A brand new feature on this website is the introduction of weekly & fortnightly columns focusing on various leagues, countries and regions across the World. Wael Jabir here documents the latest talking points in Middle East football.
Oman’s thrashing of Kuwait a sign of new order in the Gulf
Not so long ago the order of things at the Gulf Cup was as predictable as the sunset. In the 16 Gulf Cup tournaments held between 1970 and 2003, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi won 15. Qatar’s early nineties golden generation was the only team to break the status quo. It has always been Oman & Bahrain at the bottom end of table while UAE & Qatar always lingered in mid-table obscurity. However, since 2003 drastic changes started to take place. Bahrain finished runner-up in 2003, the United Arab Emirates won 2 titles since then and Qatar added another to their 1992 trophy. The biggest surprise of all were the red warriors of Oman.
Traditionally the weakest team in the region with a poor league system that could at best be described as “semi-pro”, Oman came out of nowhere to finish second on 2 occasions before finally landing the trophy at home soil in 2009 with iconic goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi being crowned Goalkeeper of the Tournament for the 4th consecutive time after keeping a clean sheet for the entire competition.
On Thursday, the Omani revolution continued as they put five clean goals past nine times Gulf Cup winners Kuwait to top group B and qualify to the semi-finals alongside reigning champions the UAE. The two southern gulf nations knocked out two traditional powers which between them shared 14 titles out of the 21 fought out so far, Iraq and Kuwait. It is indeed a sign of how the balance of power have shifted in the Gulf Cup & the wider Middle Eastern football scene. Historically, Gulf Cup head-to-head records have seen Kuwait register results as high as 8-0 in 1976 and a couple of 5-0 wins past the Omanis with the most recent coming in 1998.
Now, when the two Middle Eastern teams meet in the AFC Asian Cup in Australia less than two months from now, Oman will be the favourites to win and their fans will look forward to battle it out with the hosts and South Korea for a place in the quarter finals. Moreover, they now sit 37 places above the once mighty Kuwait and this gap is unlikely to be closed following the two teams’ contrasting Gulf cup showings.
Is Sami Al-Jaber Saudi Arabia’s finest footballer of all time?
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced on Friday the inaugural list of inductees to the AFC Hall of Fame. The ten-man list included names such as 2005 UEFA Champions League winner Harry Kewell and legendary Iranian striker Ali Daei, record holder for most international goals ever scored by any footballer in addition to former Wolverhampton striker Sami Al-Jaber from Saudi Arabia.
While this is undoubtedly a well-deserved honour for the former Saudi international, it has raised a lot of debate about whether he is the greatest footballer the kingdom has ever produced. Everything about the 41 years old former Al-Hilal striker seems to cause endless discussion in Saudi, be it his record as a manager with Al-Hilal, his unorthodox Guardiola-esque dressing style or inevitably his status among other legends of the game in Saudi Arabia. The recent announcement from the AFC immediately had some fans asking, why Sami Al Jaber, not Majed Abdullah? This duel of Sami vs Majed is as frequent as Maradona vs Pele or Messi vs Ronaldo in this part of the world. A debate fuelled even further by the fact the two players are legends and one-club-men at the arch-rivals from the capital Riyadh.
When Majed hung his boots at the age of 40 just after winning the AFC Cup Winners Cup in 1998 with his boyhood club Al-Nasser, Sami was at the prime of his career, scoring goals for fun at Al-Hilal & leading the national team to their (and his) second FIFA World Cup appearance. Later Sami would become the only Asian player to score in 3 different World Cup tournaments. And while Majed Abdullah is undisputed as the best player to ever don the yellow & blue of Al-Nasser, some Al-Hilal fans rate their 80s and 90s star Yousuf Al-Thunayan higher than Al Jaber, if not in terms of records, at least in terms of his talents and stature as a club legend.
Sami Al Jaber’s inclusion as an AFC hall of fame member will not only add to his glamour as an all-time Saudi legend, but it will also reignite the debate about who is Saudi Arabia’s best football player of all times.
Talent Radar Player of the Week
With domestic leagues across the Middle East on pause for the Gulf Cup and the African Cup of Nations qualifiers, the focus was on international football and disappointedly, very little chance was afforded to players under the age 21 with their senior national teams, Iraq being the exception. Coach Hakeem Shaker fielded 3 under 21 players with a fourth coming in as a half-time substitute in their 3rd Gul Cup group stage game against the UAE. Of the four players, it was Humam Tariq, earlier tipped as one to watch by Outside of the Boot’s Hamoudi Fayad, who had the most notable impact, relatively speaking. Iraq bowed out to UAE 0-2, yet Humam continued to pull the strings in midfield for his team.
The teen prodigy, currently on loan at UAE pro league side Al-Dhafra, showed craft & maturity beyond his 18 years and completed the 90 minutes for the 3rd time in the tournament. He may not have scored or assisted in his 270 minutes of play but Humam was definitely one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing campaign for The Lions of Mesopotamia, in the process confirming his status as one of the hottest prospects in Middle Eastern & Asian football in years to come.
Written by Wael Jabir