Not so neutral: This week in Middle East football

“The latest from this week’s Asian Champions League quarterfinals.

On Monday, Al-Ain of the UAE hosted Saudi side Al-Hilal for the first leg of their knockout double header. The Hazza bin Zayed stadium was decorated, and the atmosphere in the stands was electric. 

Down on the pitch, however, the players struggled to provide much of a decent display, with the match concluding in a 0–0 draw. 

Omar “Amoory” Abdulrahman tried to inspire his teammates to victory, but — except for a couple of chances which fell to him and Swedish striker Marcus Berg — the home team wasn’t looking like threatening the Saudi champions at any point.

Al-Hilal tried to find the net through Syrian starlet Omar Khribin, but he wasn’t accurate in either of his first half chances. But the big story of the match was not even on the pitch, as Al-Hilal manager Ramon Diaz left Ali al-Habsi, the Omani goalkeeper, out of the squad. 

Al-Habsi — who was Al-Hilal’s big signing of the summer from Reading, in England’s second flight — has yet to play for the Riyadh Blues. Arab football fans are shocked by the treatment he is reportedly receiving at the royal Saudi club.

“Iranian champions Persepolis played Al-Ahli Jeddah from Saudi Arabia. Due to the tension between the two countries the match was taking place in the neutral venue of Muscat, Oman”

Second game, different story

The second game of this stage was a completely different story. Iranian champions Persepolis played Al-Ahli Jeddah from Saudi Arabia. 

Due to the tension between the two countries the match was taking place in the neutral venue of Muscat, Oman. 

The match itself wasn’t even-sided at all. The Saudis struck hard and were 2–0 up after an hour.

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Syria’s powerhouse striker Omar Al-Somah hit the net first, and Brazilian Leonardo added the second. But the Iranian champions did not intend to let this match slip away. Shoja Khalizadeh scored in the 72nd minute and Nigeria’s Godwin Mensha, who had come on as a substitute, nailed the equalizer six minutes before the final whistle. 

There is plenty to wait for in the second leg, to be played in Abu Dhabi.

“It has been in the air for a while, but in the past week it became official — Omar Al-Somah has returned to the Syrian national team for the first time since 2012”

‘Syria’s Ibrahimovic’ is back

It has been in the air for a while, but in the past week it became official — Omar Al-Somah has returned to the Syrian national team for the first time since 2012.

The Al-Ahli Jeddah striker — who is counted as one of the best in Asia, with more than 100 goals in the past two years — removed himself from the national team five years ago after he expressed his support for the Syrian rebels. 

During Syria’s emotional campaign in the World Cup qualification rounds and the return to the national stage of his ex-teammate, Firas al-Khatib, there were many voices calling on al-Somah to let go of the past and to return to the national squad.

It’s now become a reality. After his match in the Asian Champions League, Al-Somah jumped on a plane to Malaysia and joined up with the Syrian national team camp, playing 45 minutes in the friendly against Iraq. Photos of him in the national team shirt spread like wildfire all over the Arab world sports networks.

This comeback, besides helping the team’s strike force, will be seen as a great victory for the Assad regime. The two best Syrian players in recent decades declared their support for the Free Syrian Army, were banned, apologised and have returned to represent the regime’s team. 

In terms of nurturing his image, the Assad regime won this game.

Syria now have two matches left in their bid to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Al-Somah is definitely a great addition to the squad to help their uneviable mission.

“Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, Iranian footballers at Greek side Panionios, played against Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv during the Europa League third round qualifications”

Iranian duo saga drags on as Hajsafi returns

In the past month, one saga of Middle Eastern football got worldwide headlines. 

Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, Iranian footballers at Greek side Panionios, played against Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv during the Europa League third round qualifications.

While many politicians in Iran tried to threaten the players with a “lifetime ban” from the national team, the Iranian football community made a huge campaign to support the players, and to keep politics off the field of play.

But the story is seemingly starting to fade away. 

Iran’s football federation has stated it will not expel either player just days after issuing a statement suggesting it would.

The final decision on the matter, whatever it may be, is yet to be seen, but things are moving towards a conclusion. Hajsafi is in the squad for the forthcoming World Cup qualifier against South Korea, while Shojaei has been left out. 

The captain hasn’t performed well in recent fixtures for Iran and a rest, at this advanced stage of his career, is necessary if he is to complete the rest of the season with Panionios. Iran has already secured its spot in the World Cup finals anyway. 

The story of Shojaei and Hajsafi demonstrates the tensions in Iran, as a technological and political developing country and as a strong regional power, whose anti-Israeli and anti-Western line is being tested as long as it keeps progressing.

Whether it’s the presence of women in stadiums, or playing football against Israeli teams — Iranian politics, religion and Persian culture enter the field, creating a clash between the laws of the Islamic Republic and the outside world. 

But this is a positive story about football — about its fans and players, their passion for the game, and how their sporting spirit defeats dirty politics, conservatism and prejudice — even in a country like Iran.

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.

Uri Levy

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