New hope for football in the Middle East

Sports Saturday 25/March/2023 11:31 AM
By: DW
New hope for football in the Middle East
(Photo Credit: DW)

Tehran (Iran): "Football in Iran is in a mess and has been for a long time," Tehran-based Esteghlal fan Ehsan Rahman told DW. "There are many problems, but it is hard to solve any of them because there is no money, just look at what is happening at my club."

In March, Esteghlal, traditionally one of the biggest clubs in Asia, gave fans its bank account details so they could donate money to settle a long-standing debt owed to former coach Andrea Stramaccioni and avoid sanctions from FIFA.

Wider sanctions placed on the country from the international community, led by the United States, are a bigger problem. For example, being denied access to SWIFT, an international payment system, means that Iranian clubs and their organizations find it difficult to receive money from other countries.

Relative isolation around the world adds to the issues. "It is hard for Iran to play friendly games as many countries don't want to play us or know that their government won't give visas to our players," said Rahman. "It is exhausting being a football fan in Iran."

There is some positive news, however. The surprise announcement made in Beijing on March 10 that Iran and Saudi Arabia had decided to restore diplomatic relations after a period of seven years is still being digested by governments around the world. It offers hope for football too, not just in Tehran and Riyadh but around the Middle East as Rahman said. "Iran football needs all the help it can get."

Investment in Iran

"Improved Saudi-Iran relations bring together the Middle East’s two sporting powerhouses," Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in France, told DW. "Given Saudi Arabia's significant sports investment program, we could see money being spent across the sea in Iran."

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan said in a television interview on March 15 that significant investments into Iran will happen "very quickly."

For Chadwick, there is huge potential in a country passionate about the game. "Iranian football deserves a higher profile than it currently has. Across Asia, there is an opportunity ahead to cement the status and reputation of Iranian football."

New fields for players

Saudi Arabia currently possesses the biggest spending league in Asia — in December, Riyadh club Al-Nassr shocked the world by signing Cristiano Ronaldo — and is regarded as one of the best. Players from Iran, a leading Asian nation, are, however, absent.

"Iranian players have a strong reputation in the AFC, and their skills and talent are highly regarded," Baljit Rihal, an agent who specializes in Asia told DW. "Saudi clubs are currently investing heavily in sports, and they are always on the lookout for talented players."

Each club is limited to eight foreign players but one of those must be from a fellow Asian nation meaning that Rihal sees a potential win-win situation.

"I expect Saudi clubs to be very interested in signing the cream of Iranian professional talent," he added.

The interest will be on both sides and while being able to earn hard currency in lucrative contracts close to home would interest Iranian footballers, football analyst Behnam Jafarzadeh believes there is more to it than just money.

"Due to the economic problems in Iran right now, receiving money in dollars would be great for players, but it's not the only reason that attracts them to Saudi clubs," Jafarzadeh told DW. "The huge investment in football there has turned the heads of the world and with great players, not only Ronaldo, it would be a great place to perform."

Wider changes

It is not only Iran and Saudi Arabia that are in line to benefit from the rapprochement. A better relationship between the two major players in the region has the potential to ease changes elsewhere as past tensions have helped to fuel instability and violence in the Middle East.

Football in Lebanon is in an even worse state than Iran, with long-standing economic issues, partly driven by the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the leading Shiite and Sunni Muslim powers in the region.

"Both countries have political influence here, and if their relationship improves then it should help the situation in Lebanon and Lebanese football," Wael Chehayeb, a member of the Lebanon Football Association's Executive Committee, told DW.

"Political stability affects everything including the economy and economic issues are one of the big problems in football in Lebanon," Chehayeb added. "Few clubs are economically stable. It should really help Yemen too."

Yemen's devastating civil war started in 2014 when Houthi insurgents, with links to Iran, rose up against the Sunni government, backed by Saudi Arabia. Football has almost stopped completely with players either leaving the country or embarking on other careers and stadiums used for military purposes.

A calmer region may also persuade FIFA to allow Iraq to host competitive football games which would make it easier for the country to qualify for major international tournaments. A missile attack from Iran on the northern Iraqi city of Erbil in March 2022 led to FIFA switching a first World Cup qualifier to be held in Baghdad for over 20 years to Saudi Arabia.

"Conflict, the destruction of infrastructure, and confusion caused by instability has inevitably taken its toll on football across the Middle East," said Chadwick. "With a more peaceable situation across the region, it will hopefully enable countries to focus on reigniting their domestic football leagues and should have implications for the longer-term sustainability, perhaps even prosperity, of football in places such as Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq."