Real Madrid. It's the club that fits him the most and soon he will be going there," claimed Mido, the controversial Egyptian football personality.

But before a mythical transfer to the Spanish capital and the Arab world's favourite club, Salah has to win a title for Liverpool with Jurgen Klopp.

He won only a Swiss Supercup back in his days at Basel, and has a Premier League medal from Chelsea's triumph in 2013/14 - a team in which he wasn't a major part.

Together with Klopp, who after two and a half years must still prove himself to the scousers, it's not unreasonable to say that these two must win something for the Reds this season.

Salah, who keeps a shy and modest image, is becoming a mega-icon in Egyptian and Arab cultures. After Salah helped take Egypt to the World Cup for the first time since 1990, Mamdouh Abbas, the billionaire former Zamalek boss, offered him a villa as a gift. Salah refused to accept it and asked Abbas to donate the money to the youth centre in his home village, Nargigr.

The same Abbas, when he was at the helm in Zamalek, refused to buy Salah in 2011, claiming he was a "selfish player" and that he "prefers El-Neny more". Instead of remembering this gesture, Salah invited him and his son to watch his game against Chelsea.

Salah has played for neither of Cairo's major clubs. His roots come from El-Mokaweloon Al-Arab, a small club near the Egyptian capital, where he needed to take five buses to the training ground. He has come a long, long way already. Yet, it seems like the legend has only just begun its most epic chapters. 

Yallah Mo. 

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