As the sun sets on March, we move into the most gripping point of the European football calendar, with domestic titles to be decided and three different continental competitions still to be settled.
In Asia however, continental football is just starting. April signals the beginning of the AFC Champions League group stages and there is more and more pressure on Al-Sadd. The Qatari side finished unbeaten in two consecutive seasons, a remarkable achievement that highlights their supreme dominance domestically.
However, Al-Sadd have not achieved anything close to their ambitions in the ACL for quite some time, it’s been eleven years since they last won it and did not even advance past the group stage last season.
This season, they’ll go up against Al-Faisaly from the Saudi Professional League, Nasaf Qarshi from the Uzbekistan Super League and Al-Wehdat, a Jordanian side competing in the tournament for just the second time in its history.
Although there are so many interesting sub-plots in this year’s Asian Champions League, Al-Wehdat is certainly a stand-out one.
Even the story of how Al-Wehdat got to the Asian CL is intriguing. The Jordanian league was decided in dramatic fashion on the final day and it was actually Al-Ramtha who secured the title on the head-to-head record, despite the fact Al-Wehdat finished on more goals scored and fewer goals conceded than Al-Ramtha.
The two sides finished on the level on points, level on wins but it was Al-Ramtha who took home the title for just the third time in their history and broke their 39-year drought. Despite the achievement, fortune favoured Al-Wehdat in the next few months as Al Ramtha were not granted an AFC Champions League license.
“A lot of Jordanian clubs lack the financial power or planning” Mohammad Elidy, a Jordanian football expert explained to me. “Most players join a Jordanian club for one season and don’t get paid, especially foreign players.”
A similar case applied to Al-Ramtha, who were banned from transfers and not given an AFC License as a punishment for not paying ex-players.
It isn’t just Al-Ramtha in this position though. Another Amman side, Al-Jazeera, despite reaching the AFC Cup (essentially Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League) cup final two years running, were banned from transfers and not granted a license.
“They even shut down electricity and water in the club base, there was talk of them shutting the club down”, said Mohammed. “This year Al-Wehdat only survived because they are better controlled than other clubs and have a slightly better board.”
“The streak is simply historic”, former Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla when referring to Al-Sadd’s 49-game domestic unbeaten run. There is some irony involved that a former Arsenal player is referring to an ‘invincible run’ from a club that isn’t referring to their own remarkable 2003/04 season.
In addition to the titles and the invincible labels, Al-Sadd players have described their squad as part of a ‘golden generation’ of Qatari players and lauded the run of Al-Sadd as “good for club and country.”
“Most of Al Sadd’s players are internationals and this success stimulates enthusiasm, courage and the desire to be fully ready for the World Cup,” Tarek Salman, centre back for Qatar and Al-Sadd, has revealed.
Despite Al-Sadd bottomless pocketed owners and pristinely manicured field, continental success in recent years has eluded them and Qatar’s capital club will be looking to right those wrongs in this year’s ACL.
What chance Do Al-Wehdat Have?
Last year, despite having an extremely talented Al-Nassr side, Al-Sadd again and Iranian side Foolad, Al-Wehdat coped surprisingly well. They even held Al-Nassr to a draw in Saudi Arabia.
Since then, however, they have lost some key players including Ndiaye Abdou Aziz, who was their top goalscorer, two of their key centre backs Yazan Al-Arab and Abdullah Naseeb and their defensive midfielder Rajaj Ayed.
“Their squad is quite depleted”, explained Mohammed. “Tariq Khattab, the best Jordanian centre back, just returned after an ACL injury, Mohammad Abu Hasheesh impressed a lot with Jordan at the last Arab Cup.”
The exodus of some of their key players has paved the way for younger players to thrive though. Ahmad Tha’er is an established international and really impressed last season as a central midfielder that can also play as a right back at just 24 year old and 19 year old left winger Mohannad Abu Taha who Mohammad describes as ‘promising’.
What Does It All Mean?
Interestingly, the Al-Wehdat name is also associated with the Amman New Camp (Al-Wehdat camp) which is the second largest among the ten recognised Palestinan refugee camps in Jordan with a population of 57,000 registered refugees.
While Al-Wehdat – the football side – while be looking provide hope and salvation for their fans in the upcoming tournament, another side of Al-Wehdat that is associated with providing hope and salvation to some of the world’s most unfortunate people who have been through trauma many of us could never even imagine, is functioning side by side.
Additionally, while Al-Sadd are on their own journey and it is a very different one to that of Al-Wehdat, both sides have the goal. And despite having totally different parameters to what meets this, they both want to showcase themselves and reflect national pride under the bright lights of the Asian Champions League.
By: Louis Young / @FrontPostPod
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Hazem Bader – AFP