Bans and breakthroughs: This week in Middle East football

Bans and breakthroughs: This week in Middle East football
4 min read
12 Mar, 2017
Politics and football collided this week as Iraqi-American footballer Justin Meram was wrapped up in Donald Trump's Muslim ban this week.
Meram has been affected by Trump's travel ban [Getty]

Only few days ago Iraqi-American footballer Justin Meram was celebrating a great counting point in his career.

His club, Major League Soccer side Columbus Crew, offered him a new contract for multiple years and upgraded his salary in recognition of his contributions on and off the pitch.

"It's definitely an honour to have this extension, but I'm not going to take my foot off the gas - I'm going to strive for bigger and better things," Meram told sports broadcaster ESPN after his contract renewal.

Travel ban

Meram, the son of an Iraqi couple who emigrated to the US between the sixties and seventies, was named as the club's Most Valuable Player (MVP) last season and won MLS October's Player of the Month. Since 2014, Meram has also been a key member of Iraq's national team, making 22 appearances and scoring two goals.

Meram is a dual-national. He holds both American and Iraqi citizenships, and counted as a football star both in Iraq and Columbus. And that's exactly the problem.

After putting pen-to-paper to his new contract, Meram was called-up for Iraq's next international matches at the end of the month - against Saudi Arabia and Australia - in the 2018 World Cup qualification matches.

Iraq was part of the seven countries included in US President Donald Trump's travel ban last month. Even though Iraq was later removed from the Trump regime "black list" of Muslim countries, Meram decided to decline the chance of playing for the Lions of Mesopotamia.

Due to the security situation in Iraq and the ongoing war in Mosul, FIFA placed a ban on international games in the country. Due to this fact, Iraq holds its home matches in Iran's capital Tehran, which is another country on the US travel ban list.

Iraq's Manager Basil Gorgis was reportedly trying to convince Meram and his family that his visit to Tehran won't put any barriers to his return to the States - or affect his US citizenship - but he wasn't convinced. Meram refused to fly to Tehran and was omitted from the Iraqi squad.

This story is an early indication of the impact on Trump's "Muslim  ban" has had on football. Despite the efforts of the Iraqi FA, it is hard to blame the player for hesitating about the trip with his job, family and life all in the States. Who knows how the immigration officers will "greet" an American citizen who spent two weeks staying in Tehran. In the US today, nobody really knows.


Ittihad Jeddah marked a big victory in their season already this week. The team played al-Nasr at the Saudi Crown Prince Cup Final on Friday, and bagged their first title of the season. A lone goal from Egyptian star Mahmoud Kahraba in the first-half made it 1-0 and concluded the match. Kahraba has been in electric form for his Saudi club since the beginning of the season, scoring 15 goals and setting up three others in just 20 matches. With these stats, his nickname "Kahraba" ("electricity" in Arabic) seems well suited.

On Wednesday, UAE club al-Jazira made a huge step towards the championship title in the Arabian Gulf League. The league leaders played arch-rivals al-Ain at the Mohammed bin Zayid Stadium in Abu Dhabi, and were decisive in their title aspirations against Omar Abdulrahman and his friends who seem to be losing their nerves in this tough season.  

A brace from Ali Mabkhout in the final ten minutes sealed the fight, and highlighted the gap between the clubs. Omar Abdulrahman provided his friends with many goal chances, but Colombian Moreno and Brazilian Caio were simply not sharp enough.

With this victory, al-Jazira opened up a six points lead at the top of the table from al-Ahli, while al-Ain sank all the way to the fourth position - ten points from the place they marked for themselves when the season kicked off.

Since the resignation of Croatian coach, Zlatko Daljic, al-Ain have lacked confidence and accuracy in all competitions. New Coach Zoran Mamic has yet to leave his mark on the team and it seems like al-Ain will watch Dutch coach Hank Ten Cate and his powerful al-Jazira side celebrate the title in a couple of matches time.

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.