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Pomp and pageantry: This week in Middle East football Open in fullscreen

Uri Levy

Pomp and pageantry: This week in Middle East football

Al-Hilal are on of Saudi Arabia's biggest clubs [fiile photo-Getty]

Date of publication: 23 May, 2017

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Football and politics collided this weekend, when Donald Trump brought a New York football team with him to Riyadh to compete against Saudi's finest.

While the world's eyes were focused on President Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia this weekend, the delegation accompanying him were not the only group of arriving from the US.

On Saturday evening - while the Saudi King and the US president agreed a mega-arms deal - New York Cosmos, the historical football club from the North American Soccer League (the second most important US football league), played a historic friendly at the Prince Faisal bin Fahed Stadium in Riyadh against Saudi champion's al-Hilal.

International relations

Trump, himself, did not attend the match, but football legend Luis Figo - as well as a number of former al-Hilal stars such as Swedish Christian Wilhelmsson - all attended. As the match took place two days after the King Cup final, almost none of al-Hilal regular first team players participated in the game.

A quite exaggerated pre-match show included singer Majd al-Muhandes, while paratroopers also performed their own stunts.

Even though it was the first ever meeting between al-Hilal FC and the Cosmos, it wasn't the New York team's first visit the region. The club last travelled to the Middle East during the 2014 pre-season, playing three friendlies in the United Arab Emirates.

Current al-Hilal manager, Ramón Díaz, competed against the New York Cosmos as a River Plate player in 1980.

The match itself ended in a 0-0 draw but it was the timing of the game that was most interesting. It seemed that the club is playing its part in Washington’s diplomatic efforts to move closer to Riyadh and win over the Saudi people.


In Cosmos' history, the club has visited 47 nations, playing 127 games on foreign soil. The contest against al-Hilal was the New York club’s 187th international match, including those played in the US.

It's not the first "political friendly" the club has been a part of. Cosmos were the first US sports team to visit Havana in 16 years, when they played the Cuban National Team in June 2015, shortly after the two countries resorted diplomatic relations. It was probably the most notable trip for the club since their 1977 visit to China. The visit to Riyadh marks another important event in US foreign relations.

Be Right Back

After the merger between two of Qatar's top biggest clubs -Lekhwiya and El-Jaish - the phenomena seems to be spreading elsewhere in the region. Last week, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, that the Dubai clubs - al-Ahli, al-Shabab and Dubai SC - would merge into the super club Shabab al-Ahli Dubai.

The new president is reportedly Dubai prince and former al-Ahli Chairman Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed al-Maktoum - he who was the main figure behind the move. 

"Our objective is to build a club that can compete regionally and globally," Maktoum was quoted in Wael Jabir's fascinating piece on the subject at www.ahdaaf.me.

The move is a positive venture, as Dubai clubs haven't attracted much of a crowd to their stadiums this season.

Al-Shabab last match was witnessed by just 72 spectators, while al-Ahli only managed to pull in average crowds of 2,339 this season. 

Dubai as a city aspires to be a serious powerhouse in Asian football, not only by collecting trophies and signing expensive players but also by evolving the domestic football culture through a massive fan base.

As the UAE Football Association confirmed that from 2017/18 only 12 teams will take part in the Emirati League, the new Dubai club has the chance to enter into the country’s football books early on.

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

 

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