World Cup fever: This week in Middle East football

World Cup fever: This week in Middle East football
Syria's Omar Khribin is named Asian Player of the Year as the region gears up for two Middle Eastern derbies following the World Cup draw.
5 min read
05 Dec, 2017
The World Cup in Russia will see two MENA derbies in the group stages. [Getty]
It's been a busy week in the Middle Eastern football cosmos - and as usual it contained historic, unique and absurd moments.

The three-way race between Omar Abdulrahman, Wu Lei and Omar Khribin for the Asian Player of the Year award ended in victory for Al-Hilal striker Khribin, who was also named the Asian Champions League top scorer after leading the Saudi Blues to the competition's final last week.

Khribin is the first Syrian to win the award. It was a justified choice following his top form both for club and country in the 2018 World Cup qualifications - 23 goals in 34 games for Al-Hilal and 12 goals for his country in the past two years - has made him a well-known figure across Asia, and now he's making headlines around the world.

Khribin usually plays as a left winger or a second striker, but after Diaz's arrival at Al-Hilal, he has been used as a "classic 9" - a position that has built his goal tally and lethal finishing abilities up front.

MENA derbies on the world stage

On Friday, the World Cup draw attracted the attention of football fans worldwide, not least in the Middle East. It is the first time four Arab national teams, and five in the MENA region, have appeared in the competition's history.

In Russia we will witness two Middle East derbies in the group stage. In Group A, which also contains the hosts Russia and powerful Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will play each other in a classic Arab derby on 25 June.
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Group B saw Spain and Portugal, the European champions, drawn together, but also Iran and Morocco, in what seems to be some kind of "group of death".

For the Persians and Moroccans it is counted as an extra tough result, as both Spain and Portugal are superior national teams with a worldwide calibre. It's all to play for, however, as the first matches in the group are Spain-Portugal and Iran-Morocco, so who knows?

If Sardar Azmoun surprises the Atlas Lions of Herve Renard and then draw with Portugal, Iran could yet qualify from the group stages for the first time ever. Morocco is no different. The Maghreb, with a very talented team, is seen by many as the best in Africa. If they can win against Iran and get a good result against Portugal or Spain, the sky is the limit.

The World Cup in Russia will see two MENA derbies in the group stages.

Regional round up

This week has definitely provided us with some surreal moments from all over the region.

In Kuwait, Fahaheel, a second division team, showed up to a cup fixture with only seven players. After only a couple of minutes one their players was injured, and the referee had to call the match off, as they had only five field players and a goalkeeper available.

For local fans, this is a quite normal habit of small teams who do not want the expenses of an extra competition, so they basically withdraw from the match by showing up with the minimum number of players they can. Kuwait has only recently completed its comeback to FIFA - but it seems that professional attitudes are still a long way off for the country's football, despite having one of the most interesting leagues in the region. That's a shame.

A bizarre moment took place in the UAE too, after an U-18 match between Al-Ain and Al-Ahli was interrupted when a random person decided to drive onto the pitch in the middle of the game. Words are worthless here, just watch the video - and never trust your sat-nav.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, found a new coach after the sudden exit of Edgardo Bauza - and it is another Argentinean. Juan Antonio Pizzi, who as a player starred in Spain and Barcelona and as a coach has performed miracles with Valencia and won the 2016 Copa America with Chile, is all-in-all an impressing signing by the Saudis.

But will he still be the coach by the opening match of the 2018 World Cup against Russia? At the rate things are progressing in Saudi Arabia right now, nobody knows.

Menawhile, a Spanish delegation of scouts and coaches has arrived in Riyadh to test and choose players for the La Liga and Segunda Division - as part of a major deal to loan Saudi players to Spanish teams before the World Cup.

Two Spanish football academies are to be founded in the Middle Eastern country. Whether this is only for football or not, a relationship is developing between Spain and Saudi Arabia.

In Iraq, after a year of testing the new stadiums in the war-torn country, it seems FIFA is ready to lift the international football ban. In the past year the Iraqis have been building and renovating their stadiums and access to football venues, and after several friendlies and tests, it seems that in 2018 the country will be available for hosting international football matches once again.

Meanwhile, in the UAE, Shabab Al-Ahli have sacked their coach, Cosmin Olariu, and are tipped to sign Mahdi Ali, the former national team coach. Will the famous hat also return?

Finally, the AFC - Asian Football Confederation - has announced that from next season there will be no matches in neutral venues. The decision was made due to Saudi-Iranian tensions, with the matches between teams from these countries played in neutral stadiums in Oman, UAE or Qatar.

In the current Middle Eastern climate it sounds impossible to imagine Al-Hilal playing in Tehran or Doha, or Persepolis plying its trade in Jeddah, but AFC officials have indicated that it's "unthinkable" that the Asian Champions League semi-final could be held in an irrelevant venue.

Maybe this is the first step towards the end of the Gulf crisis? It's still early, but it's surely a positive step in the right direction. Football can help in easing international tension - or at least that is what we want to believe in the Middle East.

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