Winds of change? This week in Middle East football

Winds of change? This week in Middle East football
Political, ethnic, local and religious rivalries came to the fore in this week's football action, while Syria's national team coach is reportedly attempting to bring about some unity.
5 min read
27 Feb, 2017
Firas al-Khatib has reportedly received a call up to the national team [AFP]

With February almost behind us, Middle East football clubs are preparing for the final sprint to the end of the season. For those at the top and bottom of the tables, every game matters, and every point is crucial.

This must have been on the minds of the two top-placed Jordanian teams - al Jazeera and al-Wehdat - during a clash at the Amman International Stadium on Saturday. The match between the two teams promised some good football, but it developed into a physical, aggressive affair with all the action squeezed into the final 30 minutes.

League leaders' al-Jazeera went 1-0 ahead thanks to a goal from a Syrian of Armenian descent - superstar Mardik Mardikian - in the 67th from a penalty kick. It looked like the "Islanders" would open the gap at the top of table, but then the al-Wehdat won a penalty in the 93rd minute, and Monzer Abu Amara scored the spot kick. One-one at full time, only one point separates the two teams at the top of the table. The race for the Jordanian title is all in the open.

Israeli pitch politics and the Lebanon Derby

Sunday saw two massive rivalries in the region.

In Israel, Ittihad Abnaa Sakhnin hosted Beitar Jerusalem for another round of the most politicised football rivalry in the country. The clash: the Israeli Premier League's only Palestinian-Israeli club, Ittihad Abnaa Sakhnin, and the right-wing club, Israeli-Jewish team, Beitar Jerusalem. 

Israeli media enjoys this rivalry as it contains the symbolism of a conflicted Israeli society that goes beyond the ordinary football game.

While in recent years Sakhnin have usually beaten Beitar both home and away, this time the Jerusalemites were the much stronger team and sealed the match in the first-half. Itay Shechter and Idan Vered scored from some great attacking play in the 30th and 45th minutes, and gave the yellow and black team of Beitar the advantage. 

Sakhnin fought back hard in the second-half but couldn't up their game to Beitar's level. They are enjoying a brilliant spell with Coach Sharon Meemer at the helm who has led the club to four wins in his first four games at the club.

Surprisingly, the match itself wasn't accompanied by any routine clashes between fans and police, perhaps as both teams are currently on the verge of qualifying for the championship play-offs.

Meanwhile, in the Lebanese city of Tyre, everything was ready for the famous Lebanon Derby between Ansar and Nejmeh. This clash is probably the hottest rivalry in Lebanese football and usually provides a terrific atmosphere thanks to both sets of fans. In order to ensure the clash is judged impartially, the Lebanese FA imports referees from abroad. This time, the Cypriot referee Avraam Tsoukas judged the match. 

The "Nejmehwy Ultras" did not disappointed and came in their thousands to support their team. Ansar's "Greens" were also there and the Lebanese football fans enjoyed watching a great battle on the pitch between the third and fourth ranked teams.

The fact that the match was held in Tyre and not in Beirut did not prevent clashes between fans and police breaking out. Things looked to get out of hand at some points, while the fans literally sat on the roof of the stadium before the game. In the Lebanon Derby, the passion is intense.

On the pitch it was also a true thriller.

Nejmeh went 2-0 up in the first-half after goals from Syrian Abdelrazaq al-Hussain and Khaled al-Takhaji. Ansar did not gave up, and in added time at the end of the first-half found the net for their first goal when dangerous attack ended with a penalty. Brazilian midfielder Vincius Reche scored from the spot in style.

The second-half was less attractive, but concluded with a highly dramatic end to the game. Brazilian substitute Beto, who came on only in the 67th minute, scored the equaliser for Ansar one minute inside extra time. The match ended in a 2-2 draw, which mainly benefits the league leaders' Ahed who are now eight points ahead of Ansar, and six ahead of Nejmeh. The Lebanese league this year is a fascinating drama.

The Revolution won't be televised

The Syrian civil war had a huge impact on football in the country. Not only did it prevent the game being played regularly, or at all, in the country it also reflected the different politics and ideologies, religions and the faiths inside the country.

Players who have expressed their opinions about the ongoing war between the Assad regime and the rebels were immediately banned from representing the national team. Omar al-Somah and Firas al-Khatib were the two top players who reportedly declared their support for the rebels back in 2012, at the start of the war.

Nowadays, there is a wind of change in Syria, and therefore we see developments also in terms of the "rebellious" footballers. 

Omar al-Somah is rumoured to be making a comeback for the Syrian national team, while Khatib - considered to be the best Syrian player of all time - reportedly received a call from the national team coach Ayman Hakim.

In 2012, he declared that he wouldn't play for Syria so long as the regime continued to bomb its civilians but the 33-year-old striker - and all-time top scorer in the Kuwaiti league - might be willing to drop his past declarations and represent his country again.

This addition may help the Syrians in their respectful and inspiring 2018 World Cup qualifiers campaign, and boost their preparations for the 2019 Asian Cup.

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