Pride and politics: Middle East football this week

Pride and politics: Middle East football this week
In the first week of football after an international break, fans in the Arab world saw new faces heading teams in Saudi Arabia, a Dubai derby, and controversy in Palestine.
5 min read
17 Oct, 2016
Zamalek suffered disappointment in an African cup final [Getty]

Arab players returned to domestic football after a break for international games last week, and as was expected produced some interesting moments mixing football, pride, politics and prestige.

The Arab weekend games started on Friday evening, and in the UAE the Dubai derby between al-Wasl and al-Nasr kicked off with a serious battle on the pitch.

More than 6,300 fans packed al-Wasl's Zabeel Stadium, the second highest number at the Arabian Gulf League this season. Brazilian Caio made it 1-0 to the yellow shirts of al-Wasl, but Moroccan Abdulaziz Barrada equalised for al-Nasr with a tremendous free kick in the first half.

In the 83rd minute, Fabio De Lima dribbled well on a counter attack, and notched the second for al-Wasl, which guaranteed the victory for the yellows. 

New face

Later that night big news broke out from Saudi Arabia when al-Hilal signed world class Argentinian coach Ramon Diaz. The Riyadh-based club had fired Coach Gustavo Matosas after just five games, despite three victories in the end of September. Romanian Marius Ciprian was used as an interim manager, until they found a promising substitute.

Fifty-seven-years old, Diaz has a long history in football, and has coached South American giants River Plate, San Lorenzo, América and the Paraguay national team.

He is by far one of the biggest names to come to work in football in the Arab world so far, and it will be worthwhile seeing how long he will survive in one the world's most high-pressure clubs.

Another manager who couldn't hold his job was Darije Kalezic, who was sacked by al-Taawoun after a 3-1 loss to Ittihad. It took the club less than 24-hours to find a replacement for the Bosnian-Swiss, and on Sunday morning the club announced that Romanian Constantin Galca had been signed as coach.

Since the season kicked off in August, eight managers in the kingdom have been sacked or resigned - none of them are Saudi. The Saudi Dawry Jameel league is not known for its patient football club boards.

Africa's clash of the titans

In Africa, Egypt's Zamalek played South African side Mamelodi Sundowns at the first leg of the CAF Champions League final on Saturday afternoon.

Zamalek qualified for the final after an intense match in Morocco against Wydad Casablanca, and had huge expectations prior to the match. But the sun did not shine on the Egyptians who failed to provide any decent football during the whole game.

Almost 29,000 passionate fans at the full Lucas Masterpieces Moripe Stadium in Pretoria watched the South African Champions crushing the Zamalekawyies right from the start. Goals by Laffor and Langerman - accompanied by the famous vuvuzela trumpets - gave the Mamelodi a 2-0 lead on halftime.

If Zamalek coach Momen Soliman hoped for an improvement in the second half, after just thirty seconds of play he must have understood his team was in deep trouble.

[There are] some players on the team that don't deserve to put on Zamalek's shirt.
- Mortada Mansour, Zamelek's owner

In the first attack by the South Africans, Eslam Gamal scored an own-goal and made it 3-0 to Sundowns. Zamalek talisman Mahmoud Shikabala was nowhere near his usual talented self, nor was his team mate Bassam Morsi.

"[There are] some players on the team that don't deserve to put on Zamalek's shirt," said team's extravagant owner Mortada Mansour. "I want to fill the stadium to 70,000 fans," said Mansour about the second-leg.

He assured the Zamalek faithful that the next game in Alexandria would be a hot and intense affair.

Game on

In Palestine, local football returned after the international break and included both title-winning clashes and politics. Hilal al-Quds hosted Shabab al-Khaleel in the first battle between the two big favourites to win the West Bank Premier League title.

The high-paced match was a concluded with a 1-1 tie with nice goals from both Shabab's Ashraf Nuaman and Hilal's Fadi Salbees. But football wasn't the only issue on people's minds.

Before the match Hilal team members posed for a photo in honour of Mesbah Abu Sabih, a 39-year-old East Jerusalem man, who killed two Israelis and injured five more in a shooting spree in Jerusalem the Sunday before.

The photo of the team went viral on Palestinian social networks, and soon became a controversial image discussed widely by both Israeli and international media.

According to FIFA's rules, it is illegal to make any political manifestations in official matches. What made the Palestinian's statement even more problematic were current efforts by the Palestinian to put pressure on FIFA to penalise Israel for including settlements clubs in the football association.

Tamer Obaidat, Hilal's spokesman, told Israeli media that the banner was brought in by the club fans, who then circulated the photo on social media. He added that the fans agreed to remove the photo "as it is against FIFA regulations".

In the meantime, the decision on the five Israeli settlements clubs was postponed by FIFA. Tokyo Sexwhale, chairman of the FIFA Monitoring Committee Israel-Palestine, has said that a crucial meeting between the sides will take place in November.

"We are dealing with a highly sensitive situation… At the end we want to ensure that both Israelis and Palestinians can enjoy the game in accordance with the FIFA statutes," he added.

On Saturday evening, the Yasser Arafat Cup final took place with the infamous Clásico Khalele between Shabab al-Khaleel and Shabab Dhariah. Almost an exact reproduction of last season's final between the two clubs, the game after 90 minutes was again goalless.

But in this competition there is no extra time and so both sides were sent to the box for penalty shoot-out. Shabab missed the first two, but a sterling performance from goalkeeper Toufic Ali won the game with three saves securing al-Amid’s victory, and its first title this season.

Arab football returned in storm, with an Emirati derby, zero tolerance from Saudi bosses, Egyptian humiliation in the African Champions League and a classy cocktail of football, politics and nationalism in Palestine.

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.