Iraq's glory, Hebron roulette: Middle East football this week

Iraq's glory, Hebron roulette: Middle East football this week
Blog: Death threats, a continental cup final and triumph for Argentine coaches.
5 min read
14 Nov, 2016
The AFC Cuo final saw Iraq's Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya face off against India's FC Bengaluru [AFP]

Despite being the beginning of November, the stories just keep on coming in Middle East football.

The week kicked off with bizarre and unpleasant rumours about Egyptian Ultras groups reportedly sending the Egyptian FA threats by emails and SMS, regarding the arrival of Ghana and its Israeli coach, Avram Grant, for the World Cup qualifier on November 13.

The messages allegedly contained threats to harm Grant at any point from his arrival at the country throughout the match itself. The immediate response from the FA seemed to be panic, but as the days passed, it became more sure there was little to substantiate any threats.

The issue of an Israeli coach, allowed to enter Egypt due to the peace agreement, was grabbing headlines ahead of the mass demonstrations that were planned in Egypt for November 11 - demonstrations that were, in the end, largely subdued and sparsely attended.

This wasn't the first time Egyptian-Israeli political tension was tested by a sporting event - in the summer's Olympics Judoka Islam al-Shehabi refused to shake the hand of his Israeli opppenent, Ori Sasson.

But the biggest story of the week arrived from a different part of the region - Iraq.

The AFC Cup final on Saturday evening at the Suheim Bin Hamed Stadium in Doha, Qatar, saw Iraqi team Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya face off against India's FC Bengaluru.

The excitement before the match was palpable - breaking records with both teams making history by reaching this stage of the Asian competition.

it was Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya's first continental final in the club's 85 years. Bengaluru, meanwhile, became the first Indian club to qualify for an Asian club competition final, sparking eruptions of huge enthusiasm among Indian football fans.    

Even Barcelona star Arda Turan tweeted about the match, supporting Bengaluru coach, Albert Roca, who had once been Turan's assistant coach at FC Barcelona.

From kick-off the differences in quality between the two teams were significant. Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, as a much more experienced side quickly took control of the match, and the surprised Indian team failed to threaten Iraqi goalie Fahad Talib.

In the 70th minute, Al-Quwa finally made it onto the scoreboard. The team’s star, Hammadi Ahmed, finished off an explosive counter attack after a smart pass from Amjad Radhi, and the Iraqi Air Force Club took the lead.

Former Chelsea boss Avram Grant was reportedly
the focus of death threats from Egyptian fans [AFP]

Bengaluru tried to find their key player, Sunil Chhetri, but it wasn't to be the lithe talisman's day, after he shined in the semi-final against Malaysia's Johor Darul T'azim.

The closing ten minutes of the match were full of Indian attempts to break forward, but time after time the Iraqis won possession and counter-attacked on the break. The Korean referee blew the final whistle after 97 minutes, sparking massive celebrations.

Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya won a one million dollar prize - but this was always a game that was about more than money.

Hammadi Ahmed, who finished the tournament as top scorer with 16 goals and was chosen as the AFC Cup MVP, was sprinting around the pitch with the Iraqi flag - this victory meant so much for the Iraqi players, coming from a war-torn country, where friends and family are killed randomly in terror attacks, a bit of football glory can be the perfect boost.


Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the successful season continued with a thrilling match between Al-Ansar and Al-Ahed. The teams met in the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium, and produced a truly entertaining match. Ansar took the game by storm, scoring twice in the 13th minute.

Three minutes later, Ahed answered with their first after an acrobatic finish from the Nigerian Musa Kabiru. Hussein Dakik tied the scoreboard in the 33rd minute, but Ansar star Rabih Atiya scored again for the Green Shirts, making it 3-2 by half time. 

In the 63rd minute, Ansar closed the battle with a goal from Bruno Smith. The talented Brazilian has only two goals this season, but is starting to look like one of the year's best transfers into the Lebanese league. The draw took Ansar to the top of the table in the domestic competition.

In Saudi Arabia, Fateh Club hosted Al-Hilal, in a tough match for the blue giants. Ramon Diaz and his players had to wait until the 89th minute for a goal, when Leo Bonatini scored the winner.

The impact of the Argentinean coach on the team has been huge - following a tremendously poor start to the season, al-Hilal is now in second place, just one point behind Ittihad Jeddah.

"This victory was very important, because it assured we are on our way up," concluded Diaz at the post-match press conference.

And Diaz wasn't the only Argentinean manager happy with his players this weekend. In the United Arab Emirates, Rodolfo Arrubarrena's Al-Wasl won 1-0 away at Ittihad Kalba, taking the team to the first place in the Arabian Gulf League for the first time in seven years.

The former Boca Juniors coach is putting in an amazing effort at Al-Wasl, who enjoyed a tidy finish from striker Fabio Lima in order to secure the victory early in the first half.

Al-Wasl hasn't lost in the league since mid-Spetmeber, and after years in the wildernes, are now look like a serious title contenders.

In occupied Palestine, Hebron was witness to a new round of musical chairs between coaches of the city's two big teams. After Kifah A-Sharif, the owner of Al-Ahli, sacked both Ayman Sanduqa and his asisstant, Usama Abu-Alyan, he hired Ibrahim Abu-Rqiq, who worked in Dora and Dhariah (both in Southern Hebron) last season.

City rival Shabab, who are going through a nightmare season so far, terminated the contract of the Jordanian coach Raed Assaf, who has returned to the Hashemite Kingdom on the other bank of the Jordan River.

After 24 hours, Al-Amalek announced their new coach. Who was it? You guessed it -the city rival's former leaders, Ayman Sanduqa and his deputy Usama Abu-Alyan.

Iraqi continental glory, a thrilling match in Lebanon, Argentineans' impact in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, and the coaches' roulette in Hebron. Just another compulsive, impulsive, convulsive week in Middle Eastern football.

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.