By Neel Shelat.
Welcome to Frantic Football, a new monthly column on WFi that will recap some of the biggest storylines from all over the world of football outside Europe’s top five leagues, many of which will have also been discussed on the Frantic Football Podcast on the WFi podcast feed.
For January 2023, we have a nice mix of a couple of stories from the AFC federation and a couple from Europe, so let’s get started!
🏆 Gulf Cup: Iraq’s Triumph at Home
The 2023 Gulf Cup was a historic event right from kick-off in the first match. It was the first such tournament the country was hosting since 1979 having been banned from competing in it for over a decade from 1990 during the Gulf War.
Iraq were due to host the tournament a couple of times in the 2010s, but financial, infrastructural and at times even political issues prevented that from happening. Finally, with backing from FIFA, the country was able to host the 2023 edition of the tournament.
Of course, the favourites were the two World Cup participants from the region — Saudi Arabia and Qatar — even though they named second-string squads with the head coach of a youth team in charge.
Defending champions Bahrain and 10-time winners Kuwait were also in the mix, so not a lot was expected of the hosts’ on-pitch performance.
They delivered in quite a way, though, getting out of Group A alongside Oman as both sides beat Saudi Arabia.
In the semi-finals, Iraq sent Qatar packing while Oman knocked out Bahrain, so the two sides faced off again in the final.
The home side won over the hearts of many local fans with their spirited performances, and the atmosphere in the recently constructed Basra International Stadium was always incredible.
On the morning of the final, though, there was a stampede outside the stadium which led to a number of deaths and injuries as thousands of fans tried to enter the venue. There were questions as to whether the match would be held as scheduled, and the eventual decision was that that would be the case.
It turned out to be a very dramatic final. Iraq scored in the first half and seemed to be coasting home, but were pegged back from the penalty spot in the 10th minute of stoppage-time at the end of the 90 minutes.
In extra time, Iraq celebrated in the 116th minute, Oman surely thought the match was going to penalties when they equalised in the 119th, but the decisive goal came a couple of minutes into stoppage time.
With that, Iraq lifted their fourth Gulf Cup title and their first since 1988 to become the competition’s second-most successful side.
🇧🇪 Belgium: Anderlecht in Crisis
Anderlecht are arguably the most famous Belgian football club and definitely the most successful. They have a record tally of 34 league titles to their name alongside some European trophies. With such a rich history, their fans obviously expect them to compete at the very top.
To be fair to them, they have just about been doing that even though their last league title came in 2017. Since then, they have managed to reach the Championship play-offs in all but one that seems nigh on impossible this season.
Instead, they find themselves closer to the bottom of the table after a terrible first half of the season. Following Vincent Kompany’s departure in the summer, Felice Mazzù was appointed as his successor, but he lasted just four months before getting the sack. His successor Brian Riemer does seem to have somewhat improved the side, but results remain elusive.
We focused on some of their specific on-pitch issues this season on Episode 4 of the Frantic Football Podcast with Doc Mukherjee, but there are some wider issues too. Anderlecht’s biggest problem in recent times has been how poorly run and mismanaged the club has been, which is why they find themselves in a very tough spot financially with loads of debts to pay.
The only positive to take away from all this for Anderlecht is that their world-renowned youth academy is still producing great young talents, which does mean they can bring in some good money when these players move to pastures new. That might be the key to restoring stability in the future.
Wednesday’s 3-2 loss against Zulte Waregem puts Anderlecht only five points above the relegation zone. https://t.co/8uHyabhVIG
— The Brussels Times (@BrusselsTimes) January 19, 2023
🇨🇭 Switzerland: FC Zürich’s Disastrous Title Defence
Over in Switzerland, FC Zürich were unlikely Swiss Super League winners last season as they broke Young Boys and FC Basel’s 12-year duopoly on the title.
They benefitted from the two big sides faltering but progressed leaps and bounds themselves having finished just one place above the relegation zone in 2021.
As is often the case with such surprise title winners, FC Zürich saw a number of key departures in the summer. Those included their top-scorer Assan Ceesay, but most importantly, manager André Breitenreiter, who many experts say was the main reason behind their sudden upturn in 2021/22. Those include Craig King, whom we spoke to on this topic in Episode 6 of the Frantic Football Podcast.
The appointment of his successor raised a lot of eyebrows. The new man in was Franco Foda, whose latest exploits included a very unsuccessful spell in charge of Austria. That went even worse than anyone expected, as Foda was sacked in mid-September with FC Zürich winless in the league.
Next came Bo Henriksen, who has certainly fared better than Foda. It took him a while to register his first win, too, but since then his side have kicked on and picked up more points. Last weekend, they registered a crucial late win over St. Gallen after an early red card to finally get off the foot of the table.
The good news for them is that the Swiss Super League is expanding to 12 teams next season, so the relegation picture is very different this time around.
The defending champions should be expected to stay in the division, but most likely will not do much more than that.
🇦🇺 Australia: Melbourne Victory Suffer Loss Upon Loss
Australian football has had its fair share of ups and downs in the last couple of months from the Socceroos’ progression to the World Cup knockouts to the A-Leagues final controversy.
It should be said that the fans were quite united through all this, both in support of their national team and in protest of the A-Leagues final decision.
A select few Melbourne Victory fans took things a bit too far, though, as they threw flares onto the pitch before the planned walk-out during the Melbourne derby in December.
One of those landed close to Melbourne City goalkeeper Tom Glover who picked it up and threw it away (but back in the direction of the stands) and to cut a long story short, the match had to be abandoned after a few Victory fans ran onto the pitch and attempted to assault Glover, who was also hit by a sand bucket.
The fallout from that took a lot of the focus away from the A-Leagues final decision and diverted it to the fans.
Victory were eventually sanctioned and they in turn banned OSM, their active support group, but more general rules for supporters in the stands both in Melbourne and all over the league were also placed.
While all of this has been going on, Victory’s on-pitch performance has been horrible. Going into that Melbourne derby, they were sixth and four points off second-placed Western Sydney Wanderers. Since then, they have failed to win a single game and in fact, only picked up one point in six games.
This has seen them plummet down the table and they now find themselves plum last, five points adrift of the rest.
Of course, there is no relegation in the A-League so that is not a concern for Victory, but this has been quite a downturn for a side that finished second last season. Tony Popovic has kept his job so far, but surely he must be feeling the heat now.
Stats courtesy Transfermarkt and Opta via FotMob.