Hopes and dreams: This week in Middle East football

Hopes and dreams: This week in Middle East football
Arab football received a massive boost this week, as FIFA announced that the World Cup could be expanded to 48 teams giving countries in the region new hopes of competing.
5 min read
17 Jan, 2017
Could we see more Arab countries taking part in future World Cups? [Getty]

Debate raged in the world of football this week when the FIFA council decided to dramatically expand the number of places in the 2026 World Cup. The change will see 48 countries take part in 2026 - up from 32 previously - and the move has angered many due to other controversial features of the system.

From 2026, World Cups will see 16 groups of three teams each with penalty shoot-outs in group stages. Discussion erupted about the viability on the new set-up and its impact on the most important event in world football.

Arab football boost

The final decision on the number of spots will be discussed in the next FIFA meeting in May, which is due to be held in Bahrain. While the general idea of changing the competition does sound problematic, the move could be hugely beneficial for Middle Eastern football nations.

At the moment 4.5 countries from Asia - including the Middle East - are allocated places in World Cups. If the new format goes ahead, Asia will enjoy 8.5 spots. The same goes for Africa, which currently sends five countries to the World Cup. From 2026, the continent would see nine representatives at the finals.

These changes will sound bad for Eurocentric football fans, but it will provide remarkable opportunities for Arab nations - who usually miss out on qualification - to take part in the competition. It would also be a huge boon for the region where football is as big - if not more - than in Europe.

Emerging football nations like Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, the UAE, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon or even Palestine could become semi-permanent fixtures in future World Cups - and through this invest more in cultivating the sport on home soil.

It is important to remember that qualifying for a competition does not replace the hard work that is needed in building the facilities and promoting the education needed for football to flourish. It will also require the implementation of professional habits and systems as new generations of budding footballers emerge in the Middle East.

"Who wants to deny Africa and Asia their extra places given the tremendous progress their players have made over the last generation," wrote Gray Naylor in his column The Guardian in defence of the new format.

In the New York Times, footballer writer James Montague spoke to several current or former football coaches in Africa and Asia. "Football is a second religion in Africa… having more places widens the door," Uganda's coach Milotin Serdejovic said in the article.

In the same piece, Bob Bradley, who worked with the Egyptian side during the 2011 revolution and the 2014 World Cup qualifiers also backed the idea. "For any team that's come close, the idea of an expanded World Cup sounds exciting. Having worked in a country where getting to the World Cup is so important, you understand."

Will the new format open the door for more Arab teams taking part in future World Cups? It will. Will it be beneficial for the future of football in the region? Only time will tell.

The Arab Club Championship

Meanwhile, at club level in the region Palestinian side Shabab al-Khalil hosted Lebanese side al-Ahed in the Jordanian capital, for the preliminary second round of the Arab Club Championship.

The excitement for the match at the Amman International Stadium was huge for the Palestinian side. Shabab al-Khalil enjoyed huge support from the local crowd thanks largely to the attendance of al-Wehdat fans, a club mainly backed by Jordan's Palestinian disapora.

Ashraf Numan was playing for Shabab, but the side were missing two key players - Aleis Normabuena and Pablo Tamburrini - due to New Year's vacation in Chile.

The game developed in a very similar way to the first leg in Saida, Lebanon. Ahed seemed to be the much better organised team, as Shabab continued to play poor football based on long balls towards Ahmed Abu Nahia and Ashraf Numan up front.

The 6,000 largely Shabab fans in the stands were silenced twice by Ahed players. Mohammed Haidar scored in the first half and made 1-0 for the Lebanese. The game continued with Ahed's dominance, and ten minutes before the final whistle, Hussein El-Zein scored the second. It concluded 3-0 to Ahed on aggregate.

After this defeat for Shabab al-Khalil it would be an understatement to say that the Palestinian club's season so far is not going well. The club is struggling in sixth place in the West Bank Premier League and are now eliminated from the pan-Arab competition.

The Hebronites will now be putting their hopes on progressing in the AFC Cup qualifications against Fanja from Oman. In an odd coincidence, al-Ahed's next rival in the Arab Club Championship play-offs will be against the same Omani club. Mabrouk to Ahed, hard luck to Shabab.

Al-Ain's eyes wide open

After starting the season late due to their participation in the AFC Champions League, UAE club al-Ain are finally back in the race for the title in the Arabian Gulf League. After a few months of being behind due to lack of games, al-Ain is closing the gap on league leaders al-Jazira.

The purple giants are without a loss in the league so far, and their victory against Hatta promised them second place - two points behind al-Jazira with a game in hand. Goals from Douglas, Caio and Khamis Mohammed's own-goal made it 3-0 to al-Ain, and only a drop in intensity allowed the hosts to score two quick goals.

After the failure in the AFC Champions League final and an early exit from Emirates President Cup, al-Ain are finally "back on the horse" and a threat to the title.

In the transfer market al-Ain are heavily linked with a move for Riyadh club al-Hilal's Nasser al-Shamrani. The 33-year-old Saudi is an experienced striker who has scored almost 70 goals since joining the blue giants from Riyadh.

In addition, he made 74 appearances for Saudi Arabia national team scoring 16 goals. Al-Shmarani is looking for more playing time and the Emirati club is indeed a respectable option. Al-Shamrani are also linked with Ittihad Jeddah, al-Ahli Jeddah and al-Ain title rivals - al-Jazira.

Al-Ain's comeback in the title race and the contact with a high-profile striker al-Shamrani are important steps for the Emirati club in order to remain competitive and retain Omar "Amoory" Abdulrahman, who aims to win the local title as well as the 2017 Asian Champions League.

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