Football's coming home... to Palestine
On Tuesday, the Arab Champions' Cup kicked off. The first preliminary round of the competition's Asia Zone was played between Bahraini side Riffa, the 2015/16 Bahraini King's Cup runners-up, and the Lebanese team Al-Ahed, the Alpha League and Lebanese Cup runners-up.
Khalifa Sport City almost played host to a 0-0 tie, but Ahmad Zreik scored and stunned the home crowd in the 91st minute in order to finish 1-0 for Ahed. They will be hoping to repeat the win at the next leg in Beirut.
While the Bahraini and Lebanese sides were squaring up, FC Barcelona played a bizarre friendly in Doha, Qatar, against Saudi Arabia's Al-Ahli Jeddah.
The teams' sponsors, Qatar Airways, scheduled a friendly between them in the middle of the week in the middle of a regular football season. While the reasons to approve this friendly remained mysterious and no doubt money-related, there was one interesting twist: Omar "Amoory" Abdulrahman, of the the Emirati club Al-Ain - and the biggest Arab football star around, known as "the Arab Messi" - joined Al-Ahli for this one and only match.
|Many media reports on the game focused on the young
Afghan mascot who got to meet his hero, Leo Messi [Getty]
Barca won 5-3 with goals from Messi, Suarez and Neymar, but again, Amoory, the man and the afro, stole the show with a Panenka penalty. What a legend.
Meanwhile, a special delegation of Club Deportivo Palestino from Chile toured Palestine, with two friendly matches in the West Bank. On Tuesday, in Nablus, the Palestine national team hammered the Chileans 3-0, with goals from Ashraf Nu’man and Ahmed Abu-Nahya.
On Thursday, Palestino travelled to Hebron and played a Hebronite All-stars team, in a game which concluded 1-1.
At the end of the match there was an emotional farewell ceremony for the Chilean-Palestinian footballer Roberto Kettlun, whose prodgious talent had served Palestino, as well as the Palestine national team, and Hilal Al-Quds and Ahli Al-Khaleel in recent years.
Roberto Bishara, another Chilean-Palestinian football legend, was also honoured by the local crowd. The Chilean delegation plans to go on to Gaza, to play a Gazan best-eleven. The Chilean club has produced a strong fondness for the Palestinian national identity in football this past week.
Friday afternoon promised greatness, with terrific games lined up across the region. The grand derby of Jordan between Al-Wehdat and Al-Faisaly, the Riyadh derby between Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia, and one of Iraqi football's most fierce rivalries - Al-Shorta vs Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.
While the derby games in Amman and Riyadh both ended in disappointing draws (0-0 and 1-1 respectively), in Baghdad it was a whole different story.
Al-Shaab Stadium in the Iraqi capital was full, with 40,000 fans in the stands, creating an atmosphere of a mega-match.
After their AFC Cup triumph, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya needed some time to catch up with the local league. While Al-Shorta was in second place, chasing league leaders Naft Al-Wasat, Al-Jawiya remains 14th - way behind with five games in hand.
But the differences in the table weren't reflected on the pitch, as Al-Soqoor was simply better than their green rivals of Al-Shorta. Bashar Resan, Al-Jawiya's star, struck twice and Emad Ahsen added one in the final minutes and painted the day in the blue of the most senior club in Iraq.
Abd Al-Qadr Tareq scored deep in extra time to save some of the Police Club's dignity. But it's only a matter of time before the Air Force Club will be back in the top rankings of the Iraqi table.
On Saturday, the final whistle blew on the West Bank Premier League first round. Hilal Al-Quds won 2-1 in Dura against Dhahriah and finished the first round of games in Dauri Muhtarifin as the winter champions, two points above Thagafi Tulkarem in second.
Later that evening, at Saudi Arabia's Dawry Jameel, Ittihad Jeddah found themselves in trouble against Fateh Club.
The visitors led twice in the first half, and Itti seemed destined to finish, again, behind arch-rival Al-Hilal and city rival Al-Ahli. In the second half the Tigers equalized the scoreboard, but the 22,000 yellow-black fans still saw Al-Hilal as the winter champions. And then, as has happened time and again with Ittihad this season, in the 96th minute Tunisian striker Ahmed Akaichi, bombed the ball in from the rebound and set the stadium on fire.
Ittihad Jeddah finished as Winter Champions of Saudi Arabia.
Ittihad made the headlines in another issue this week. The club's former captain, legend and symbol, Mohammed Noor, was banned due to doping offences. Noor is a football superstar in Saudi Arabia, and his ban was a controversial saga by all accounts.
He has been suspended from action for four years, and has retired from professional football as a result. The Court of Arbitration in Sport upheld FIFA's appeal, saying: "The Panel found that the player failed to identify any basis for impugning the reliability or accuracy of the testing laboratory's analysis… therefore, the appropriate sanction for the player's anti-doping rule violation is a four-year period of ineligibility."
It’s sad to see a legend like Noor, who played for Ittihad for more than twenty years (1993-2016), and scored more than 120 goals in the yellow and black striped uniform, ending his career at the age of 38, and in such circumstances.
For a more optimistic closer to the week - in Qatar, a father stopped his son, Al-Shahania goalkeeper Khalifa Al-Dosari, from fighting an opponent player. A few words of wisdom, a bit of respect for the father, and the incident was gone. Scenes you see only in Middle Eastern football.
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.