Rivalries and relegation: This week in Middle East football

Rivalries and relegation: This week in Middle East football
As football seasons in the Middle East draw to a close, tensions were high as teams played in the Arab world's own El Clasicos bringing tears and heartbreak.
6 min read
25 Apr, 2017
Turkey saw one of the biggest clashes of the season [Anadolu]

While the eyes of the world were fixed on the Spanish El Clasico - between Real Madrid and Barcelona - on Sunday, the Middle East saw its own fierce local rivalries take place.

In Istanbul, Galatasaray hosted Fenerbache in an Istanbul derby as both teams chase another team from the city, Besiktas, for the Turkish title. Brazilian striker Joseph de Souza scored the only goal of the game for Fenerbache, hammering in the ball in the 91st minute. The late goal sparked an explosion of yellow and blue from the away supporters. 

The Middle East's El Clasico

The real show, however, took place in North Africa for the Casablanca derby between Wydad and Raja. It is already known as one of the fiercest football rivalries in the world and a must visit for any football fan. 

The encounters are usually accompanied by fascinating tifos by both teams' "ultras" with plumes of colourful smoke and riotous singing throughout the stadium. The Moroccan Botola Pro League is coming to its final moments with Wydad dominating the scene. During Sunday's derby, Wydad were once again on top of their arch-rivals, Raja. 

The Mohammed V Stadium was packed with 45,000 spectators with most the crowd the red of Wydad as the league leaders played on home turf. Amine Attouchi scored the lone goal for Wydad after 18 minutes, promising to increase the Casablanca team's lead over other clubs in the league.

Wydad have played 12 games without losing and lead the table by five points over second place Difaa. With just five matches left until the end of the season the Casablanca club are preparing to celebrate another championship title.

Not a Full Moon Party

After a long gap of six seasons, Saudi mega club al-Hilal Riyadh finally won the kingdom's championship title again after a 2-1 victory over al-Shabab at King Fahd Stadium. 

Syrian sensation Omar Khribin scored the opening goal with a penalty kick, while Carlos Edurado scored the second to guarantee the Saudi giants the three points they needed to secure the title. 

Al-Hilal haven't lost since December 2016, and it is significant that the arrival of Argentinean coach Ramon Diaz has had a huge impact on the club and what must be one of the most stressful management roles in regional football.

While al-Hilal celebrated in Saudi Arabia, in Palestine it appeared that the moonlight hasn't shone for al-Hilal. The Jerusalem club managed another uninspiring goalless draw, this time with Shabab Dora.

The one point took from the match has meant another delay for al-Hilal lifting the league trophy with only one game remaining in the season. Next week they face al-Khader away and this should prove a challenge as the home team must win the game in order to escape relegation. It's just a matter of three points for al-Hilal and they will win their first title in years, but Khadr Obeid's team simply look unready for it.

Merging in Qatar

Two weeks ago, Lekhwiya and El-Jaish - two of Qatar's biggest clubs - announced a merger and from next season they will be known as al-Duhail Sports Club. Lekhwiya - the new Qatar champions - requested a name change to al-Duhail, while El-Jaish asked to merge with the new club. The two have been rivals over the past decade in the Qatari League, and after this merger the team will try to become a new continental football powerhouse. 

After getting the green light from the Qatari ministry for sports and culture to merge, the new team will kick off from the 2017/18 season. 

Claudio Ranieri, Alejandro Sabella, Marcos Paquetta, Walter Zenga, Alberto Zaccheroni and Stuart Baxter, were all mentioned as possible candidates for the Lions of Mesopotamia coaching role.

Ironically, or not, the two teams met earlier this week - for the last time as opponents - in the Crown Prince Cup semi-final. While the last league encounter ended 5-1 in favour of Lekhwiyans, this game ended with a 3-2 El-Jaish victory. The club will try to win its last league title against al-Sadd, on Saturday.

Searching in Iraq and the Emirates

In the past two weeks, two of the Arab world's most lucrative positions are free to apply for. The national teams of Iraq and the UAE are both looking for new national coaches after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. 

The names linked to the roles look quite impressive. Claudio Ranieri, Alejandro Sabella, Marcos Paquetta, Walter Zenga, Alberto Zaccheroni and Stuart Baxter, were all mentioned as possible candidates to coach the Lions of Mesopotamia in the near future. In any case, Iraq's future with a foreign coach is looking promising.

At the Emirates the situation is quite different, as Mahdi Ali resigned his position after the losses to Japan and Australia. Reinaldo Rueda, the Colombian coach at Atletico Nacional de Medellin, has been named as the top candidate. Former Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza was named as the second option. 

Despite the UAE being linked to these shining names, the Emirati fans - and it is said, some of the national team players - favour Cosmin Olariu, the Romanian coach at Dubai club al-Ahli

It makes sense: Olariu knows Emirati football by heart after working in the region for the past seven years coaching some of the biggest clubs in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE along with the Saudi national team. He seems to be the perfect candidate for the job and could help get the best out of this talented squad which includes Omar Abdulrahman and his friends.

Chanting in Lebanon

Last week - during a decisive AFC Cup match between Lebanon's Nejmeh and Jordan's al-Wehdat - a racial incident was noted in the stands, something of a rarity in the Middle East. In front of only 2,800 fans at the Saida Stadium in Lebanon, Nejmeh needed a win to save their chances of qualifying for the knock-out stage, while al-Wehdat required just a tie to secure qualification. 

After the Jordanians took the lead in the 84th minute, the Lebanese crowd began to chant against national symbols of the Palestinian-oriented crowd of al-Wehdat. Representatives of the Asian Football Confederation had to intervene in order to stop the anti-Palestinian chants.

Usually, Palestinian symbols are well-respected in football stadiums in Asia, especially the Middle East. It was clear - even to television viewers - that many Nejmeh fans came to push the sensitive buttons of the Jordanian crowd. 

It worked, and the Lebanese team managed to equalise two minutes before the end thanks to the Syrian footballer Abdelrazaq al-Hussein. Still it was al-Wehdat who progressed to the next round, and Nejmeh will take the summer to rebuild their club after a tough season in the local league and continental tournament.

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