Ten footballers from the Middle East who made their mark in 2020
From buying controversial clubs to announcing new tournaments and securing prestigious awards, 2020 has been a big year for football in the Middle East and North Africa.
The coronavirus pandemic had a major impact, forcing changes in the way the beautiful game was played the world over. Some players had their progress hindered as a result, but others will bow out of the year with much to look back on and forward to.
Middle East Eye takes a look at 10 footballers from the MENA region who made their mark across the world’s top leagues this year:
Said Benrahma (Algeria/West Ham Utd)
An intricate dribbler whose box of tricks includes rainbow flicks and nutmegs, 25-year-old Said Benrahma's performances for Brentford in the Championship last year secured him a move to the Premier League.
Signing on an initial season-long loan for West Ham United on deadline day in October, the East London club will pay £25m ($34m) to make the transfer permanent at the end of the season. While Benrahma has had a frustrating time at West Ham so far, he was one of the Championship's most exciting performers last season, scoring 17 goals in 43 appearances.
The Algerian international, who helped his country secure its place in 2022's Africa Cup of Nations tournament with a streak of 22 matches unbeaten, will be remembered fondly by Brentford fans for helping the club in its attempts to be promoted to the top tier of English football for the first time in 74 years. Ultimately, they fell short after losing in the 2020 playoff final against Fulham.
Despite an impressive debut for West Ham against Leeds earlier this month, and a couple of key assists under his belt, fans have been unhappy with the amount of playing time he has been given by his manager, David Moyes.
It's still early days in the attacking midfielder’s Premier League career, but Benrahma’s future looks bright despite a slow start at West Ham.
Achraf Hakimi (Morocco/Inter Milan)
At just 22-years-old, Madrid-born Morocco international Achraf Hakimi’s CV already boasts experience playing in La Liga with Real Madrid and the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, where he scored nine goals and set a new record as the fastest player ever recorded in Germany's top flight.
Hakimi was ranked as the world’s second best right-back, according to an ESPN poll, and at international level has already played at a World Cup and an Africa Cup of Nations with the Atlas Lions - where he has developed a formidable partnership with Hakim Ziyech.
The versatile Moroccan is a core component of Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan, having signed a five-year contract with the club in July for a fee of £36m ($49m). He is helping Conte remedy some of the team’s weaknesses on the wings, and is able to play at full-back and in the midfield.
In 19 appearances across all competitions for his club so far this season, Hakimi has scored four goals and provided five assists, making him one of Europe’s most promising young full backs. His attacking returns have already piqued the interests of an array of clubs including Arsenal, Tottenham, Juventus, Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain.
Ismael Bennacer (Algeria/AC Milan)
Algerian international Ismael Bennacer’s efforts on the pitch have caught the eye of Europe's top teams and earned the 23-year-old praise for contributing to Italian club AC Milan’s upsurge in form this year.
Signed from Empoli in August 2019 for the relatively bargain price of £14.5m ($19.7m), the midfielder has proven to be one of Milan’s best recruits in the last year, and has earned plaudits from the Italian press for his performances. The club is currently top of Serie A, a point ahead of arch rival Inter Milan, and has reached the knockout stage of the Europa League.
At international level with Algeria, Bennacer fought off competition from an array of seasoned footballers to win the 2019 AFCON Player of the Tournament during the Desert Foxes' historic second triumph in the competition. His ability to sit deep, recycle possession and carry the ball forward has seen him linked with moves to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.
Mohamed Salah (Egypt/Liverpool)
Since joining Liverpool in 2017, Egyptian star Mohamed Salah has become accustomed to accolades and plaudits.
He has won the Premier League’s top individual prize - the PFA Players' Player of the Year - two African Footballer of the Year awards and two Premier League Golden Boots, for the most goals in a season. In 2019, he scored the opening goal in the Champions League final as Liverpool lifted Europe’s top prize.
But in 2020, he arguably pulled off his greatest achievement: helping Liverpool win the Premier League title for the first time in 30 years. In doing so, he became the first Egyptian in history to pick up an English league winners’ medal.
Judging by Liverpool and Salah’s impressive start to the current season, another Premier League winners medal and golden boot may be on its way to the Egyptian king soon.
Hakim Ziyech (Morocco/Chelsea)
Moroccan playmaker Hakim Ziyech has had a highly accomplished career so far, with a formidable attacking output of 190 goals and assists in just 265 appearances. This year has been a mixed one for Ziyech.
The 27-year-old was denied his second Dutch league title with Ajax when the 2019/20 season was abandoned and voided due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving Ziyech twiddling his thumbs for half of the year.
The transfer market stepped in to provide redemption, with the “Moroccan wizard” signing for Frank Lampard’s Chelsea. Ziyech was among six players to arrive at Stamford Bridge this summer, as Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovich splashed over £200 million on new signings.
Ziyech began his first campaign in English football brightly, scoring two goals, providing three assists and winning several man of the match awards for his performances, before suffering a hamstring injury. Judging by Chelsea’s recent run of poor form without him, Ziyech is already looking indispensable to the West London club.
Abderrazak Hamdallah (Morocco/Al-Nassr)
The name Abderrazak Hamdallah won’t be known to many followers of Europe’s top leagues. The Moroccan striker has plied his trade across clubs in Morocco, Norway, China, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It’s in the last of those where he has really excelled.
At Saudi’s Al-Nassr, Hamdallah has been scoring goals for fun, having netted an outstanding 94 goals in 76 appearances. In fact, in 2019 he was the highest goalscorer in all of world football, with his 57 goals beating Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski (54) and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi (50).
This year, Al-Nassr were agonisingly beaten on penalties by Iranian team Persepolis in the Asian Champions League semi final. However, Hamdallah was still the joint top scorer of the tournament with seven goals.
Sadly for fans of the Moroccan national team, the 30-year-old announced his retirement from international football last November after being left out of the squad by coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
Mohamed Magdy (Egypt/Al-Ahly)
Before this year, 24-year-old attacking midfielder Mohamed Magdy had yet to set the world alight, having already played for four different Egyptian clubs, with varying degrees of success, in his short career.
But in 2020, he helped guide Al Ahly to a magnificent treble, winning the Egyptian league, cup and the African Champions League.
The Champions League showdown between Cairo rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek was dubbed the “final of the century”: it was the first ever to be played between two teams from the same country, never mind the same city. Held in the Cairo International Stadium behind closed doors in November, the roof of the stadium would surely have come off if fans had been allowed in.
Magdy scored a sensational winner in the 88th minute to give his team its record-extending ninth continental win. He was voted player of the final, and his spectacular strike won the goal of the tournament.
Ozan Kabak (Turkey/Schalke)
At the age of just 20, Ozan Kabak has become one of the most sought after defenders in world football. The centre back has been dubbed the “Turkish wall”, due to his aggressiveness and dominance in winning headers and one-on-one duals.
He started his career at Galatasaray, before switching Istanbul for Stuttgart in Germany. In 2019, fellow Bundesliga club Schalke paid Kabak’s €15m ($18m) release clause, making him a regular starter at the mid-table side.
The Ankara-born defender has attracted the interest of Europe’s top teams, including Manchester United and Liverpool.
Earlier in his career, Kabak described Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk as someone who he admires and looks up to. With Van Dijk now having suffered a serious and long term injury, don’t be surprised if Liverpool decide the Turkish wall can fill the void.
Sardar Azmoun (Iran/Zenit St Petersburg)
Iran is no stranger to producing top footballing talents. Former striker and national team captain, Ali Daie, is the all-time leading goalscorer in the history of men’s international football with 109 goals - a record currently being hunted down by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sardar Azmoun, 25, is also breaking records. The forward, who plays for Russian side Zenit St Petersburg, is the youngest Iranian to score in a European Champions League match and holds the record for the most goals scored by an Iranian in a single Champions League season.
In his first two years at Zenit, Azmoun has already won the Russian league title twice, and picked up the Golden Boot after scoring 17 goals in the 2019/20 campaign. He’s been scoring for the Iranian national team too, chipping in with a highly prolific 37 goals in 55 games. Watch out Ali Daie.
Dia Saba (Israel/Al-Nasr)
Even to the most avid football connoisseur, Dia Saba was a relative unknown until this year, when he became the first Israeli footballer to join an Arab club. In September, Saba, who was born to a Palestinian family in the town of Majd al-Krum in the Galilee, signed with Al-Nasr in Dubai shortly after the UAE signed a normalisation agreement with Israel.
The 28-year-old midfielder arrived from Chinese club Guangzhou R&F for a record €5m ($5.8m), making him one of the most expensive Israeli footballers in history. Saba played as a youth for Beitar Nes Tubruk in Israel before joining several clubs in the Israeli championship including Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Hapoel Beer Sheva.
He has scored 87 goals in 255 appearances in all competitions and currently has 10 caps for the Israeli national team.