By James M. Dorsey This year’s World Cup is not just about soccer – at least not as far as the Middle East and North Africa is concerned. For Iran and Algeria, the region’s only two teams competing among the 32 finalists in Brazil, it is about projection on the global stage and equating soccer prowess with national strength. For others in the region, the World Cup is one more round in long-standing political battles and propaganda wars. Israel, often the target of these wars, appears to be emerging rather unscathed from the Brazil round. Beyond successfully fending off, at least for now, Palestinian attempts to have its membership in world soccer body FIFA suspended, it has fared reasonably well in its efforts to equate opposition to Israeli policy with anti-Jewish sentiment and position itself as an island of rationality in a sea of insanity. In doing so, it has benefitted from expressions of pro-Nazi and fascist sentiment by Eastern European fans, the at times inter-twining of legitimate anti-Israel sentiment with anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories, and jihadist advances in Syria and Iraq. In some ways, Israel was kicking into an open goal with Croatian fans carrying neo-Nazi banners during their national team’s match against Russia and the showing of the coat of arms of Croatia’s World War Two-era fascist government that collaborated with the Nazi during its game against Brazil. The right-wing, racist Croatian sentiment was not dissimilar to remarks made by a Sudanese cleric in a Friday sermon in a Khartoum mosque. The cleric asserted that the Jews were responsible for scandal-ridden FIFA’s ills. Citing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic 19th tract that alleges a Jewish conspiracy to achieve global domination, he described soccer balls as balls of deprivation that were designed to distract Muslim youth from their faith according his reading of Ironically, the imam was reverting back to the notion that Israel was at the roots of the Middle East and North Africa’s multiple problems – a notion that has all but been discredited by popular Arab revolts in recent years sparked by the failure of Arab autocracy, including its inability to resolve the Palestinian problem. The notion of an all-powerful Israel pulling the strings in the Middle East and North Africa is not restricted to the East European fringe or representatives of militant Islam. One journalist tweeted that “damning proof surfaces of the Zionist-Imperialist conspiracy behind Iran's loss” against Argentina in its second World Cup encounter in Brazil. The match was widely seen as one that Iran narrowly lost on the pitch but secured off-pitch by winning the hearts and minds of the spectators in Belo Horizonte’s Mineirao Stadium and across the globe. The journalist’s evidence: a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu dressed in an Israel jersey standing alongside Argentine soccer star Leonard Messi. To be fair, it was not immediately clear whether the journalist’s target was Israel or Mr. Messi for whom he appeared to have little empathy. In another tweet, the journalist distributed a picture of the soccer star with a prominent Saudi under the headline: ‘Messi revealed with Wahabbi paymasters planning for Iran match,” a reference to the increasingly open anti-Iranian, anti-Muslim Brotherhood Israeli-Saudi alliance. Meanwhile, while Israelis, Palestinians and other were trading barbs, residents of southern Lebanon were tuning into Israeli satellite television to watch World Cup matches because the Lebanese broadcast rights were held by a Qatari company that was charging $180 for access. The company dropped the fee after the issue was debated in the Lebanese cabinet. The discussion highlighted the sectarian divide wracking the Middle East. Against the backdrop of civil war in Syria and Lebanon, Shiite militia Hezbollah refused to share its cracking of the Qatari television access code with its Sunni counterparts. It also highlighted the importance of the World Cup as an opportunity for governments to distract public attention from unpopular policies. In Lebanon, the stakes are particularly high with the country being a prime candidate for escalating sectarian tension in the wake of the violence in Iraq and Syria. Sunni-Shiite tensions have flared in the northern city of Tripoli since the eruption of civil war in Syria more than three years ago, forcing the Lebanese army to separate the two communities. Similarly, a string of bombings have rocked Lebanon, the last one allegedly targeting a Lebanese security chief earlier this week. A report published during the World Cup by the Palestine Football Association (PFA) and Palestinian NGO Nonviolence International that documents systematic Israeli obstruction of the development of Palestinian soccer raised the polemics of the Israeli-Palestinian propaganda war to a more serious level. The 45-page report authored by Mariabruna Jennings and edited by prominent Palestinian lawyer Jonathan Kutub and Susan Shalabi-Molano, a PFA and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) board member, details Israeli measures, including restrictions on movement of players and officials, violence against players, the prevention of stadium construction and pitch development, as well as military intervention to prevent youth tournaments and training schemes from taking place. In a letter to FIFA earlier this month that helped persuade the soccer body to circumvent Palestinian calls for Israel’s suspension, Israeli Sports Minister Limor Livnat cited security concerns as the reason for restrictions on the movement of players and officials. Ms. Livnat asserted that Palestinian national team player Sameh Fares Mohammad had been detained since April because he intended to "harm the state of Israel and its citizens." The minister charged that Mr. Mohammad while training in Qatar had met Talal Ibrahim Abd al-Rahman Sharim, a Hamas official whom Israel had freed in a prisoner swap in 2011. She said Mr. Sharim had given Mr. Mohammed money, a mobile phone and written messages to be handed to Hamas officials in the West Bank town of Qalqilya. Mr. Mohammed "understood that these were clandestine meetings and even kept them secret from the team's other members and its management," Ms. Livnat wrote. He made "cynical use of his sports activities exit permit to promote Hamas's activities," she said. Israel refuses to deal with Hamas which it labels a terrorist organization. PFA officials have denied the allegations, but Mr. Mohammed was not among the examples of Israeli obstruction and harassment cited in its report.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title