The rebel returns: This week in Middle East football

The rebel returns: This week in Middle East football
Blog: Syria's star striker (and rebel supporter) Omar al-Somah returns to the Syrian national squad, while all eyes turn to the Asian Champions League and the AFC Cup.
5 min read
15 May, 2017
Syria play South Korea in a World Cup qualifying match. [Getty]

Back in January, it was published in these pages that Al-Ahli Jeddah's powerhouse Syrian striker, Omar al-Somah, was flirting with a lucrative comeback to Syria's national squad - the Qasioun Eagles. 

Al-Somah was banned from the Syrian national team after declaring his support for the Syrian rebellion in 2012, in which he and Firas al-Khatib, another Syrian star, declared took a firm anti-Assad stance.

The Syrian national team has made a strong start in its campaign to qualify for the World Cup, and has had some terrific results while advancing to the third round of the qualifications.

In February, the change began. Firas al-Kahtib apologized, and returned to the Syrian squad before a series of important matches in the qualifiers.

His return was met with great excitement from Syrian and Arab fans, as al-Khatib helped Syria to an important victory against Uzbekistan. But even then, there was something Syrian fans wished for even more - al-Somah's comeback.

The wishing wasn't for nothing. In three seasons in Saudi Arabia, al-Somah has become the region's best striker by far, scoring 100 goals in 90 matches for Al-Ahli and attracting international interest - including attempts by the Saudi FA to naturalise him as a citizen.

He is by far the best striker in Asia, and currently one of the best Middle Eastern footballers around.

On Saturday night, the news finally arrived. The Syrian FA released an official document with the call-ups for the June clashes against Oman (friendly), Japan (Kirin Cup) and China (World Cup Qualifier) - and number 11 on the squad is none other than Omar al-Somah himself.

With him in the squad, alongside Omar Khribin, Mardik Mardikian and Firas al-Khatib, Syria is again a serious contender to qualify for the finals in Russia 2018.

The player himself has yet to officially respond, but with his team in fourth place, four points from third-place Uzbekistan, and with three matches to go - sources are tipping al-Somah to give everything he has in order to put the Syrian people on the world's football map.

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Al-Ain's drought continues

Al-Ain football club is one of the most prestigious in the Middle East. Al-Za'im has won the Emirati championship title six times since the beginning of the 2000s, and in recent years the club has symbolised the revival of football in the country, mostly through the fortunes of the team's star - Omar "Amoory" Abdulrahman.

But this season has not been kind to them. And this weekend, despite a 2-1 win against al-Kalba, the season ended with Al-Ain outside of the first three spots - the qualifying positions for the Asian Champions League - for the first time in six years.

Al-Ain made it all the way to the competition's final in both 2015 and 2016 - and even won the tournament in 2003. This season the club finished first in their Champions League group and qualified for the last 16.

But even if Amoory and friends win the Asian title, they won't be participating in the most lucrative league in Asia next year.

And so it's probably not surprising that rumours have started circulating that Omar Abdulrahman might finally try his luck in Europe. Turkey's Fenerbahce has been reported as one top club trying to entice the Arab magician.

Omdurman continental derby

While most of the local leagues are now concluding, the continental competitions in Africa are just getting started. The African Champions League group stage kicked off over the weekend, and in Sudan it turned very special.

The River Nile Derby between Al-Hilal Omdurman and Al-Merreikh, two of Sudan's most successful clubs, took place in Omdurman, Sudan's second city. This was the fifth time the two sides have played each other in a continental championship.

Last time the clubs met in an African competition was in 2012, so despite the early stage of the Champions League the excitement ahead of the match was huge across the country.

More than 45,000 fans squeezed into the Al-Hilal Stadium, only to watch a 1-1 tie. Hilal took the lead in the 31st minute thanks to Nigerian-born playmaker Azeez Shobowale, before Al-Samani Saad Al-din levelled for Merreikh with a spectacular volley on the hour mark.

While both clubs are fighting for a ticket to the next stage in CAF Champions League, they are also battling in the domestic league. After 15 matchdays, Al-Hilal is first with 33 points, and Al-Merreikh is second with 30 points and a game in hand.

Al-Merriekh's coach, the French-Italian Diego Garzitto, was in charge of Al-Hilal the last time the two sides met at the continental level in 2012. Five years later, he is in his second stint with the red and yellow side of the city.

"We did not play as planned in the first half, because the players were nervous," he said after the match. "Looking at the result, for an away game, it is a good start," he added.

Asia is calling

And as the African league is kicking off in style, the Asian competitions are also entering the big time. The Asian Champions League and the AFC Cup are through to the last 16 stage and the fixtures are fascinating.

In the AFC Cup West Asian Zone, the quarter finals saw an Iraqi derby between Al-Zawraa and reigning cup holders, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, in the first "international competition match" in Iraq since 2013.

The big news from the FIFA Congress was the lifting of the ban on Iraq on hosting friendly international matches in Basra, Karbala and Erbil. The Iraqi football fans are excited, as this match will be the first test for an official AFC event in the country.

In the other quarterfinal, Syria's Al-Wahda will meet Jordan's Al-Wehdat.

In the Asian Champions league there are more interesting clashes: Iran's Esteghlal face off against UAE's Al-Ain, Saudi Arabian team Al-Ahli meet their namesakes, Al-Ahli, in Dubai, Esteghlal Khuzestan (described as "The Iranian Leicester" are pitched against Saudi champions Al-Hilal Riyadh and finally newly crowned champions of Iran, Persepolis, host Lekhwiya from Qatar.

The season may be nearly over, but still to play we've got some great clashes of top quality Middle Eastern footy...

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. 

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