Book review: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer
First Published June 29, 2017 / Book Review
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer Dorsey James M The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, Hurst Publishers: London, 2016; 359 pp.: ISBN: 9781849043311, £15.99 (pbk).
Positioned at the intersection of sport and politics, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccerdelivers critical insight into understanding that heart of our world today. From Hurst in the UK and its partner Oxford University Press in North America, Turbulent World takes its title from the blog of the same name. Both are creations of James Dorsey, who has accumulated a wealth of both scholarly research and personal experience on the subject. No interest in soccer (‘football’ in most of the world) is prerequisite to the read. Dorsey himself acknowledges in the book’s introduction that soccer was ‘a journey into the unknown’ for him, and – though he is co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture at the University of Würzburg – he disavows personal fandom. Rather, Dorsey analogizes soccer, ‘the world’s most global cultural practice’, to a ‘prism’. Just as a prism separates white light into its constituent colours, Dorsey’s study of soccer disentwines the modern Middle East into ‘sport, society, culture, politics and development’.
Dorsey’s fundamental thesis in Turbulent World is that political conflict in the Middle East, North Africa included, is an impediment to social and economic development, and soccer exemplifies that dynamic. From the Western Sahara to Iran, Middle Eastern powers have sought to build clout and garner legitimacy among nations by developing a soft-power portfolio in sport.
The thesis plays out starkly in the case of Qatar, set to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Despite the first-ever Middle East siting of the world’s premier sporting tournament, the Qatari government has failed to spark domestic passion for the project. The allegations of bribery and human rights abuses that have dogged the Qatar award on the world stage are inseparable from political and cultural conditions – monarchic rule, Islamic law and business practices, centrally planned economy, sparse native population, and internal ethnic strife – that persistently alienate Arabia from the West.
Turbulent World is divided into six chapters. Stories from across the Middle East are interwoven into a thematically organized presentation, though explications of nation-specific issues dominate some parts of the book. Sketching a context for understanding the Middle East, Chapter 1 describes stadiums and the physical infrastructure of sport as ‘monuments to challenges’, ‘bearing the scars of battle’. The chapter recalls, for example, the use of soccer by the US provisional authority in Iraq in an effort to win hearts and minds, in contrast with the brutal repurposing of stadiums in Iraq and Afghanistan for mass detentions and executions. Chapter 2 broadens the inquiry into the interplay of soccer and politics, exemplified by the key role of Egyptian ultras in the Tahrir Square occupations. Behind the scenes of front-line confrontation that splashed across our television screens, ultra factions were forming unprecedented alliances to organize revolutionary forces. Dorsey describes for example how Al Ahly and Zamalek ultras bridged their rivalry – a division as deep, Dorsey writes, as Jewish, Christian or Muslim identity, and a reflection of disparate social class and values – both to do guerrilla battle with government forces and to tender social services on the streets.
Religion enters the mix in Chapter 3, which examines the on-again, off-again relationship between Islam and soccer – the latter entering the region as an imperialist, secular export and later morphing into an anti-imperialist weapon and authoritarian tool for domestic distraction and pacification. The chapter notes Osama bin Laden’s invocation of soccer for jihadi recruitment – an Arsenal fan, bin Laden ‘worshipped the game as only second to Allah’ – and dives deep into Turkish soccer fans’ organization of civil resistance to oppression under the Erdoğan regime. On Taksim Square as on Tahrir, rival club fans ‘threw their arms around one another, taunted the police together and chanted in unison’.
Armed then with a background in both politics and religion, Chapter 4 examines statehood and soccer, viewing through sport’s lens the intractable Palestinian–Israeli conflict and the historic internal struggles for control of Iran. In the former vein, racism and hatred have played out on the pitch since the 1948 founding of Israel. Dorsey describes the children of Beitar Jerusalem supporters taught to ridicule Mohammed and to chant ‘Death to the Arabs’, while recounting Iranian spectators’ balloons marked with swastikas and chants of ‘Death to Israel’. Meanwhile, soccer can be solipsistic. Dorsey also describes how a Palestinian TV soap opera, ‘The Team’, ‘projects through soccer a different perspective on resolving national, political and gender disputes … based on Palestine’s daily reality’.
The analogy of soccer to society reaches its zenith in Chapter 5, in which Dorsey tackles gender discrimination. The exclusion of women from soccer is so complete in parts of the Middle East as to bar them from viewing the game – lest less than fully-clad male players induce lust, to say nothing of women playing soccer themselves. Dorsey asserts that the subordination of women is a cultural norm and not a Quranic imperative, and that religion is distorted to rationalize the norm. Focusing on Saudi Arabia, Dorsey shows how the exclusion of women from soccer exemplifies political insecurity in the region both by inciting domestic resistance and hampering recognition in world governance. Conflicting policies on women’s sport ‘reflect an emerging power struggle between the clergy and the Al Saud family that could rewrite the contract that gave birth to modern Saudi Arabia’, Dorsey concludes. In the final Chapter 6, Dorsey addresses the soft power problem directly and explicates the concerted and faltering efforts of Middle Eastern powers, especially Qatar, to establish a global identity in sport. Considering also scandal in the West Asian Football Association, Dorsey ‘puts to bed the fiction of a separation of sport and politics’ in the region. He examines charges that UAE powers ‘launder reputations’ by investing in British clubs, such as Manchester City and Arsenal, while recognizing that soccer is ‘forging some cultural bridges’. Dorsey notes Real Madrid’s redaction of a Christian cross from its logo whilst embarking on Middle East investment. In epilogue, Dorsey concludes that efforts to build soft power through sport have inadvertently exposed flaws and deepened cracks in Middle Eastern governments’ political, social, and economic stability. ‘ [S]ocial and political change in the Gulf are two sides of the same coin’, and the Qatar World Cup ‘forced the issue into the open’.
Certainly this book is not the first to link soccer and society; there is an ample literature on the subject in the social sciences. Nonetheless, Dorsey brings to the table talents in two traditions: investigative journalism and storytelling.
Dorsey himself is something of an institution in journalistic circles. From the Protestant-rooted and historically underground Dutch daily Trouw in the 1970s to UPI and the illustrious Wall Street Journal in the 20-aughts, Dorsey earned a reputation for his capacity to interpret and explain the tangle of political, religious and cultural factors that fuel conflict in the world’s hot spots, especially the Middle East. After journalism, he ventured into entrepreneurship and private consultancy, which today he combines with an academic appointment at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
This latter career propelled Dorsey beyond the byline and into a niche of popular acclaim. In 2011, the Arab Spring triggered a firestorm of developments in the Middle East; at the same time, Dorsey’s blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, attained a runaway popularity. Dorsey became an essential counsellor and one-stop-shop expert for mass media, politicians and NGOs struggling to make sense of the latest world order.
Dorsey’s journalistic roots are tied to the investigative tradition. With respect to soccer, that tradition summons to mind The Ugly Game, Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert’s popular explication of the Qatar World Cup award, as well as the career work of Andrew Jennings, to whom all investigative sport journalists owe a debt. Dorsey’s inquiry exemplifies this tradition and is unrivalled for exhaustive depth. The footnotes in Turbulent World reveal an extensive library of personal interviews, besides fluency in film, news and scientific research.
At the same time, Turbulent World is good storytelling. The tome feels heavy for a focus on one small region of the world and, at that, a region hardly known for its soccer. Yet the text proves captivating, after the tradition of journalist–sociologist David Goldblatt in a focused work such as his Futebol Nation, about Brazil, if not the masterful Ball is Round. Dorsey unites his narrative with recurring themes, such as the comparable roles of religion and soccer in the Middle East.
If the book has weaknesses, they are the flip sides of Dorsey’s talents. The author acknowledges the friendship and tutelage of Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, once a contender for the FIFA presidency. The book does portray favourably both the prince and contemporary Jordan. However, there is no indication that Dorsey pulled punches; the prince’s reformist agenda in sport probably fairly characterizes Jordan’s role in the region. With respect to the story of Turbulent World, the thorough narrative sometimes outpaces its own organization, and the reader can lose orientation amid jumbles of unfamiliar events. Possibly in anticipation of this problem, the book is complemented by a comprehensive chronology at its front. There also is a comprehensive index, and lengthier entries, especially country names, are broken down by calendar year. These supplements, labour intensive to create, substantially enhance the book’s value as a reference tool.
I am a soccer fan, and I needed no convincing that sport and politics are intertwined. But like the typical supporter of mostly European clubs, I admit, I subconsciously marginalized the relevance of the world’s game to the predominantly Arabic and Islamic societies of the Middle East. Turbulent World changed my thinking and deepened my understanding. For not-a-soccer-fan, Dorsey has made a remarkable contribution to the science and passion of the sport. With his blog, he had already established himself as a definitive voice in explaining the who, what, and where of unfolding events in the Middle East. Turbulent World is the essential exposition of all that has gone before; it fills in the picture with the how and the why.