Career or country? This week in Middle East football

Career or country? This week in Middle East football
5 min read
04 Jul, 2017
Blog: Kenny Saief, the Israeli-Druze midfielder, has chosen to represent the United States, while a summer of transfers awaits, writes Uri Levy.
Rising star Kenny Saief chose the USA over Israel [Getty]

The Druze are known for being loyal to their country of birth, and becoming an integral part of the social structure of their homeland.

Whether in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan or Israel - the Druze, an ethnoreligious group who self-identify as Unitarians (Muwahidun) - are important members of the nations of the region.

In Israel, the Druze serve in the military, are members of the Knesset and also represent the country in sports competitions.

And so it is with Kenneth "Kenny" Hasan Saief, a Druze born in Florida, who moved with his parents to Israel - the Druze town of Usafiyeh - aged three. For the past six years he has been exciting fans and scouts and has cultivated a reputation as one of the best footballing talents to emerge from the Druze community in Israel.

Saief grew up in Israeli football in teams like Maccabi Haifa and Bnei Sakhnin. Throughout his younger years, Saief represented Israel in the under 16s, under 18s, under 19s, and so on. He has even played twice for the full national team.

Since 2014, he has been an important feature of former Belgian Champions KAA Gent, where he has played an active role in the club's Europa League and Champions League campaigns.

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Despite his impressive contributions abroad, in the Israeli national team, Saief couldn't find a regular spot.

The coaches there failed to gave him a fair chance to show his skills, and after the United States offered him the chance to join their national squad - activating FIFA's unique one-time nationality switch - he was heading stateside.

A lot of pressure was reportedly put on the young star's shoulders, as his family, friends and Israeli football fans begged him to stay with the Israeli national team.

The discussion eventually turned into a national debate about whether Saief was being loyal to his country and his religious principles.

But the better conditions on offer out west, including a more organised sports culture and the fact he is being seen there as a top prospect for the national team's future, swayed his opinion.

His family, friends and fans in Israel all respected his decision, and no public criticism has been heard. Everyone understood he did it for his career. The mistake is that of the heads of Israeli football, from the coaches and up the hierarchy - they did not show Saief that he was a prospect for the future, had a promising present and was a star in the making.

This is a huge blow for Israeli football, and a great gain for the US national team.

As for Saeif? He will always be connected in one way or another to his village and country in the Middle East - but in football he will represent the USA.

Omdurman is boiling in the summer

The African Champions League group stages are drawing to a close. On Friday, the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, turned into a festival as the Omdurman Derby between Al-Merreikh and Al-Hilal kicked off.

Al-Merreikh Stadium was full, with 43,645 spectators. The local team - Al-Merreikh - put on a fine display and won 2-1 thanks to goals from Mohamed Abdul-Raman. Al-Hilal drew the score level for a few minutes thanks to their substitute Mohamad Musa.  

Al-Hilal, considered the biggest club of Sudan, is now in real danger of not qualifying for the next stage.

Al-Hilal is not alone though. A few other big names are in deep trouble ahead of the last match of the group stage. Al-Ahly and Zamalek form Egypt, Vita (Congo) and Coton Sport (Cameroon), all have the game of their lives coming up next weekend.

Middle East transfer alert

The summer is usually when the global football transfers market is hottest. The Middle East is no different, with rumours already making headlines across the region.

After years of trying to cultivate and improve local goalkeepers, the Saudis decided to open the gates for foreign goalies, and it hasn't taken long for approaches to be made.

Forty-four-year-old Egyptian legend, Essam Al-Hadary, has signed for Al-Taawoun. Oman's Ali Al-Habsi and Algeria's Rashid M'bolhi are also reportedly on the radar of the big teams in Saudi Arabia.

After much speculation, Egypt's Mahmoud Kahraba is back at Ittihad Jeddah. The striker, Ittihad's best player last season, was almost signed to Zamalek, before the Egyptian chairman, Mortada Mansour, decided to loan out his player again, this time for 70 million EGP - almost four million dollars.

The UAE's Al-Ain signed Swedish striker Marcus Berg from Panathinaikos. That's a mega-signing for the club, and for Emirati football, to attract a top European striker at the peak of his career.

The Qatari Aspire Academy is starting to produce more and more professional players who represent the country abroad. After Akram Afif, this week Henry Onyekuru, a Nigerian who grew up in Qatar and represented Nigeria, signed for Everton and immediately went on loan to Belgian club Anderlecht.

In addition, another academy product, Abdelkarim Hassan, moved on loan to KAS Eupen, also in Belgium.

Ashraf Nu'man, the Palestinian star of Shabab Al-Khaleel, is meanwhile on the verge of signing for Al-Wehdat in Jordan.

Finally, Greek club Panathinaikos is trying to sign Iranian star Ashkan Dejagah. The player, half-German, half Iranian, is a hot target for the Athens club.

If Dejagah signs, he will become a teammate of Omri Altman, the Israeli striker who signed from relegated giant Hapoel Tel-Aviv.

While representing Germany U-21s, Dejagah refused to play against Israel. Time will tell if things have changed, but it is exciting to see an Iranian-Israeli duo in Panathinaikos' attacking force.

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