International transfer drama: This week in Middle East football

International transfer drama: This week in Middle East football
5 min read
29 Jan, 2018
In football, January means one thing - the international transfer window, which means rumours, names, speculation and fantasy.
Rumor has it Liverpool legend Mohamed Salah could be picked up by Real Madrid [AFP]
In football, January means one thing: International transfer window - which means everywhere you turn there are new rumours, names being slotted into imaginary formations, wild speculation and fantasies.

Among the reports about Phillip Coutinho and Virgil Van Dijk, Middle Eastern superstars are also being tipped to move from one club to other. Mohamad Salah was linked to Real Madrid, Riyad Mahrez to Liverpool, but one of the most interesting stories focused on Leicester City's unsettled Algerian striker - Islam Slimani.

The Premier League's Chelsea, Watford and Newcastle - as well as Turkish giants Besiktas - are all interested in the 29-year-old front-man. While he is under contract with Leicester until 2021, he looks likely to switch clubs soon, after falling out of favour at the King Power Stadium. Slimani has only scored once and contributed one assist for Leicester in the league this season.

Out of the three English clubs who are in the chase for the Algerian goal machine, Watford's Golden Boys and West London's Chelsea Blues seem to be favourites over the Magpies of Newcastle, after the sale of the Geordie club through Amanda Stavely backfired. Sources close to the striker also revealed the player "would be happy with a London move". Watford, on the north-west fringes of London, will be in need of attacking presence if their talismanic captain, Troy Deeney, is sold.

Slimani, who was outstanding for Sporting Lisbon with 48 goals in 84 matches, scored only eight goals in 35 appearances for Leicester's Foxes, and he is keen for game time in order to get back to his scoring best. 

Saudi-Spanish Deal

Transfer interest in Arab players is not confined to Britain. Spain's La Liga and the Saudi Football Association have launched a special agreement that sent the leading Saudi national team players on loan deals to Spanish teams in the European nation's first- and second-tier teams.

Salem Al-Dawsri: Al Hilal to Villareal
Yahia Shahri: Al-Nassr to Leganes
Nouh Al-Moussa: Al-Fateh to Valladolid
Ali Al-Nimer: Al-Shabab to Numancia
Jaber Mustafa: Al-Shabab to Villareal B
Marwan Othman: Al-Shabab to Leganes B
Abd Al-Majid Al-Sleyhim: Al-Shabab to Rayo Vallecano
Abdallha Al-Hamdan: Sporting de Gijon
Fahd Al-Muwallad: Ittihad Jeddah to Levante

This deal involves many complex elements, but not all of them directly related to what happens on the field.

The Saudi FA aspires to provide their players with professional routines and training before the World Cup, and to promote the discussion around the national team in English- and Spanish-language media.

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To date, with the exception of Mukhtar Ali (a British-Somali-Saudi), no Saudi player has played in Europe.

Saudi club owners have been at pains to keep their big stars at their local teams, and so Saudi players have rarely gone abroad, if at all.

This week, in one evening, ten Saudi players signed in Spain, all in the same time. Special fees depending on the level of each player, the games in which he takes part, training sessions completed, will also be part of the deal. In addition, the Spanish clubs, who are all medium and small sizes in terms of fandom and branding, will enjoy intensive and aggressive PR in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, a serious boost in social networks and a foothold in the large and lucrative Arab market.

La Liga is trying to do what Liverpool did with Salah, as part of an attempt to spark a buzz in new markets.

But will these players even play? It's too early to say. Some of them are of a high level, and might feature in official matches, but the rest are mediocre and it will be highly surprising to see them taking part in Spanish football as full-fledged players.

Here is one direct impact. In the first hour after the announcement, more than 10,000 Saudis started following the Twitter account of Spanish minnows Levante, who signed Fahd Almuwallad, Saudi Arabia's biggest star.

Some of the club's new fans users went on to threaten that, if he did not start for the team against Real Madrid, they would unfollow the club's account. 

Football is changing and it is quite remarkable how the Arab and Middle Eastern scene have come to take a central role.

Due to violence and racism at these matches, the Israeli FA decided that some games should shut their doors to visiting fans

The Superpolitico

Beitar Jerusalem against Ittihad Sakhnin is one of the hottest clashes in Middle Eastern football.

Beitar is most often identified with Israeli extreme-right. Sakhnin is the biggest Arab club in the Israeli Premier League, and the most successful Arab team in Israeli football history. These encounters create great tension.

Last week, the two met in Jerusalem for a league fixture.

The match opened with a storm as Sakhnin scored first, after just three minutes - and the racist songs began.

Sakhnin found the net again in the 36th minute with a great goal from former RC Lens player Firas Mughrabi, who celebrated in style in front of the Beitar fans.

Due to the violence and racism at these matches, the Israeli FA decided that some games should shut their doors to visiting fans. But Sakhnin's management team celebrated while the rest of the stadium was in shock. Beitar made an early substitution, and came back to the match with a nice goal to make it 2-1 at half time.

After every Sakhnin goal, Beitar fans sang their full arsenal of racist and anti-Arab songs. The stadium turned into a volcano of nationalist sentiment and political emotion. The commentator in the stadium pleaded with fans to cut out the songs, but the yellow and black crowd simply kept going.

Beitar opened the second half with extra motivation and notched two fast goals. The stadium erupted when the scoreline hit 3-2. The pressure continued, and Beitar scored a fourth with a 30-metre screamer from German defender Marcel Heister.

On the 70th minute, Israel Zaguri, a former Beitar player who now plays for Sakhnin, missed an open goal. The match was concluded in a 4-2 victory for the Jerusalemites, but the score was not the focus of the national conversation which followed.

On Tuesday morning, Beitar's board announced that their stadium's east stand - home to the most hardcore "Ultras" - would be closed immediately, and that fans will have their season tickets confiscated if caught singing racist songs.

It will be interesting to see if the infamous club can fulfill its promise.

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