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The politics of football in the Middle East (JMD quoted in The National)

Algeria’s goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi, right, and defender Aïssa Mandi, on the ground, after Germany scored their winning second goal on June 30. Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

July 10, 2014 Updated: July 10, 2014 03:57 PM

Only two teams from the Middle East made it to the World Cup but many Middle East figures and politicians were present, playing politics on the sidelines. Days before the World Cup began, Palestine called for sanctions against Israel, despite Fifa’s attempts to foster relations between the Palestinian and Israeli football associations by alleviating travel bans. Palestine, the only Fifa member not recognised as a state by the UN, has pushed for suspension of Israel’s membership.

“I think the issue for the Palestinians this time around was part of a larger picture, the larger picture being peace negotiations with Israel have failed,” says James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and author of the blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and a forthcoming book of the same name. The Palestine Football Association and Nonviolence International, an NGO, published a 45-page report listing Israeli restrictions on the movement of players and officials, dissuasion of visiting teams, hindrance of sports-facility construction and equipment delivery and violence against Palestinian players.

In Egypt and Lebanon, fans turned on Israeli satellite TV to watch matches after the Qatari-owned beIN Sports channel charged more than US$100 (Dh367) for World Cup access. “I hear that many football fans in neighbouring countries are watching the World Cup live on Israeli channels. We welcome you,” said Ofir Gendelman, the Israeli prime minister’s spokesperson, via Facebook and Twitter. The Egyptian Sports Writers Association declared the pricing an “Al Jazeera conspiracy”. “We demand all Arabs not to watch Zionist channels, even at the price of not watching the World Cup,” it said.

In Lebanon, the chair of Tele Liban’s board proclaimed all citizens had the right to watch matches and promised to broadcast all games, even if it cost him his job. The issue reached the Lebanese cabinet and judiciary, which dismissed the lawsuit against Tele Liban for unauthorised broadcasting of World Cup matches.

Able to watch the matches, many Lebanese fans claimed Brazil and Argentina as their own, citing South America’s high number of Lebanese emigrants. Fans in Lebanon and across the Middle East also supported France, Germany and even England, due to colonial connections, immigration and recent transnational football ties. Algeria advanced to the knockout stages but were not necessarily the first choice for regional football fans.

“A lot of countries have ties,” says Dorsey, who is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture. “There is an empathy for the Algerians, they are the only Arab team, but you do at the same time have a degree of globalisation of fandom, in which fans support major European or Latin American teams. You can argue we live in a world in which people have multiple identities, so why shouldn’t fans have multiple identities?”

Algeria’s squad of 23 featured 17 players who were born in France, many of whom did not speak Arabic or Kabyle. For fans, this mattered little. “There’s a long-standing history of French-Algerians playing a major role in Algerian football. There are always tensions between the community at home and the community abroad but I’m not sure that I would attribute much political significance to it,” says Dorsey.

Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, conservatives bristled when women joined men in World Cup fever, displaying their loyalties with abayas decorated in national team colours. In Ward, a city in the Mecca province, televisions were removed to dissuade men and women from mixing. As in Iran, women are not allowed inside sports venues. “There’s been talk about building stadiums so that women could attend, there’s been talk about introducing sports education in girls’ schools. There’s been a lot of talk and nothing has been done,” Dorsey says. “The clergy in Saudi is split and there are prominent Saudi clergy who favour women’s sports, but you also have one faction of Salafi who oppose it.”

If the Middle East wants on-pitch participation in future World Cups, the independence of clubs must be addressed, says Dorsey. The close relationship between government and Middle East clubs hinders regional football development. This was made clear recently by allegations that Qatar had paid football officials for support in their 2022 World Cup bid.

“Fifa’s fundamental issue is that sports and politics are separate, which as far as I’m concerned is baloney,” Dorsey says. “Football and politics are twined at the hip, inextricably. Holding up the notion that they’re separate allows people to do all kinds of things that they couldn’t do otherwise.”


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