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Uri Levy

An Arab renaissance: This week in Middle East football

The Emirati league is officially the best in Asia [Getty]

Date of publication: 19 February, 2017

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UAE has topped the football table in Asia, Iraq is looking to have a FIFA ban on hosting international games lifted, while there were some surprises in the Palestine Cup.
Emirati football was in the headlines this week for both good and bad reasons.

On Tuesday, the UAE's football authority deemed the hairstyles of around 50 footballers in the Arabian Gulf League - including al-Ain's mega-star Omar "Amoory" - to be "unethical". It sparked furious and shocked reactions in the media.

On the plus side, the UAE's Arabian Gulf League secured top place in the Asian Football Confederation's power ranking table. The Emirati league does attract some of the best players from across the region and beyond, thanks in part to endless sources of funds for investing in football.

The UAE's outstanding ranking highlights the vast improvement we have seen in Emirati football in recent years - both on a national team and club level, as well as locally and internationally.

The South Korean, Qatari, Saudi and Japanese leagues came below as the next strongest in the continent, and probably most surprising is that the Iraqi league was placed ninth. 

Meanwhile the Palestinian and Yemeni leagues were ranked as the two leagues in the Middle East at 27th and 35th respectively. This was due to their inadequate playing conditions, the absence of foreigner players, and poor performance of teams in continental competitions.

Iraqi football stadiums: a renaissance

Iraq's ministry of sports has reportedly invested heavily in football stadiums in recent years, and looks set to continue in the coming year. Minister of Sports and Youth Abd-Hussain Abtan announced that 2017 will be a year of innovation and creativity for the country's football infrastructure.

Some of the reported projects, planned or underway, include the Maysan Olympic Stadium (capacity 10,000), Najaf International Stadium (capacity 35,000), Samawah in Muthanna (capacity 20,000), Stadium of Kiffil in Babel province (capacity 10,000), Basra International Stadium (capacity 65,000) and the Karbala International Stadium (capacity 35,000).

These tremendous efforts are part a plan to end a FIFA ban preventing Iraq hosting international matches due to security problems in the country.

In the past week, FIFA's representatives made a surprise visit to Iraq and checked the conditions at venues to see if would be possible for international matches to be held in the country. Judging from reports they left with a positive impression and a decision on the matter will be published next month.

An Englishman in Saudi Arabia

One of the most respected referees in England, Mark Clattenburg, has decided to quit his job in the UK. He will now take to Saudi Arabia as head of referees in the Dawry Jameel league.

Clattenburg is replacing his colleague, Howard Webb, who quit his role in the Saudi football association just two weeks ago.

Although the Saudi league is considered the fourth strongest competition in Asia, for years it has struggled to produce quality referees. High levels of stress and mixed interests have harmed the development of quality local officials, sources have said.

The boiling rivalries in Saudi football - the Jeddah Derby (Ittihad vs al-Ahli), Riyadh Derby (al-Hilal vs al-Nassr) and the Saudi Clásico (al-Hilal vs Ittihad) - produce fierce clashes, which clearly require the most neutral and objective officials possible to referee the games.

These tensions are one reason why foreign referees have been brought in, and it is hoped this will improve the situation on a local level in time.

Clattenburg's decision to quit the game in England was accepted with great shock. Losing its best arbiter in football for a lucrative role overseas could have a huge impact in the English Premier League. After the Chinese league has started to steal stars from major teams in England, now Middle Eastern football powerhouses seem content on attracting their top referees.

Palestinian Cup sentiments and sensations

During the past weekend, the last-32 of the Palestinian Cup took place across the West Bank. The two most notable matches were Ahli al-Khalil against al-Arabi Beit-Safafa, and Hilal al-Quds vs Jumiaa Shoban al-Muslimin.

Ahli al-Khalil met second division club al-Arabi from Beit Safafa village in East Jerusalem. Ahli's coach Amer Salman is probably the biggest star out of Beit Safafa and was former captain and coach of Israeli team Hapoel Jerusaelm. He held no sentiments to his village's club and Ahli thrashed al-Arabi 3-0.

In the other game, the West Bank Premier League leaders Hilal al-Quds were shockingly eliminated after a loss to Jumiaa Shoban al-Muslimin from the second division. After a 0-0 draw in 90 minutes, the Jerusalem club lost 6-7 to the minnows in a penalty shoot-out. This was a super sensation in Palestinian terms.

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

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