Football in the Arab world—the 22 countries of the Middle East and North Africa—is never just about football.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Cairo and Tunis where football fans played key roles in the toppling of their governments and are in the forefront of efforts to ensure that the goals of the revolts are not by co-opted by vested interests, including the military, the Islamists and supporters of the ancient regime. It is equally apparent in the dismal performance of many of the region’s national teams that are hampered by political interference by governments hitching their prestige to that of their countries’ football squads.
Nothing in the Middle East and North Africa but football evokes the deep-seated passion long associated only with Islam and now with the struggle for greater political freedom and economic opportunity. In fact, football was—until the eruption in December of anti-government protests that have swept a swath of land stretching from the Gulf to the Atlantic coast of Africa—the only institution that rivalled Islam in creating alternative public spaces to vent pent-up anger and frustration.
If the mosque was a battlefield to combat militants and Islamists, the pitch was a battlefield to suppress expressions of anti-government sentiment and divert public attention away from political, economic and social issues.
The importance of football emerged in Tunis and on Cairo’s Tahrir Square as street battle-hardened militant football fans—committed anarchists who oppose any kind of hierarchical system of government—manned the front lines in clashes with security forces and pro-government supporters. Their faces were covered so that the police, who had warned them by phone to stay away from Tahrir Square, would not recognize them from their weekly battles in the stadiums of Cairo: The fans helped protesters break down barriers of fear that had kept them from confronting the regime in the past.
“We were in the front line. When the police attacked we encouraged people. We told them not to run or be afraid. We started firing flares. People took courage and joined us, they know that we understand injustice and like the fact that we fight the devil,” said Muhamed Hassan, a 20-year-old soft-spoken computer science student, aspiring photographer and leader of the Ultras White Knights, the highly politicized, militant, violence-prone, organized supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Zamalek SC.
Marching from the Cairo neighbourhood of Shubra, Muhamed, a small-framed man with a carefully trimmed three-day stubble, led a crowd that grew to 10,000 people; they marched through seven security barricades to Tahrir Square on January 25th, the first day of the protests.
This was the day he and his cohorts had been preparing for in the past four years, honing their fighting skills in running battles with the police, widely viewed as ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s henchmen, who tried to prevent them from bringing flares, fireworks, smoke guns and banners into the stadium during matches, and with rivals from other teams.
“We fought for our rights in the stadium for four years. That prepared us for this day. We told our people that this was our litmus test. Failure was not an option,” said Ahmad Fondu, another UWK leader.
A group of UWK ultras, including Muhamed, sought to break through a police barrier to reach the nearby parliament building. “When I see the security forces, I go crazy. I will kill you or I will be killed. The ultras killed my fear. I learnt the meaning of brotherhood and got the courage of the stadium,” he said.
He pointed to a scar on the left side of his forehead from a stone thrown by police who stymied the fans’ early attempt to break through to parliament. As blood streamed down his face, he heard internal walls of fear crumble as cries rose from the crowd behind him: “They are our brothers. We can do this.”
Since the overthrow of Messrs. Mubarak and Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, authorities are weary of organized football fans seeking to leverage the prestige they garnered in the protests to become political pressure groups that aim to ensure that their countries develop into full-fledged democracies.
Their fears were reinforced recently when in September the militants of UWK again, like on Tahrir Square early this year, joined hands to protest the Egyptian military’s handling of the transition to democracy and ended up storming the Israeli embassy in Cairo. The storming followed a series of incident, including a first display of their political and violent potential when in April UWK members invaded the pitch during their team’s crucial African Champions League match against Tunisia’s Club Africain.
UWK leaders who had put on a well-oiled display of support for Zamalek with flares, fireworks, 70-meter-long banners and smoke guns, said the disruption reflected the growing influence within the group of hooligans – young, often unemployed men with limited education for whom Zamalek and the ultras are family and who, despite their country’s new burst of freedom, feel they have nothing to lose with no immediate prospect of an improved economic future.
The incident drove home that for football fans to be able to exert their political clout, they would have to separate the wheat from the chaff; they would have to restore the discipline and unity of purpose that had broken down in the absence of police forces in the stadium for the first time in years. In effect, the fans had walked into a trap from which the police could only emerge a winner: it evaded a post-revolution clash that would have further tarnished its image, put a dent in the fans’ prestige and demonstrated the breakdown of law and order in its absence.
It came a day after key UWK leaders said they would leverage their credibility to pressure Egypt’s military authorities to eradicate corruption, remove from office all officials in government and public organizations who are associated with Mr. Mubarak, and adopt a pro-Palestinian foreign policy.
“We will start attacking them,” Muhamed said on the eve of the disrupted match.
Hassan said: “We will chant against Mubarak. We want him and his corrupt friends to be condemned in court. We are focused on Egypt now, not only on sports.”
Football nonetheless constitutes a fault line in the battle for the region’s future. Muhamed’s support for Zamalek contrasts starkly with his disgust for the Egyptian national team, whose coach openly supported Mr. Mubarak.
Mr. Mubarak frequently visited its training sessions and made sure his sons were present when he did not attend one of their matches. The Mubaraks in 2009 fuelled nationalism and a deterioration of Egypt’s historically tense football relations with Algeria as riots erupted on two continents after Algeria defeated Egypt in the game that decided who would play in the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.
“Mubarak made us feel that support for the national team was support for him. The national team was a diversion to make us forget injustice. I will never forgive the team for supporting Mubarak,” Muhamed says.
That deep-seated passion is what many governments in this football-crazy region, seeking to evade a repetition of events in North Africa, hope to capture with a renewed effort to focus attention on improved national team performance.
Yet, in a bid to produce immediate results, political expediency trumps long term strategy; the very approach that led to a not a single Middle Eastern team reaching the semi-finals in January’s Asia Cup in Qatar even though they accounted for half of all competing teams.
As a result, Qatar fired its charismatic French coach; Saudi Arabia sacked two coaches in the same number of weeks and 28 in the last 20 years, Slovenian coach Srecko Katanec of the national team of the UAE, which was a disappointment in Doha, is likely to be back on the job market by June when his contract is up for renewal; and Iran last week hired Portuguese coach Carlos Queroz in the hope that he will lead the Islamic Republic to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
“If the gulf between the East and the West, the North and South in Asia has to be bridged, it is important for federations here to disband their hire-and-fire policies and adopt a more patient approach, one that looks into the future and considers the long-term goals of each nation,” says football writer Duane Fonseca in a commentary in Sport 360, the Abu Dhabi-based daily newspaper.
The Jeddah-based Arab News noted in an editorial that Saudi Arabia has yet to fully allocate resources to develop football at a young age or establish a training academy for talented players. The kingdom’s first sports academy was established in February by Real Madrid, one of several European top-tier teams rushing to the region to open schools that will generate cash and scout for young talent. The schools allow authorities to appear responsive to criticism in a timely manner.
The Middle East’s short term results-oriented approach undermines the ability of national teams to develop a successful style of their own that works and produces a degree of pressure and uncertainty among coaches and players that is bound to result in failure.
“Football is a progression, you reap what you sow and sometimes patience is key,” Duane Fonseca says.
Indeed, football in the Middle East and North Africa is never just about football.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer