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Football in the Middle East has grown but perhaps not fast enough. It has emerged as another place for Europe’s elite to finish their careers at but what about transfers the other way? Strict work permit regulations have thwarted the efforts of numerous Middle Eastern footballers looking to ply their trade in Europe. Hamoudi Fayad has a look at the state of affairs.
Coming off the back of a world-class season in one of the top Asian leagues, Omar Al-Somah has quite the handful to worry about for the upcoming 2015/16 season. Burning questions from Syrian, Saudi Arabian and Asian fans have been asked continuously, eager to find out what happens next for the dominant Syrian striker.
The most recent dilemma comes in the form of selecting which nation to represent for the rest of his career. Despite playing a few games for the Syrian National team, Al-Somah is eligible to play for another nation should he be granted citizenship – and that seems a likely prospect. Coming through the ranks at his local club Al-Futowa in Syria, a move to Qadsia SC in Kuwait saw him sweep the second tier of Asia by their feet. The Kuwaiti League, the Emir Cup and the AFC Cup were all it needed to entice Saudi giants Al-Ahli to grab his signature in mid-2014. 31 goals in 33 games across all competitions successfully grasped the attention of millions, with his admittance on Arabic TV show Seda Al-Malaeb (Translation: Echo of the Stadiums) that he would gladly welcome the prospect of playing for another national team.
This stance was taken after his opposing position towards the regime in Syria and what is occurring to people immersed in between the borders, along with his ambition to play in England, a near impossibility with a Syrian passport – a national team broken into pieces and far off from an average world ranking under 70 – a move to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or UAE’s national team beckons.
With Iran the only Middle Eastern nation able to compete among the best 70 national teams in the world, a requisite established by the work permit rule; a rule that has thwarted the chances of Middle Eastern footballers moving to England therefore producing phlegmatic performances back in their home countries, earning wages that are deemed outrageous (too high in Gulf nations, too low in the Levant) at the current level of football they are involved in.
However, the arrival of the Hasawi family at Nottingham Forest saw their intention of bringing in players specifically from Kuwait and the UAE to enhance the image of the region and its quality of football. This sign of care and intent arrived with a tough quandary; how to work around the work permit rule?
There was none to be found, unfortunately for the footballers. Appealing to bring in a player whose permit has been rejected often succeeds when a player is deemed a positive sign towards the development of the game, though this project by Al-Hasawi was designed to aid Middle Eastern footballers more so than the development of the English game itself.
Omar Al-Somah was the first of a few, turning out for Nottingham Forest in a trio of games scoring one in the process. Despite the board’s best efforts to bring him in, he was not granted a work permit as expected. Al-Hasawi’s previous links at Qadsia SC began to accuse him of garnering attention to the club in grabbing their best players, notably from other Middle Eastern nations.
The accusation certainly carried some weight, as Nottingham Forest handed out trials to a trio of Kuwaiti players, one of them from Qadsia SC. He goes by the name Bader Al-Mutawa, also linked with Malaga at some point but a failed bid led to him remaining at Qadsia. Al-Mutawa is a Kuwaiti legend, excelling in a ‘9.5’ position on the pitch. Not quite an attacking midfielder and not quite the true striker, his role was tantamount to a complete forward. Possessing the brains of a European footballer and the ability of one too, the underachievement of the Kuwaiti national team since the turn of the century has definitely prevented him from becoming a true ‘professional’.
Hussain Fadhel and Khaled Al-Rashidi were the other members of the trio sent to England to try out for the team, inevitably failing to pull up any trees and returning back to their homes. With a lack of interest in Spain, Germany and Italy due to being inculcated by issues of their own, it was a long shot for any Middle Easterner aside from players such as Ashkan Dejagah and Reza Ghoochannejhad to sign for a club in Europe, never mind England.
Ali Al-Habsi of Oman, well known in England during his time at Wigan Athletic took to the path through Norway, where he played for Lyn Oslo from 2003 up until 2006. Emerging through the ranks and linked to QPR currently, is League One and Iraq midfielder Yaser Kasim at Swindon Town – who lost to Preston North End in the promotion play-off final this year.
What about the players talented enough to make it into Europe, with their national teams rising by the day?
Omar Abdulrahman suffered largely due to the work permit as he was due to sign with Manchester City after a successful trial. At the time, the UAE were flirting with the top 100 however far off from becoming the Asian… power, that they are today. Ali Mabkhout now joins ‘Amoory’ in the race to become the first official Emirati European football player, permanently.
Hamdan Al-Kamali (1 game for Lyon, on loan) and his brother Hamid Al-Kamali (a full season loan with Valletta FC in Malta, becoming the first Emirati to participate in the UEFA Champions League) were exceptions, however Amoory and Mabkhout want to make it to the big stage as the latter admitted interest from clubs such as QPR, Hamburg and two unnamed Spanish clubs.
The vision implemented by Mahdi Ali, an engineer by trade and a man who helped the Dubai Metro succeed – now the UAE national team manager – and his predilection to choosing players he is comfortable with has seen Ali Mabkhout rise above hate. Mabkhout was picked shortly after the arrival of Ali to the senior team, despite being subject to frustration from the Emirati faithful due to his call-up.
Mabkhout and Ali himself have both proven them wrong and succeeded in the emergence of a couple of Emirati players capable of playing in Europe while also driving the national team to become the best in the Gulf and near the top of Asia with a 3rd place finish at the 2015 Asian Cup.
However, unlike Mabkhout’s exultant reaction to the interest in him, the exhilarating playmaker Amoory seems set to stay after signing a contract worth 14m AED a year ($3.8m) at Al-Ain. This in conjunction with the arduous times he would suffer in should he move to Europe affects the whole region and worsens the reputation surrounding the game in the Middle East.
Amoory is treated with respect, love and kindness over here in the UAE. Should he suffer from an injury, the fans will not blame him and allow him to ‘ease off’ from the game. This resulted in Amoory missing the first 6 months of the Arabian Gulf League in the 2014/15 season, however he was fit to play at the Gulf Cup of Nations in November and the Asian Cup in January. Should he sign for a club in Belgium or the Netherlands, would he dolled in such a way? Extremely unlikely.
The legends who grew up here in the Middle East, specifically Arab players, have suffered from rules such as the work permit in England and with no one in other European countries working towards creating a better environment for Middle Eastern footballers it seems unlikely to have a hero hail from there. Yaser Kasim, may be one to prove them wrong.
Rules such as the work permit however, must not be used as tenuous conjecture to remain in their home country especially if such a move is made from solely a financial perspective. Football has become more about the money and it is rare to see a player seek their personal development over the financial rewards in the region, but the possibility of Ali Mabkhout completing a permanent transfer is imminent, sooner or later.
This will create a benchmark for players such as the unheralded regista Amer Abdulrahman and dynamic winger Ismaeel Al-Hammadi to make the move to Europe, the former being a player extremely composed and elegant on the ball and who can excel in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands.
A final message is to take the step towards succeeding outside. These are reasons why you see Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese players make the move to Europe earlier, because in their country there is hardly a whiff of big money. $2000 a month is the average wage for a local footballer, and that is the pivotal reason behind the moves of Roda Antar and Youssef “Dodo” Mohamad to the Bundesliga, for Freiburg and Koln respectively. Yaser Kasim is currently an example, but with Nasser Al-Shamrani, Fahad Al-Muwallad, Omar Al-Somah, Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmad Khalil and others earning wages more than some Premier League players (Harry Kane being one of them), it is a worrying sign for the future of Middle Eastern football.
Written by Hamoudi Fayad