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Netanyahu gets Ahed of himself: This week in Middle East football Open in fullscreen

Uri Levy

Netanyahu gets Ahed of himself: This week in Middle East football

Playing dangerous games: Netanyahu identified a civilian sports stadium as a potential Israeli target [PacificPress]

Date of publication: 4 October, 2018

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Blog: The Israeli leader described al-Ahed FC as a missile silo for Hizballah - but how is Lebanon's biggest club connected with the Shia movement?

Slaven Bilić, the former West Ham, Besiktas and Croatia manager, has been named as the new coach of one of Saudi Arabia top clubs - Ittihad Jeddah.

Bilić, who was sacked by West Ham in November last year, signed the deal with Ittihad in New York on Thursday.

"Bilić will train Ittihad throughout the upcoming phase of the sports season," a club statement read. "The board wished Bilić all success in his new mission to help Ittihad regain its outstanding performances."

Ittihad currently play in the Saudi Professional League, and have opened their 2018-19 season with three losses and one draw from the first four games.

As a result of the disappointing run, the club had sacked former Argentina international Ramon Diaz - who last year managed Ittihad's arch-rivals, Al-Hilal.

Ittihad won the most recent of eight league titles back in 2009. They have won the Asian Champions League twice, in 2004 and 2005.

Bilić will start his job on October 19, with a mission to take the Tigers back to their glory days.

Netanyahu v Al-Ahed

"A Hizballah team," said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the UN on Thursday, referring to alleged missile facilities the group is reported to be hiding at a football stadium.

Netanyahu did not pluck this nickname from thin air. Western media is very fond of calling al-Ahed a "Hizballah club" - mainly because of the dominant yellow of the team's kit, and the speeches made by Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of the movement, after al-Ahed won the championship.

No explicit documents have ever been revealed showing any direct transfer of funds from the Hizballah organisation to the club, but over recent years, Hizballah officials - from the education and culture departments - also held senior managerial positions at al-Ahed.

Between 2010 and 2018, al-Ahed's main sponsor was the Hizballah-owned Al-Manar television station.

In 2016, Qassem Samaheh, a former star player for the team, was killed in Aleppo having joined the organisation's armed wing aged 19.

The team's fan base is indeed Shia, but they do not have a huge following. There were barely 2,000 spectators at last year's championship game.

Al-Ahed's connection to Hizballah tells the story of Lebanese football in general. Al-Ahed was founded in 1964 in the southern Dahieh suburb of Beirut. However, following the wars and the situation on the ground, the team was forced to move to a new stadium, the one mentioned in Netanyahu's speech. The pitch is located near Rafiq Hariri Airport.

The Lebanese FA has incidentally, rejected Netanyahu's claims of the stadium being a missile cluster.

Like Al-Ahed, every population group in Beirut - and in Lebanon in general - has a football club. Of the 12 teams in the top division, six come from the capital. This creates a high number of "derby" games, which bring in fans from rival demographics to compete on a near-weekly basis.

Every cycle in the Lebanese league has at least one massive rivalry.

It is not surprising, then, that Al-Ahed's major rivalries are with Ansar - the grand club of the 1990s, identified to this day with the Hariri family and representing the Lebanese patriotic-secular-nationalist stream - and Nejmeh, a huge club and today probably the most popular team in Lebanon.

Nejmeh fans emphasise their "All-Lebanese" identity - they do not see themselves as Arabs but more as Lebanese, and the fans are diverse and composed of Sunnis, Druze, Shia, Christians and even Armenian Catholics.

Two years ago, Nejmeh refused to play a championship game against Al-Ahed, a match which the national association wanted to hold in a neutral stadium behind closed doors, claiming that "Hizballah is again taking care of the title of Al-Ahed"." Al-Ahed subsequently won the championship by three points.

The tension between the various sectarian groups in Lebanon has led the league to breaking point. There have been many games played without the presence of fans, having a profund if not fatal impact on the level of professional football in Lebanon.

But despite all this, the Lebanese league has now played without any hiatuses or interruptions for three years in a row.

Al-Ahed is now the leading club in Lebanon. It has six championships under its belt, three of them in the past four seasons. The group plays some of the most prominent Lebanese players - Rabia Ataya, Mohammed Haidar and the young talent Mohammed Kdouh. Bulgarian striker Martin Toshev joined the season and scored a hat-trick on his debut in the big 6-0 win against the Safa Druze club.

Ahed in Madrid

From one Ahed to another. Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian activist who spent eight months in prison after confronting an Israeli soldier in a video that went viral on Facebook, has visited the Spanish mega-club, Real Madrid.

Club legend Emilio Butragueño received her with an official No. 9 shirt bearing her name.

The gesture sparked many responses in Palestine, as well as in Israel. Real Madrid is probably the favourite club on both sides of the separation wall, and while in Palestine Tamimi's visit was widely celebrated, in Israel it was accepted only with ambivalence.


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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