Plenty to look forward in 2017 for Gulf football fans

The race to make it to the 2018 World Cup and AFC Champions League promise lot of action

Graham Ruthven
Graham Ruthven - Special to Al Arabiya English
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A lot has happened in football over the past 12 months, and the Arab world is no eception. New champions were crowned, new stars were born and others faded, with plenty to compel and captivate in both the Saudi Arabian and UAE leagues.

This time of year is a time for reflection and there is certainly no shortage of stories to reflect on.

In the Saudi Professional League, Al Ahli won their first championship since 1984, storming to the title with 19 wins from 26 games. Although it only came after manager Christian Gross made some drastic changes to his team over the final few fixtures of the season, victory in the Saudi Classico over rivals and 13-time league winners Al Hilal proved to a watershed moment for Al Ahli in what was a most memorable season

Fabio Cannavaro was replaced at Al Nassr after just a few months in charge of the Riyadh club in what was one of the most peculiar storylines of the season in the Saudi top rung.

In the UAE, Al Ahli returned to the top of the pile, winning their second league title in three years on the back of their appearance in the 2015 AFC Champions League final.

Since then, however, Al Ahli have struggled to meet their own standard, with Cosmin Olariou’s side currently slumped in fourth place in the Arabian Gulf League. Olariou himself has been linked with a move away from the Dubai club, with the Romanian widely speculated to be Mahdi Ali’s successor in waiting as manager of the UAE national team.

On the international scene, 2016 was a year defined by the race to make it to the 2018 World Cup.

Saudi Arabia have enjoyed a resurgence under Bert van Merwijk, with the Green Falcons sitting at the top of Group B at the halfway point. A dramatic comeback win over Iraq, scoring twice from the penalty spot in the last nine minutes, as well as a 2-2 draw with Australia, have been the highlights of their qualification campaign so far.

The United Arab Emirates have also held their own in the effort to make it to Russia in two years’ time. Ali’s side currently occupy fourth place in Group B, outside the qualification and playoff places, but the 2-0 win over Iraq in their final fixture of 2016 put them back in the frame to reach the World Cup. They must now build on that heading into the new year, with crucial qualifiers against Saudi Arabia and Japan in particular to come.

Those World Cup qualifiers will also decide who will reach the 2019 Asian Cup, and 2017 will see preparations for the tournament to be hosted by the UAE ramped up.

Of course, as hosts the Whites are assured of their place, but there will still be pressure on them to enjoy a successful year ahead of the competition in two years’ time.

The year 2016 was also a good one for the Gulf game in continental club football, with Al Ain becoming the second Arabian Gulf League club to make it to the final of the AFC Champions League in successive years. Just like Al Ahli before them, Al Ain fell short in capturing the continent’s greatest club accolade, but nonetheless the Emirati game appears to be on an upward trajectory.

Omar Abdulrahman also underlined his status as the best individual talent in the Asian game right now, winning the AFC Player of the Year award following a sparkling year for the playmaker for both club and country. There is nobody else like him on the continent at the moment, and 2017 might be the year Abdulrahman takes the next step in his career.

It wasn’t all good news, though. Most recently, Saudi Arabian football was tarnished by the four-year ban handed to great Mohammed Moor for doping. His suspension has prompted discussion over whether enough is being done in Arab football to combat the threat of doping. A concerning precedent has been set.

However, 2017 promises to be another captivating year in the Arab football world, with the race to make it to the 2018 World Cup set to be concluded and with Saudi and Emirati giants Al Ain and Al Ahli drawn together in the group stage of next season’s AFC Champions League.

There is plenty to reflect on, but similarly plenty to look forward to.

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