Edited remarks at The Beautiful Game? Identity, Resentment, and Discrimination in Football and Fan Cultures conference, Center for Research on Antisemitism, Berlin, 12-13 April 2018
The virtually continuous role of soccer as a key player in the history and development of the Middle East and North Africa dating back to the late 19th century seemed to have come to an abrupt halt in 2014 as the Saudi-UAE-led counterrevolution gained momentum, the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry accelerated, and the political rift in the Gulf initially manifested itself.
The long and dramatic history of the Middle Eastern intersection of sports and politics took a backseat as the fallout of the popular Arab revolts of 2011 unfolded. In contrast to other parts of the world in which rulers and politicians at times employed sports as a tool to achieve political goals, sports in general and soccer in particular had been a player in the Middle East in terms of nation, state and regime formation; assertion of national identity; the struggle for independence; republicanism vs monarchy; ideological battles; and fights for human, political, gender and labour rights.
Soccer in the Middle East and North Africa had repeatedly demonstrated its potential as an engine of social and political change not necessarily the lovey-dovey kind of building bridges and contributing to peace, but more often than not divisive and confrontational. That was evident with the role of soccer in the 1919 Egyptian revolution; the struggles for nationhood, statehood and independence of Jews, Palestinians and Algerians; the quest for modernity in Turkey and Iran; the 2011 popular revolts; post-2011 resistance to a UAE-Saudi-inspired counterrevolution; the awarding by world soccer governing body FIFA of the 2022 World Cup hosting rights to Qatar; and ultimately the battle for regional dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as the Gulf crisis that since June 2017 has pitted a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar.
The Gulf crisis put an end to a period starting with the crushing of student protests with militant soccer fans at their core against the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that brought Mr. Al-Sisi to power in which the sport no longer seemed a useful prism for analysing developments in the Middle East and North Africa. The crackdown turned Egyptian universities into security fortresses and seemed to have largely silenced the ultras.
The first round of the Gulf crisis in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha for a period of ten months; the escalating war in Syria; the rise of King Salman and his son, Mohammed bin Salman, and the changes they introduced in Saudi Arabia; the escalation of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and its associated proxy wars; and the initial phase of the second round in the Gulf crisis with last year’s imposition of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar reinforced a sense that soccer was not a working prism for analysis of events.
A number of developments have however reversed that sense. One is the re-emergence of soccer in Egypt as an important player despite the crackdown on the anti-Sisi protests. Mr. Al-Sisi repeatedly tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to forge links with the ultras while the ultras in past years despite the repression again emerged as one of the few groups willing to stage protests. Scores of protesters have since been sentenced to prison, many remain detained awaiting trial.
Enlisting the support of soccer represented by the Egyptian Football Association and major clubs for his re-election this year, Mr. Al-Sisi positioned soccer as a key tool of associating himself with something the country is crazy about and that evokes deep-seated, tribal-like emotions. Egypt’s qualification for this year’s World Cup like that of several other Arab teams cemented the role of soccer in Egypt and the other qualifying countries.
Similarly, Saudi soccer diplomacy in Iraq has earned the kingdom brownie points. Soccer, despite the Gulf crisis, has moreover proven to be the wedge that has driven change and significant reform of the labour regime in Qatar. The changes fall short of what human rights groups, international trade unions and the International Labour Organization wanted to see. Nonetheless, the changes amount to far more than a cosmetic face lift.
Last but not least, soccer, and particularly the Qatar World Cup, is an important battlefield in the increasingly overt public relations battle between the Gulf state and its detractors, particularly the United Arab Emirates. In addition, to playing an important role in the politics of the region, Middle Eastern soccer has in the past three years highlighted the hypocrisy of the insistence by world soccer body FIFA that governance should ensure its separation from politics. The endorsement of a candidate by a football association and/or clubs makes a mockery of a division of sports and politics. So do FIFA decisions regarding venues and choice of referees for competition matches involving teams of the Middle East’s feuding states.
The political role of soccer is rooted in the politics of sports that goes back to 5th century Rome, when support groups identified as the Blues, Greens, Reds and Whites in the absence of alternative channels for public expression acclaimed a candidate slated to be installed as Rome’s emperor in games dominated by chariot racing. Much like modern day militant soccer fans or ultras, they frequently shouted political demands in between races in a bid to influence policy. In doing so, the Romans set a trend that has since proven its value as well as its risk. In today’s modern world, soccer pitches, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, were frequently viewed as barometers of the public mood and indicators of political and social trends. They also were platforms for the public venting of pent-up frustration and anger as well as grievances.
Rome also served as an early example of the impact of fan power. That was most evident in the 532 AD Nika revolt, the most violent in Constantinople’s history, when the then dominant Blues and Greens rioted…