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Talents of Arabia

March 8, 2011

In solidarity with the protesters in North Africa and the Middle East, my contribution to Arab unity is the compiling of an Arab XI. Made up of players who either play for Arabic countries, or qualify to play for them.

1. Ali Al Habsi – Oman & Wigan

Are there any other contenders? The first Omani to play professional football in Europe, and the first Arab goalkeeper to ply his trade in the Premier League. On loan at Wigan from Bolton, he’s made the no. 26 jersey his own. The proud owner of 70 caps for Oman and has won the Best Keeper Award in the Gulf Cup of Nations 4 tournaments in a row, with his net remaining unrippled as Oman won the 2009 competition. He has also won the Best Goalkeeper Award in Norway in 2004 whilst playing for Lyn Oslo. Despite Wigan’s lowly league position, Al-Habsi remains one of the most underrated custodians in the Premier League.

2. Ahmed Elmohamady – Egypt & Sunderland

Elmohamady is an attacking right-back with a big future. At 23 years old he has 43 Egypt caps, and 23 Premier League appearances. He sealed a £2m move to Sunderland after impressing on loan, and rejecting offers from Hertha Berlin, Dinamo Bucharest, Club Brugge and West Brom. A move to Blackburn collapsed after the sacking of manager Paul Ince. In keeping with the current trend of modern full-backs he’s impressed more with his attacking play than defensively and has become a crowd favourite at the Stadium of Light. Despite his form dipping in recent weeks, manager Steve Bruce has been very complimentary.

“I think sometimes you’ve got to cut people a little slack and consider just what they have to cope with. Ahmed has come over here to a completely different culture and way of life. But he is an exciting prospect and he’s got the attributes you need – pace, desire and physique – to succeed in the modern game. He’s quick, eager and great in the air and he’s a threat. He’s also got a great attitude – he just wants to play and that’s very refreshing for a manager.”

3. Nadir Belhadj – Algeria & Al Sadd

French-born Belhadj has fallen off the radar since his departure from Portsmouth at the end of last season, signing for Qatari giants Al Sadd after the relegation of the south coast club. He joined Pompey from Lens for around £4m, where his tenacious defence and attacking verve caught the eye. His display in the 2-2 draw in a UEFA Cup tie against AC Milan at Fratton Park drew admiring glances from the Rossoneri and some of the larger clubs in the Premier League. He’s represented Algeria on 51 occasions, including the 2010 World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations, after winning honours at U-18 level for France.





4. Adil Rami – France & Lille

Centre Back Rami was born on the island of Corsica to Moroccan parents. Despite an approach from Morocco manager Henri Michel, he decided to pledge his future to France. The 6ft 3ins defender has provided the imposing backbone for the Lille team in recent years, and has been instrumental in their rise to the top of Ligue 1 this season. Rami was also one of the star performers for Lille in last seasons Europa Cup. After advancing to the knock-out stages they eventually succumbed to Liverpool at Anfield despite winning the home leg. Liverpool were reported to be interested in acquiring his services, along with Arsenal and Milan. With his contract in its final year Lille chose to capitalise on an approach from Valencia during the January window, who picked up the French international for a reported £6m. Rami will remain at Lille on loan and begin next season at the Mestalla. He will surely add to his 7 caps in the coming years.

5. Younes Kaboul – Morocco/France & Spurs

Born in the foothills of the French Alps, Kaboul has received call-ups to both the Morocco and French squads without playing. As a result he remains eligible for both despite his 18 caps for France U-21’s. He is currently in his second spell at Spurs, and his second with Harry Redknapp after the Tottenham manager signed him at Portsmouth for £6m in 2008. His first period with Spurs wasn’t met with universal approval as he appeared ill at ease in the Premier League. But at 25 years of age, he looks far more comfortable, and his pace and physique have been put to good use by Spurs, including superb performances at White Heart Lane in Champions League victories over Inter Milan and Werder Bremen. Despite not being an automatic choice and still having detractors, a winning goal against arch rivals Arsenal at the Emirates will ensure his status as a cult hero for many fans. If his development under Redknapp continues he’ll need to decide sooner rather than later who to commit his international future to.

6. Marouane Fellaini – Belgium & Everton

The towering 6ft 4ins (6ft 8ins including afro) Belgian international first came to prominence playing for the superb young Standard Liege side that took Liverpool to extra time in the 08-09 Champions League qualifiers. He was promptly signed by Everton for a Belgian and Everton record of £15m, amid rumours of interest from Man Utd, Aston Villa, Real Madrid, Spurs and Bayern Munich. The box-to-box style and versatility of Fellaini have been invaluable to Everton and were never more apparent than in the 08-09 season when he played as an emergency striker and won a record haul of 8 goals for the season. David Moyes claimed last season that there wasn’t anyone better than him in the league such was Fellaini’s form. Not everyone agreed. His form has been hampered by injury since then, and how underperforming Everton and Belgium could benefit from an on form Fellaini.

7. Samir Nasri – France & Arsenal

Nasri’s performances this season have been of such a high standard, he must surely be a contender for Premier League player of the year. Despite obvious potential, his rise to prominence must even be a pleasant surprise for those who watch him on a weekly basis. The quality of his play meant that the temporary absence of Cesc Fabregas didn’t hinder Arsenal’s style or results at the beginning of the season. Nasri has even outshone Fabregas when they have both taken the field. What may have seemed a lazy comparison to Zinedine Zidane in his Marseille days due to a shared Algerian heritage, seem to be less fanciful now. His omission from the French World Cup squad seemed strange at the time, but criminal in hindsight. It may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the young midfielder as his emergence is untainted by association, and perhaps heralds a new era for Les Bleus and Arsenal.

8. Sami Khedira – Germany & Real Madrid

Injuries can break some careers, but may just have made the career of Stuttgart born Sami Khedira. When Germany captain Michael Ballack was put out of the 2010 World Cup by Kevin Prince Boateng, his likely replacement Heiko Westermann was also ruled out with injury, and another frontrunner Christian Trasch was rendered unavailable, their tournament prospects seemed to be in jeopardy. Should they sacrifice Bastian Schweinsteiger’s attacking prowess by pulling him deeper? Would the promising Toni Kroos be able to slot into an unfamiliar role? Thomas Mueller was another option, but again not a natural in the required position. Eventually Jogi Lowe plumped for 5 times capped Sami Khedira, the 2009 UEFA U-21’s Championship winning captain. As it transpired, the Tunisian qualified midfielder was a revelation. His understanding with Schweinsteiger was pivotal to Germany’s shape and style, and the fact that the team contained another 4 of his U-21 team mates must have contributed. After helping Germany to a 3rd place finish and outstanding performances against England and Argentina, he made a reported £12m move to Real Madrid. Despite a star-studded squad the 23-year-old has made 32 appearances for Los Blancos this season. But for the misfortune of others the story could be very different.

9. Karim Benzema – France & Real Madrid

Perhaps fortunate to win the coveted No. 9 shirt on current form, but there’s no denying the Frenchman’s talent. Another player to earn comparisons with Zinedine Zidane thanks to his Algerian roots, but as a striker it’s hard to find any other reason. His first full season as a regular in the Lyon side saw him score a remarkable 31 goals in 51 games in all competitions. The following season was not quite as prolific but still saw a very respectable return of 1 goal in every 2 games. By now he was already a French international and was regarded as one of the hottest properties in world football. In 2009 he was signed by Real Madrid for a fee in the region of £30m. He struggled to make an immediate impact at the Bernabeu and was only given 14 starts. In those games he scored 5 goals and provided 3 assists, but standards are high in Madrid. With the departure of Raul, there would be one less player in the pecking order in 2010-11. Despite constant rumours of his departure, criticism of his form, and the arrival of Emmanuel Adebayor, Benzema has scored 17 goals and 8 assists in 37 games for Los Meregues. As with Nasri, his mystifying absence from the World Cup has only served to strengthen his status within the French set-up. His 6 caps since the South Africa debacle has produced 4 goals and have been integral to the revolution under Laurent Blanc.

10. Adel Taraabt – Morocco & QPR

Another contentious selection maybe? His ability isn’t in doubt, but his attitude and temperament have been called into question on numerous occasions. Currently showcasing his talents in the second tier of English football with QPR, he’s amassed an astonishing 15 goals and 19 assists in 35 games from an attacking midfield role. He was spotted by Spurs director of football Damien Comolli as a 17-year-old playing for Lens, and snapped up for £3.5m by the London club. He played 357 minutes in 3 seasons at White Heart Lane, drawing compliments and criticism in equal measures. After a season in the Championship with QPR he was signed on a 3 year contract for around £1m. He was made captain by Neil Warnock in what could prove to be a masterstroke, in attempt to focus his mind and harness his skills. Despite still being prone to mood swings and self-indulgence, he’s undoubtedly destined to win the Championship player of the year award as QPR win promotion. What happens then is anybody’s guess.

11. Ibrahim Afellay – Holland & Barcelona

Just imagine the team Morocco would be capable of fielding if everyone eligible were to play for them. Perhaps the jewel in their crown would be Barcelona new boy Ibrahim Afellay. Born in Utrecht, Holland, he made his debut for PSV Eindhoven at the age of 17. He was included in the Morocco and Dutch squads in 2007, and made the choice to play for his country of birth. He made his debut at 20 years old, and has won 31 caps to date. Afellay won 3 consecutive Eredivisie titles with PSV and a World Cup runners-up medal with Holland before sealing his move to the Nou Camp in January. Clearly not daunted by a challenge, whilst being the star turn at Eindhoven, he was happy to commit to the Dutch national team despite the wealth of midfield talent, and chose Barcelona ahead of many other suitors even though their team contains the 3 players shortlisted for the Ballon D’Or and are direct competition for his position. He does however seem to be a perfect fit for the Barca style of play and could provide a more than capable stand in for Iniesta, Pedro or Xavi.

2nd XI

1. Hamdi Kasraoui  – Tunisia & Lens
2. Abdoulay Konko – Morocco & Sevilla
3. Rafik Halliche  – Algeria & Fulham
4. Mehdi Benatia – Morocco & Udinese
5. Karim Haggui – Tunisia & Hannover
6. Otman Bakkal – Holland & PSV
7. Ryad Boudebouz  – Algeria & Sochaux
8. Hatem Ben Arfa – France & Newcastle
9. Marouane Chamakh – Morocco & Arsenal
10. Mounir El Hamdaoui – Morocco & Ajax
11. Mbark Boussoufa – Morocco & Anderlecht

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