Yet, the current state of Middle Eastern football isn’t auspicious. Why is that? South Korea and Australia are teams that can battle, even possibly outsmart European teams on their day – not Andorra and San Marino – but Belgium and Portugal to a certain extent. The problem lies in the depths of the scarcely covered domestic leagues in the Middle East.
Relative to this perception are players who shone at worldwide tournaments but endured tougher times at their clubs. Jozy Altidore and Miroslav Klose fall into the category of top players for their national teams, but have they been world-class with their day-to-day football efforts? Klose never hit the heights expected at Bayern Munich while Jozy Altidore flopped massively, with players such as Milan Baros and Asamoah Gyan also fitting into that group of players who never fulfilled their expected goals during their time in European football. This is where the notion is visualised, where even though we saw a proud and spirited performance from a few Middle Eastern sides at the Asian Cup it’s extremely different and lethargic behind the scenes.
In Iraq, players are abused by their own fans for poor performances despite the fact that the country is already marred by bloodshed in addition to the players who are doing their best to construct a living through terrible conditions; likewise in Syria. Lebanese Football is marred by semi-professionalism and politics, Yemen affected by war too. Those countries are regarded as minnows in the Middle East, but what about the bigger countries?
The UAE have been atrocious continentally with no wins as of yet in the AFC Champions League – heavily affected by the elimination of Al-Wahda and Al-Jazira in the qualifiers – while the Saudi Arabian National team has deteriorated since 2006. Qatar, realistically, have been the only nation to improve in terms of players, the league system and results but that has been overshadowed by the naturalization policy practiced by the 2022 World Cup holders. And finally the progress has been stale in Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Palestine. The only country that has been doing well in terms of club football is Iran with Persepolis leading the pack despite an appalling season domestically, much to the delight of Esteghlal fans.
Dinner with a prominent figure
Moving on to the point that I wanted to highlight, I recently had dinner with a former UAE FA Vice-president. It was very interesting, this talk that we had. We were watching Al-Ain in the AFC Champions League against Naft Tehran and we began with criticism of the analysis on Arabian Sports Channels (excluding BeIN Sports). “Al-Ain have a very good defence, Al-Jazira have a very good attack, Team X makes use of the flanks, Team Y doesn’t”. These phrases are constantly repeated about teams and games in the Arabian Gulf League, where one would expect that with the money being paid for players and staff there would be a significant improvement in terms of analysis for fans on TV to enjoy and dissect.
The most recent game between Al-Wasl and Al-Ain was a tense encounter and it was obvious from a tactical point of view that Al-Wasl were vulnerable to ground balls. Their defenders were extremely comfortable with defending crosses but once Kembo-Ekoko, the dynamic Al-Ain right-winger, encompassed the box with his trademark cut in from near the byline the Al-Wasl defence would look flabbergasted and that move exactly resulted in the winner for Al-Ain from Mohammad Abdulrahman, brother of the more famed Omar. A low cutback cross was drilled into the box and the tactical deficiencies were obvious with Al-Wasl, only for there to be no mention from the analysts. This is not a one-time occasion, rather it is a continuous occurrence.
As we rambled on about the problems the former UAE FA Vice-president told me that he was disappointed with the “mentality, discipline and style of our players”. Word by word translation from what he said in Arabic: “Fans expect Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout to move to Europe but it’s all about the money, the cars and the fame. The mentality, discipline and style of our players are substandard. They come in to train just for physical enhancement, and that only happens after Salat Al-Asr (afternoon prayer). In Europe there is a whole system based on training and how important it is to the game itself, it is non-existent here.”
“Us Arabs, our players have mentalities that do not suit the European game. Ali Mabkhout’s style fits Germany or England as a fast, dangerous and potent player. But is his mindset good enough for even the Portuguese or Belgian league? That is the question.”
“[A player who is not to be named] earns 1,000,000 AED a month (equivalent to $68,000 p/w or £44,000 p/w) when he hasn’t even completed elementary school! Imagine a European team allowing a star youngster to drop out of school from the 6th grade to end up earning millions when he has not even earned a full schooling career.”
“To show you how the European teams are much more developed, I was with the Emirati team at the 2011 u-17 World Cup in Guadalajara where I was sitting next to an England committee member. I asked ‘How much do your players get as winning bonus?’, he looked at me with astonishment. ‘Nothing’, was his reply, ‘these pitches and tournaments are a bonus for them’. I proceeded to ask him ‘how about winning the whole tournament, what does that result in as bonus?’, the man replied with a smile and said ‘a 10-day trip around a foreign country’. Our players are used to bonuses in cash if they get past the group stage or win a game, but the European players do it for the love of the game. Sure, there is money as incentive for many players but the discipline is there. No smoking, no late nights and no showing off with their fancy cars, a very rare trait amongst them.”
“Mahdi Ali’s last chance for the U.A.E is to get them to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and if that doesn’t happen; the Golden Generation is gone”.
At this moment I knew where the Middle East stood in terms of football. After finding out a few of Arabian Gulf League players’ wage numbers, learning about drug cases and jail sentences for players that happened behind the scenes, I knew that there was a huge problem that needed commitment above all to be fixed. From all the Middle Eastern teams at the Asian Cup, only Ali-Al Habsi and Yaser Kasim play in England albeit in the Championship and League One. A few other players serve their clubs in Scandinavia, but that’s it. The experience from Europe is lacking. The Javad Nekounams, the Nashat Akrams, the Sami Al-Jabers, the Ali Karimis are all gone (almost). The Middle East, as a region, needs to take a stand. Without consistent youth production, sellout games and commitment we may never see the dawn of a region filled with uncovered potential.