Football in the Arab World: Top Players, Bitter Rivalries, Politics, and More

Football is the world’s most popular sport. The Arab world is no exception to the sway this game holds in almost every country. It is a game that is accessible and simple to learn and organize. It is popular among all socioeconomic classes, as it does not need any fancy equipment. Thus, many children in the Middle East and North Africa grow up playing it, as well as obsessing over it and its famous sports teams, clubs, and players.

Top 10 Arab Football Clubs

The following is a list of the most successful Arab football clubs according to Forbes Magazine’s ranking system. This system took into account the clubs’ position within their leagues, number of wins and losses, number of championships, and other factors.

1. Al Ahly SC

City: Cairo, Egypt

Rival: Zamalek SC (Cairo)

2. Al Hilal Saudi Club

City: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Rival: Al-Nassr (Riyadh)

3. Espérance Sportive de Tunis

City: Tunis, Tunisia

Rival: Club Africain (Tunis), Étoile Sportive du Sahel (Tunis)

4. Étoile Sportive du Sahel

City: Tunis, Tunisia

Rival: Espérance Sportive de Tunis (Tunis), Club Africain (Tunis)

5. Al-Ahli Saudi FC

City: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Rival: Al-Ittihad (Jeddah)

6. Zamalek SC

City: Cairo, Egypt

Rival: Al-Ahly SC (Cairo)

7. Club Africain

City: Tunis, Tunisia

Rival: Espérance Sportive de Tunis (Tunis), Étoile Sportive du Sahel (Tunis)

8. Wydad Athletic Club

City: Casablanca, Morocco

Rival: Raja FC (Casablanca)

9. Al-Hilal Omdurman FC

City: Khartoum, Sudan

Rival: Al-Merrikh (Khartoum)

10. Al-Merrikh Sporting Club

City: Khartoum, Sudan

Rival: Al-Hilal Omdurman FC

 

Famous Arab Players

The following is a list of the most famous Arab soccer players currently playing. So as not to upset any fans, these names are not listed in any particular order:

Mohamed Salah

Country: Egypt

Club: Liverpool

Riyad Mahrez

Country: Algeria

Club: Leicester City

Islam Slimani

Country: Algeria

Club: Leicester City

Yacine Brahimi

Country: Algeria

Club: FC Porto

Mahdi Benatia

Country: Morocco

Club: Juventus

Faouzi Ghoulam

Country: Algeria

Club: SSC Napoli

Mohamed Elneny

Country: Egypt

Club: Arsenal

Hakim Ziyech

Country: Morocco

Club: AFC AJAX

Soufiane Hanni

Country: Algeria

Club: Leicester City

El Arbi Hillel Soudani

Country: Algeria

Club: GNK Dinamo Zagreb

 

Football and Politics

Football in MENA also carries a significant socio-political dimension. Almost every Arab government has established and promoted football leagues to solidify nationalism and support for the regime. Arab leaders often try to harness and exploit the passionate sentiments evoked during the heat of a match. In this way, different clubs also reflect different political allegiances. For example, the Egyptian clubs Al-Ahly and Zamalek represented pro-Nasser and pro-monarchy points of view, respectively. Political groups such as Hezbollah also manage and fund various clubs throughout Lebanon.

This enthusiasm, though, is a two-edged sword in some cases. The people can air their political frustration uncensored during football matches. Extreme soccer fans known as “ultras” have been on both sides of revolutionary movements throughout the Middle East. As such, many regimes attempt to gain the Ultra’s favor for their own political purposes. In Egypt, ultras protested against Mubarak in Tahrir Square protests ousting Hosni Mubarak and cracked down on student-led anti-2013 coup protesters. And when the current El-Sisi regime couldn’t court the Ultras, he branded them as terrorist organizations.

Gambling

While frowned upon in Islam, the phenomenon of sports gambling exists throughout the Arab world. Only a handful of MENA countries have casinos (Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia) or allow sports gambling (Dubai). Thus, much of the existent gambling is illegal. Underground gambling houses are set up and then routinely busted. Depending on the scale of operations and country, punishments range from fines, to jail time, to corporal punishment.

International Representation

2018 marks the first World Cup in which four Arab nations qualified Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia). In the past, Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Kuwait, UAE, and Iraq have all made appearances. The fans in these countries are obviously ecstatic, but what about the others who didn’t make it? Who do they root for?

The World Cup often makes football fans cheer for those they typically wouldn’t during the regular league play. Representation plays a role here, as fans love to attach themselves to whichever team they feel the slightest affinity towards. For example, most Moroccans cheered on Algeria, the only Arab country in that year’s competition. This is striking, as the two countries are not always on the greatest of terms with one another. Thus, fans in the MENA region will almost always cheer on their Arab brothers in the tournament.

On the other hand, the World Cup also exacerbates long-standing rivalries. For instance, there has always been tension and animosity between Egypt and Algeria in the sporting realm. Violent clashes have erupted among these nations’ fans during Olympic and World Cup qualifiers in the past. This has spurred both nations’ diplomatic leaders to draft security plans ahead of matches.

Although many Arab countries have participated in World Cups, none have ever won the coveted cup. As such, many do not make it into the final rounds. In this all-too-familiar scenario, MENA football fans have no choice but to root for foreign teams. The usual suspects include nations with a high concentration of Arab players (such as England, France, or Italy) or other frequent World Cup winners (such as Argentina, Brazil, and Germany).

Image courtesy of Flickr user Muhammad Ghafarni under a Creative Commons license.

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