Tears and trophies: This week in Middle East football

Tears and trophies: This week in Middle East football
Football clubs in the Middle East are winding down after a grueling 2017-18 campaign, with some surprise teams among the familiar names lifting regional league trophies.
5 min read
25 Apr, 2018
Could Amoory be on his way to Europe? [AFP]

The regular seasons in Middle Eastern football are nearing the final whistle.

In many of the region's countries the competitions are almost over and new champions are being crowned, leaving the stage set for the summer - when five Middle Eastern and North African national teams will play the World Cup.

While some of the clubs have completed a repeat or continued their title-winning dynasties, others have returned to the triumphant ways of old or even gained their debut championship victories.

Saudi Arabia: Al-Hilal

Al-Hilal secured the Saudi title quite easily on the final match day of the season, but their year hasn't been a walk in the park. It started well, with Ramon Diaz in charge and Syrian Star Omar Khribin in good shape - but after the loss in the Asian Champions League final, everything changed.

Brazilian star Carlos Eduardo was injured, Khribin's form was poor and a series of bad results and a major loss to Iran's Esteghlal led the board to sack the successful Argentinean coach.

This left the club in a disastrous limbo, knocked out early at the Champions League group stage. But Khribin got back in shape right on time, while arch-rivals Al-Ahli Jeddah couldn't take advantage of the situation, allowing the Blues to complete their season with a 4-1 hammering over Al-Fateh in the last match to claim the title.

Qatar: Al-Duhail

Imagine that, one day, Real Madrid would take over Atletico Madrid and the two merge into one mega-club of the Spanish capital. Sounds absurd doesn't it? Well, this is what has been happening in Qatar - when Lekhwiya and El-Jaish, two successful sides in the local Qatar Stars League, became one - under the new name Al-Duhail.

The new giants didn't leave many chances for rivals Al-Sadd and Al-Rayyan, and thanks to Tunisia's Youssef Msakni and Morocco's Youssouf al-Arabi, they won the title in March. If you count Lekhwiya's last season's title than its a repeat league win, but if you look at Al-Duhail as a fresh power on the Qatari and Asian scene - than it's an impressive debut season.

United Arabia Emirates: Al-Ain

After the traumatic 2016/2017 season, where they lost in the Champions League final and finished fourth in the Arabian Gulf League, Al-Ain, especially the star player - Omar "Amoory" Abdulrahman, simply had to deliver some success to the football-mad city of Abu Dhabi.

And they did.

Strike duo Marcus Berg of Sweden and Egypt's Hussein Shehat combined so well with Amoory, and together with coach Zoran Mamic led the Ainawys in a season to remember and their first title since 2015.

Al-Wahda, Al-Wasl and Al-Jazira were all left behind as Al-Ain won the title with a seven-point gap and secured its spot in the 2018 Champions League knockouts.

The biggest question now, after such a successful run, is whether Amoory will stay to try and win continental glory with the club, or will take what may be his last chance to kick some footballs in Europe.

Persepolis fans are celebrating this week's win [AFP]

Iran: Persepolis

What can be said about the Red side of Tehran and its glorious team of Branko Ivanovich?

The Persian Gulf League has not yet concluded, but Persepolis were guaranteed the title in the first week of April, after dominant displays throughout the whole season.

After the departure of Mehdi Taremi, Ali Alipour took over as the go-to-guy, and with 19 goals helped the most Persian club in Iran to conquer Iran's football scene once again.

Lebanon: Al-Ahed

In three out of the past four seasons, the same team has won the title in Lebanon. It's not Nejmeh, not Ansar and not even Safa. It's been Ahed, the small club identified with Hizballah. It doesn't have many fans, but it is slowly taking over the Lebanese League and becoming a serious side as far as West Asian teams go.

Ahmed Zreik, Hassan Chaitou led the team with confidence all the way to the championship victory.

Egypt: Al-Ahly

The most decisive side in the Middle East has done it again: Al-Ahly, for the 40th time, is the champion of Egypt. The level of dominance that Egyptian club has gone to is beyond precedent. Of the past 10 Egyptian leagues, Al-Ahly has won nine.

Walid Azaro and Abdallah Said were the main figures in Al-Ahly's fantastic season, while Mo'men Zakariah contributed to the first part of the year and then left for Al-Jeddah. Azaro and Said will be the face of this historic title for the Eagles.

There is no question who's the biggest club in the country, and while Zamalek are changing coaches like socks - the other side of town, the revolutionary side, looks more solid and powerful than ever. Egypt's first division is now a one-team league.

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Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Tunisia

Four competitions concluded early in the season with some old teams making a comeback with absolute dominance.

In Oman, Al-Suwaiq took control of the league and is about to finish the season with a double-figure gap from second place - their first title since 2013.

In Bahrain, Al-Muharraq has won their first championship since 2015, also with a large gap ahead of second place.

Al-Kuwait, meanwhile, banished all rivals in the strong Kuwaiti League to finish with a 17-point gap from arch-rivals Al-Qadsiyah.

Finally, in Tunisia, Esperance de Tunis is in a remake of the club's glory days, leading the league comfortably. They seem a sure champion in the Tunisian Ligue Professionelle, 13-points ahead of their nearest rival. Not much of a "competition"!

Rest of the region

In Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Israel, as well as in Morocco and Algeria, the leagues are still alive and kicking, with championship battles all still wide open, with thrilling scenarios. Big name clubs including Al-Wehdat, Besiktas, Ittihad Aleppo, Hapoel Be'er Sheva and Hilal Al-Quds have their eyes locked on silverware.

Taking on the world

A month and a half before the most Middle Eastern World Cup in history, the Arab club football renaissance has reached a stage where, in the majority of leagues, the strong clubs are preserving their power - with no major outburst or surprises.

Maybe these surprises are waiting to pop-up in Russia.


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