It has been another busy year for football in the Arab world and there is no better time to look back at the best of 2021.
Player of the Year: Mohamed Salah
Where to start with the Liverpool star? After a number of memorable years in Europe, he had another one. The forward’s consistency is as impressive as some of the goals he has scored as season after season he produces on the biggest stages of all. This year he has netted 23 goals in the English Premier League as the Reds end 2021 in a position to challenge for another title. There have also been 10 goals in the UEFA Champions League.
Many have felt, and not just in the Arab world, that the 29-year-old should have won the Ballon D’Or instead of Lionel Messi. Finishing seventh is nothing to be sniffed at but is not a true reflection of how Salah performed in England and Europe. This season especially, he can claim to be the best player anywhere on current form and if he plays as well in 2022 then Liverpool as well as Egypt could have another year to remember.
Team of the Year: Al-Ahly
The Cairo club made history in the CAF Champions League. Real Madrid had to wait 12 years for their 10th continental title but Al-Ahly won nine and 10 in just 12 months, defeating Kaizer Chiefs in the final. Then there was a third place at the FIFA Club World Cup and victory over South American champions Palmeiras.
The Egyptian giants lost out on the domestic title to their deadly rivals Zamalek, but given their commitments elsewhere, it was not surprising. In the end, they had just too much ground, in terms of points and games, to make up as Zamalek could focus on the league. Al-Ahly gave their all and at one point, had the leaders in their sights. It wasn’t to be, though the new season has gone well with an already-famous 5-3 victory over Zamalek.
Game of the Year: Japan 0-1 Oman
Oman are a team that don’t often make headlines in the world of football but they came up with a fantastic result in September. Going to the home of Asia’s best team, nobody gave the Reds a chance against the Samurai Blue especially as this was the first game in the final round of qualification for the World Cup.
Organized Oman were not just there to make up the numbers. They produced a mature performance of counter-attacking football that deserved to take all three points. It should have caused a bigger wave around the world but it was certainly noticed in Asian football. It announced that Oman were a force to be reckoned with in the Arab world and that was reinforced by a solid performance in the Arab Cup.
Coach: Pitso Mosimane
It is predictable to choose the coach who was in charge of the team that won the CAF Champions League but Mosimane has achieved history. There’s more to the triumph than simply taking a good team to a big prize.
The South African has had plenty of hurdles to jump over. Al-Ahly have had coaches from outside Egypt before but they have come from Europe. Here, however, was a man from elsewhere in Africa coming into the one of the hottest seats in the world of football. There were plenty of barbs from former players and other club legends but Mosimane kept his dignity and delivered a huge prize.
Controversy of the Year: 19 minutes
In December, Qatar and Algeria met in the semi-finals of the FIFA Arab Cup. As the 90 minutes ended, Algeria were leading the hosts 1-0. Then the fourth official displayed a board that displayed nine minutes of added time.
There were gasps around the stadium followed by cheers from the home fans as they realised Qatar had ample time to get the equaliser and there were looks of disbelief on the Algerian bench. There had been stoppages but no major injury and five, perhaps a maximum of six minutes were expected. That was only half the story.
Qatar scored after 97 minutes, spawning instant conspiracy theories online that the hosts were being helped. They were rewritten when Algeria were given a penalty and scored it 10 minutes later. Nobody, except the Polish referee, knows where the 19 minutes came from.
Goal of the Year: Youcef Belaili
It was not only the best goal of the FIFA Arab Cup but possibly the best goal of the year anywhere.
In the quarter-final of the tournament between Morocco and Algeria, a goal kick from Algeria was headed on from just inside the Moroccan half. Youcef Belaili chested the ball down, turned and then fired a looping half-volley from around 40 meters that flew over the goalkeeper’s head and into the far corner.
It was simply stunning. That it came on a big stage just made it all the better. In the semi-final, Algeria went on to eliminate the hosts Qatar. A day later his club Qatar SC cancelled his contract, though there is no suggestion his goal and his departure are connected.
“Thank you very much to Qatar SC for the moments spent by your side and a huge thank you to the fans and the management,” he said on social media. “Now I am a free agent.”
Young Player of the Year: Hannibal Mejbri
It is hardly a secret when a player is on the books of Manchester United, but 18-year-old Mejbri showed the Arab world in December why there are high hopes at Old Trafford that the Tunisian can become a big star. The midfielder made his international debut against DR Congo in June, just weeks after making his first English Premier League appearance for the Red Devils in a 2-1 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers. At the Arab Cup however, the former Monaco prospect won two man of the match awards, helping Tunisia to the final.