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Monday, January 26, 2015

UK search for Jihadi John spotlights recruitment role of soccer

By James M. Dorsey

The United Kingdom’s search for Jihadi John, the masked, British-accented fighter who appears in videos and beheading of foreigners condemned to death by the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, has highlighted the significance for militants of soccer as a recruitment and bonding tool. It has also put the spotlight of a small band of Portuguese nationals who have joined the jihadists in recent years.

The British search is focusing, according to The Sunday Times, on five East London amateur players who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State and have since suggested on social media that at least one of them had intimate knowledge of the executions. The five are seen as potential leads to Jihadi John, who identity is believed to be known to British intelligence.

One of the five players, 28 year-old, Nero Seraiva, tweeted last year on July 11, days before the execution of American journalist James Foley, the first of the Islamic State’s Western hostages to be decapitated: “"Message to America, the Islamic State is making a new movie. Thank u for the actors." The tweet came days before the jihadist group announced Mr. Foley’s execution in a graphic You Tube video entitled A Message to America.

Jihadi John’s latest video threatened last week to execute two Japanese hostages, one of which, Hurana Yukawa, is believed to have been killed over the weekend.

Intelligence sources believe that Mr. Seraiva and his East London associates may be involved in the filming and distribution of videos of Jihadi John and the beheadings. Westerners who met the same gruesome fate as Mr. Foley include American journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines and US aid worker Peter Kassig who changed his name to Abdul-Rahman Kassig after converting to Islam.

The investigation of Mr. Seraiva’s group is likely to offer insights into the Islamic State’s appeal. The group’s five members are all Portuguese nationals with roots in Portugal’s former African colonies who migrated to Britain for study and work.

Celso Rodrigues da Costa, whose brother Edgar also is in Syria, is believed to have attended open training sessions for Arsenal, but failed to get selected. Mr. Da Costa, born in Portugal to parents from Guinea-Bissau adopted in Syria the name Abu Isa Andaluzi.

Andaluzi or Al Andalus are names adopted by several of the approximately one dozen Portuguese nationals, at least half of whom were resident in Britain, who have joined the Islamic State. The adopted names, Arabic references to the Iberian Peninsula at the time of Muslim rule, reflect a desire to return the region to Islam.

Islamic State demonstrated its understanding of the recruitment and propaganda value of soccer when it last April distributed a video in which Mr. Da Costa appeared as a masked fighter.
The video exploited the physical likeness of Mr. Da Costa to that of French international Lassana Diarra, who played for Arsenal before moving to Lokomotiv Moscow. A caption under the video posting read; “A former soccer player - Arsenal of London - who left everything for jihad.” Another text said: "He... played for Arsenal in London and left soccer, money and the European way of life to follow the path of Allah.”

On camera, Mr. Da Costa said: "My advice to you first of all is that we are in need of all types of help from those who can help in fighting the enemy. Welcome, come and find us and from those who think that they cannot fight they should also come and join us for example because it maybe that they can help us in something else, for example help with medicine, help financially, help with advice, help with any other qualities and any other skills they might have, and give and pass on this knowledge, and we will take whatever is beneficial and that way they will participate in jihad."

Mr. Da Costa and his cohorts were following in the steps of a number of European players from immigrant backgrounds who radicalized. Burak Karan, an up and coming German-Turkish soccer star, was killed during a Syrian military raid on anti-Bashar al Assad rebels near the Turkish border.

Yann Nsaku, a Congolese born convert to Islam and former Portsmouth FC youth centre back, was one of 11 converts arrested in France in 2012 on suspicion of being violent jihadists who were plotting anti-Semitic attacks. Nizar ben Abdelaziz Trabelsi, a Tunisian who played for Germany’s Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Wuppertal, was arrested and convicted in Belgium a decade ago on charges of illegal arms possession and being a member of a private militia. Mr. Trabelsi was sentenced to ten years in prison.

They all shared with militant Islamist leaders such as Osama Bin Laden and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh a deep-seated passion for the sport. Their road towards militancy often involved an action-oriented activity, soccer.

Fabio Pocas, at 22 the youngest of Mr. Seraiva’s group, arrived in London in 2012, hoping to become a professional soccer player. In Lisbon, Mr. Pocas, a converted to Islam, attended the youth academy of Sporting Lisbon, the alma mater of superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo.

In London, he helped amateur league UK Football Finder FC (UKFFFC) win several divisional competitions. The Sunday Times quoted UKFFFC football director Ewemade Orobator as saying that Mr. Pocas “came here to play football seriously. In about May 2013 an agent came down and said, 'Work hard over the summer and I will get you a trial (with a professional club).'" Mr. Pocas failed to take up the offer and travelled to Syria instead where he adopted the name Abdurahman Al Andalus.
Mr. Pocas, according to The Sunday Times, has settled in the Syrian town of Manbij near Aleppo where he has taken a Dutch teenager as his bride. "Holy war is the only solution for humanity," he said in a posting on Facebook.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Friday, January 23, 2015

AFC official ‘happy’ to bar women spectators from stadia

Alex Soosay: happy to bar women from stadia

By James M. Dorsey

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has dropped any pretention of standing up for universal standards for equality in sports by endorsing bans on women attending soccer matches in stadia. In doing so, the AFC has confirmed policies adopted by the Asian group as well as world soccer body FIFA that effectively supports autocratic or illiberal democratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.

The confirmation came in remarks by AFC general secretary Dato' Alex Soosay to Agence France Press (AFP) that he is “happy” to respect Iranian laws that ban women from watching male soccer matches in stadia. By implication, Mr. Soosay could have also been referring to Saudi Arabia which, like Iran, bans women from stadia, and in contrast to the Islamic republic, refuses to legalize or encourage women’s soccer.

“We’re very broad-minded.  In Australia there’s a big Iranian community and you can’t stop them from coming to the stadium because there’s no restrictions here. Whereas in Iran, there has been some restrictions of women entering the stadium and watching a football match,” Mr. Soosay said.

Mr. Soosay made his remarks after the Iranian football federation warned members of its national team competing in the Asian Cup in Australia not to take selfies with female Australian-Iranian soccer fans the majority of whom do not adhere to the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women.

“National team players should be aware that they won’t be used as a political tool by those who take pictures with them,” Ali Akbar Mohamedzade, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation moral committee, told Iran’s Shahrvand newspaper.

Mr. Soosay’s remarks appear to be at odds with an increased focus on human and women’s rights by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other global sports associations. IOC officials have, in recent months, privately encouraged human rights groups to take Saudi Arabia to task for its failure to allow women to freely compete in all disciplines of the Olympics.

Mr. Soosay’s remarks further contrast starkly with a warning to Iran by the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) that it would be stripped of its right to host the 2015 Under-19 men’s world volleyball championship if it bans women from attending matches. The FIVB stance is relevant to the AFC given that Iran is widely seen as a frontrunner in the bidding for the right to host 2019 Asian Cup.

A FIVB spokesman said in November that his federation "will not give Iran the right to host any future FIVB directly controlled events such as World Championships, especially under age, until the ban on women attending volleyball matches is lifted.” The FIVB has asked Argentina to stand-by to replace Iran as the host of the tournament. In a statement, FIVB president Ary Graca said that "women throughout the world should be allowed to watch and participate in volleyball on an equal basis."

The FIVB made its decision after talks with Human Rights Watch, which has also met with IOC president Thomas Bach. The meeting with the IOC president marked a new era in the group’s attitude towards human rights. Mr. Bach’s predecessor, Jacques Rogge, refused to meet with human rights groups during his tenure.

Mr. Soosay’s remarks further violate a resolution adopted two years ago by the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) and endorsed by Iran that called for putting women’s sporting rights on par with those of men.   

The AFC official’s remarks came against the backdrop of recent international outrage at the charging of a British-Iranian law graduate for attempting to enter a stadium to watch a men’s volleyball match. Ghoncheh Ghavami was detained in June. She twice went on hunger strike before being released on bail as she awaits trial.

Mr. Soosay defended his comments by noting that visiting female officials and media attending AFC events in Iran have been allowed into stadiums, provided they covered their hair. “You have to respect that they have to cover themselves. There is a code of attire which has to be respected. If it’s done in Iran there’s no issue at all,” Mr. Soosay said. His remarks related to foreign women who were members of visiting delegations and are subject to different rules from those that apply to women fans.

By endorsing discriminatory Iranian policies, Mr. Soosay effectively reiterated the AFC’s longstanding refusal to insist on adherence by Middle Eastern soccer associations to its principles, rules and regulations. That refusal amounts to effective support for autocratic rule in a soccer crazy region where rulers see the game as a key tool to retain power by exercising absolute control of public space and an institution that evokes deep-seated passions.

The refusal has had over the years far-reaching consequences for the AFC, no more so since 2002 when Qatari national Mohammed Bin Hammam became the group’s president until he was banned for life by FIFA from involvement in professional soccer eleven years later, and under the reign of his Bahraini nemesis and successor, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.

The governance of both men reflects the autocratic traits of the societies they hail from. Both men are imperious, ambitious and have worked assiduously to concentrate power in their hands and side line their critics clamouring for reform. Both men, hailing from countries governed by absolute, hereditary leaders, have been accused of being willing to occupy their seats of power at whatever price.

As a result, Mr. Soosay’s remarks fit the mould of AFC governance. Sheikh Salman recently used a proposal to recognize Central Asia as a separate soccer region in Asia to eliminate the post of a woman AFC vice president. That post is currently held by Australian Moya Dodd, a prominent reformer whose views challenge those held by Messrs. Salman and Soosay.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Soccer soft power: A double-edged sword

By James M. Dorsey

An avalanche of criticism of FC Bayern Muenchen,  a leading soccer brand and Germany’s most successful club, for playing a commercially driven friendly against Saudi Arabia’s FC Al Hilal amid a crackdown on dissent in the kingdom, the public flogging of a blogger and the putting on trial in a court that deals with terrorism charges of two women for violating a ban on female driving highlights the increasing risk autocratic Gulf states run in employing the sport to polish tarnished images and project soft power.

The avalanche also spotlights mounting discontent among fans and some soccer executives with clubs’ willingness to ignore human rights violations by their host nations.
The criticism of Bayern Muenchen, one of the world’s richest clubs with an annual turnover of $580 million, forced the German club, which was reportedly paid $2.3 million for playing the match, to issue a statement that cloaked an apology in a defence of its decision to ignore the kingdom’s deteriorating, never stellar human rights record.

In response to the criticism, Bayern Muenchen chairman Karl Rummenigge said in a statement that “Bayern Munich condemns all forms of cruel punishment that are not consistent with human rights, as in the current case involving blogger Raif Badawi, a critic of Islam. It would have been better to clearly address this on the occasion of our match in Saudi Arabia. We are a football club and not political policy-makers, but naturally everyone, ourselves included, ultimately bears responsibility for compliance with human rights."

Mr. Badawi, a Saudi blogger, was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes to be publicly administered 50 at a time over a period of 20 weeks for insulting Islam by criticizing the kingdom’s powerful clergy on his website, Free Saudi Liberals, which has since been shut down. Mr. Badawi was first lashed earlier this month. The second lashing was postponed on advice of a prison doctor.

Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi were referred at about the same time to a terrorism court for defying the ban on female drivers.

Mr. Rummenigge’s apology did not spare Bayern Muenchen further criticism. Theo Zwanziger, the executive committee member of world soccer body FIFA responsible for overseeing Qatari labour reforms following condemnation of the Gulf state and 2022 World Cup host’s working and living conditions for migrant workers, told the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung that "I have known for some time that at Bayern commerce beats ethics and, if in doubt, they will stand on the side of the purse. That's a shame, but it doesn't surprise me."

German Social Democratic Party member of parliament Dagmar Freitag, speaking to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, added that "sport has a strong voice, but it does not use it at the points where it makes sense and can be helpful. Footballers don't have to be politicians but they should be aware of human rights conditions and could set examples." Ozcan Mutlu, spokesman for the left-wing Greens, added that "there is no honour to have a friendly game in Riyadh when, so to speak, right next to the stadium the blogger Badawi is flogged 1,000 times and has his skin pulled off his back."

Saudi Arabia has twice dabbled in the past year in projecting soft power through German soccer. Second tier German soccer club FSV Frankfurt, a year before the Bayern Muenchen incident, terminated a sponsorship agreement with state-owned airline Saudia because it refused to transport passengers who carry Israeli passports. FSV cancelled the agreement after German media accused the airline of anti-Semitism and Frankfurt municipal officials and prominent German Jews denounced it.

Adding insult to injury, FSV announced the same day of the cancellation a partnership with local club TuS Makkabi Frankfurt, a Jewish club that is historically part of the centrist wing of the Zionist movement. US critics had earlier called for the barring of Saudia from US airports. To be fair, Saudi Arabia recently announced that it would no longer bar Jews from gaining employment in the kingdom.

The Bayern Muenchen incident nevertheless indicates that fans and some international sports executives no longer are willing to turn a blind eye to violations of human rights or what some describe as reputation laundering. The greater sensitivity comes as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced human and labour rights into contracts for future Olympic hosts. FIFA earlier acknowledged that those rights should be part of its hosting criteria. Human rights groups and others like Transparency International are moreover putting sports high on their agenda.

Controversy over Qatar’s restrictive labour regime has put it at the head of the activists’ firing line. Qatari difficulty with reforming the regime that puts workers at the mercy of their employers has raised the spectre that the Gulf state could be deprived of its World Cup hosting rights if it fails to match its lofty words with deeds. Mr. Zwanziger has suggested that a motion to take the tournament away from Qatar could be tabled at a FIFA congress in May if the Gulf state has not taken concrete steps by then.

To be fair, Qatar, unlike other Gulf states, has engaged with its critics and published charters for the rights of workers employed on World Cup-related contracts. Qatar’s difficulty is that the issue of labour rights sparks existential fears in a country whose citizenry accounts for a mere 12 percent of the population and fears that it could lose control of its state, culture and society. Qatar walks a tightrope in balancing the need to respond to international criticism quickly and a domestic situation that demands gradual change.

Bayern Muenchen came under fire not only for its Saudi friendly. Critics also did not take kindly to the fact that the club spent the week before the game in a training camp in Qatar. "Even if Bayern does not determine the politics in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, its presence there legitimises it," a Bayern member tweeted under the Twitter handle @agitpopblog in an open letter to club officials.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Conflicting views of Islam spill onto the soccer pitch

By James M. Dorsey

When Sarah Samir stepped this week on to an Egyptian soccer pitch to referee a men’s match, she joined a small band of Arab women referees staking out their right to be involved in the sport on par with men. The significance of Ms. Samir’s appearance highlighted the battle for the soul of Islam that is being fought on the pitch as much as it is being waged on multiple other fronts. It also spotlighted strategies to counter militant ideologies.

Ms. Samir, the first Egyptian woman referee, arbitrated a third division match between Wadi Degla FC and Talaea El Gaish SC. She did so as a Syrian activist group reported that Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, executed 13 teenage boys for watching on television an Asian Cup soccer match in Iraq’s Al-Yarmouk district near the city of Mosul. It also followed a warning by the Iranian football federation to members of its national team competing in the tournament in Australia not to take selfies with female Australian Iranian fans, most of whom do not conform to Islamic dress that hides the contours of the body.

The juxtaposition of the three events highlights a long-standing struggle among ulema or Muslim scholars and within the jihadist world about the role and place of soccer in Islam. It is a multi-layered debate with opinions running the gamut from condemnation of the sport as an infidel invention that detracts believers from their religious obligations to clerics who view soccer exclusively as a men’s sport to a jihadist divide between those who see football’s utility as a bonding and recruitment tool and groups that see it as a violation of Islamic law punishable by death.

With Ms. Samir’s appearance on the pitch, Egypt joined a small number of Middle Eastern and North African nations – the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and Israel – that allows Muslim women to referee soccer matches. Her appointment to referee a match came three weeks after Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi called for a reform of Islam.

In doing so, Egypt was adhering to a 2012 resolution putting women’s sporting rights on par with that of men of the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF). It did so despite the fact that Egypt is an African country that falls beyond the authority of the WAFF that groups Middle Eastern soccer bodies in Asia.

Responses on social media to Ms. Samir reflected public debate in the Middle East and North Africa that by and large appears in majority to favour women’s sporting rights. NguZsc tweeted: “Sarah Samir is a great thing for our country. We are moving forward.” AhmeD_FelFela congratulated her. Ahmednhad’s praise more likely than not confirmed one of conservative ulema and jihadist objections to women’s soccer and the mixing of genders on the pitch: male celebration of women as women. “Honestly she is fit and beautiful ... Why aren’t all Egyptian referees like her?” Ahmednhad tweeted.

The significance of the breaking of the mould by Ms. Samir and her fellow women referees goes far beyond the soccer pitch. It goes to the core of the ideological struggle within Islam and efforts to counter the appeal of jihadist groups like Islamic State who in the view of Eli Berman, a former member of the Israeli military’s elite Golani brigade-turned-University of California economist, constitute economic clubs whose sustainability depends on their ability to create a mutual aid environment that caters to the spiritual and material needs of their dependent members and brutal repression of women and dissenters.

The killing of the 13 boys who were watching a match between Jordan and Iraq fits the mould. The Syrian activist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a reference to the Syrian city of Raqqa where Islamic State has based itself, reported that the boys were publicly executed by firing squad in a sports arena. Loudspeakers reportedly announced that their execution was intended as a message to those who violate the strict laws of the Islamic State, which ordered that their bodies be left in the facility for all to see. 'The bodies remained lying in the open and their parents were unable to withdraw them for fear of murder by terrorist organisation,' the activists said.

Promotion of women’s sporting rights, including the fielding of female referees, fits Mr. Berman’s counterterrorism strategy articulated in a book in 2011 entitled New Economics of Terrorism. Mr. Berman argued that what made the difference between viable and non-viable militant groups was not religious fervour but the provision of jobs and social services, including education, health, sports and enforcement of law and order.

In Mr. Berman’s cost-benefit analysis, the cost of hardening targets and defending them against militant attacks is far higher than the cost of weakening militant economic clubs by offering their members alternatives. "Concentrating on capturing or killing every last terrorist (or buying off some warlord to do so) can probably only succeed in the short run, since the underlying conditions of weak governance and/or weak service provision will likely continue to generate new terrorist clubs,” Mr. Berman wrote.

Mr. Berman’s strategy has particular relevance for Middle East and North Africa nations as well as governments and Muslim communities in Europe in the wake of the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq and the recent attacks in Paris on a satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket. Many frustrated, disaffected youth in the Middle East and North Africa as well as in Europe feel they are deprived of opportunity and gravitate toward jihadist Islam as their only perceived option,

Mr. Berman’s strategy is one that boldly challenges existing political and social structures that encourage that perception. It holds out the prospect of ensuring that the disaffected gain a stake in their societies rather than feel that opting for radical alternatives is the only way of getting their voices heard and their grievances addressed.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Oil money is making pro soccer look a little different (JMD quoted in Global Post)

Oil money is making pro soccer look a little different

Five of the 20 richest clubs in Europe are sponsored by a Gulf company.

Real Madrid soccer logoENLARGE
The Real Madrid logo as of May 20, 2014. (Denis Doyle/AFP/Getty Images)
MADRID, Spain — They were all in the photo: the heads of Real Madrid and the National Bank of Abu Dhabi and four Real Madrid stars: Bale, Benzema, Kroos, Carvajal. Posing happily, they were holding a huge credit card, unveiling the fruitful deal by which the Gulf-based financial institution would sponsor the Spanish club.
Only something was missing from the picture. Printed on the massive cardboard mockup was Real Madrid's crest, as the sponsorship deal promised — sans its tiny cross. The Christian symbol has been part of the logo since 1920, when then-king Alfonso XIII granted “Madrid Foot-Ball Club” the title of “Real” (Royal). A crown bearing a cross has topped the club’s logo ever since.
The change wasn’t discussed at the time, in September, and it took the world’s press a couple of months to notice. But once they did — soccer fans went nuts over the news.
Memes spreading around social media replaced the emblem’s Christian crown with dollar symbols or the Muslim crescent. Spanish aficionados hotly debated in cafes and bars the lengths that were being gone to not to offend potential Gulf customers or investors, who’ve recently flooded European soccer with petrodollars.
But it wasn’t the first time Real Madrid let its funders get in on brand decisions. The sports giant already reportedly agreed to modify its logo in 2012 after a deal to establish "Real Madrid Resort Island," a billion-dollar theme park in the United Arab Emirates. The project, consisting of a seashore stadium, a Real Madrid museum, an amusement park and a marina, was soon shelved, but recent agreements seem to have put it back on track, with a new partner and location.
The logo change is just the latest in a series of eyebrow-raising moves by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, an ambitious, millionaire businessman who also heads a construction company.
Perez previously brought in the state-owned Emirates airline, which was willing to finance a club with $730 million in gross debt that was still netting a profit. The "Fly Emirates" slogan has been featured on team jerseys since 2013 and will stay there at least until 2018. Real Madrid is the world's most valuable sports franchise, according to Forbes, valued at $3.44 billion.
Perez’s flagship project is redeveloping iconic Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Located in a posh neighborhood in Spain's capital, the stadium is named after the president who put the team on the map half a century ago. The $540 million plan is suspended by a preliminary court decision, but Perez hopes to get it started up again in 2015. According to him, such a huge project in a country hit hard by years of economic crisis and strained bank credit has only one way to become a reality: sponsorship.
Last October, Real Madrid and the International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi, signed an agreement by which the stadium would be renamed, keeping only Bernabeu's family name and adding a nod to IPIC.
Perez was recently caught on camera explaining to a Madrid regional government official that the stadium will become “IPIC Bernabeu, Cepsa (IPIC's Spanish subsidiary), or whatever they want.” “They” being of course the IPIC owners.
Contacted by GlobalPost, Real Madrid declined to comment. The National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) did not return emails seeking comment.
Deals like these aren’t that extraordinary in European soccer as of late. In 2011 the Qatar Foundation became the first-ever sponsor for the rival Barcelona team, supplying it with $40 million. That same year, a Qatari sheikh bought French team Paris Saint-Germain. Britain’s Arsenal and Germany’s Bayern Munich have respectively added Emirates and insurance company Allianz to their stadium names.  
Middle Eastern investors and groups have spent $1.5 billion acquiring stakes in European soccer clubs, according to a report released this month by sports marketing research company Repucom. Five of the 20 richest clubs in Europe are sponsored by a Gulf company.
"Qatar and the Gulf states see sports as a tool to enhance their prestige, enabl[ing] them to punch above their weight international[ly], create non-sport-related business opportunities and boost tourism," writes James M. Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of the blog "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer."
This show of "soft power" found its best reward in Qatar's successful but controversial bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about this new trend, though.
The Spanish Catholic conservative association Enraizados (Rooted) has collected 3,500 signatures criticizing the loss of a religious symbol from the crest, which the group interprets as a lack of respect toward "European cultural identity and its Christian roots."
“Removing the cross is as absurd as it would be asking the Turks to renounce the crescent that illustrates their flag when they come to Spain,” said the organization’s president, José Castro.
Other critics, like members of the group Valores del Madridismo (Support for Real Madrid Values), care less about religion and more about opaque decision-making. “Some choices concern the club’s essence, thus cannot be made in a despotic and totalitarian way,” protested its spokesman, journalist Humberto Martínez-Fresneda.
The cross doesn’t actually seem to be an issue for Muslim Real Madrid supporters visiting the stadium. Three different employees at the official merchandising shop didn’t recall any complaint or specific T-shirt printing demand. “Here, no matter which religion, everyone wants the same thing: Cristiano, Cristiano, Cristiano (Ronaldo). It seems only those up in management worry about the cross issue, not the ones coming here. In fact, I think Muslim customers are not even aware the crest contains a cross,” said one.
Outside the stadium, supporters take quick selfies before fleeing from the winter cold back to their cars. Two of them, Hakim and Mohammed, are French Muslims visiting Spain. “I really don’t care about the presence of the cross. That's the way the crest is, so for me there’s no debate,” states Hakim. Mohammed holds a more nuanced view: “I also don't mind, but I wouldn't enter the mosque wearing a Real Madrid T-shirt knowing that it has a cross.”
Touri Jihad, a 26-year-old Moroccan Muslim, is “happy” about the agreement with Abu Dhabi’s bank. “I’d prefer Real Madrid play in my country without the cross. Having said that, my friends in Morocco and I bought the T-shirt the way it is. You can’t just remove the cross,” he says.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Turkish soccer body penalizes Kurdish club amid mounting tensions

By James M. Dorsey

A Turkish Football Federation (TFF) decision to penalize a third tier soccer club in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir for adopting a Kurdish name reflects mounting tension in south-eastern Turkey. The tension is fuelled by the realization that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unlikely to make major concessions before parliamentary elections this summer in peace talks to which both Turkey and Kurdish insurgents remain committed and alleged efforts by some elements of the state to sabotage the negotiations.

The federation charged that the club long known by its Turkish name, Diyarbakır Büyükşehir Belediyespor (Diyarbakir Metropolitan Sport), had changed its name to the Kurdish Amedspor and had adopted the yellow, red and green Kurdish colours in its emblem without the soccer body’s approval. Amed is the long banned Kurdish name for Diyarbakir, the unofficial Turkish Kurdish capital. The federation said the club had also failed to register its new name.

Turkish Kurds, who account for anywhere between 10 and 23 percent of Turkey’s population, have long been restricted in the use of their languages. Turkey has so far been reluctant to concede in the peace talks to Kurdish demands that secondary school education in the predominantly Kurdish southeast be administered in a Kurdish language.

Kurdish nationalists complain that talks between the government and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the guerrilla group that has declared a ceasefire in its 30-year war to allow negotiations to go forward that Ankara has so far made only minimal concessions like allowing the use of letters in the Kurdish alphabet that do not exist in Turkish. Some 40,000 people are believed to have been killed in the PKK insurgency.

Amedspor has rejected the $4,300 fine imposed by the federation and vowed to fight the decision. The incident constitutes one of several in recent months in which assertions of Kurdish national identity have spilt onto the soccer pitch.

Ilhan Cavcav, the chairman of Ankara club Genclerbirligi SK, known for its left-wing fan base, last month sparked outrage among nationalists by suggesting that the Turkish national anthem should no longer be played at the beginning of domestic matches and only in international encounters. Turkey began playing the anthem at domestic matches in response to the PKK insurgency.

A match in December between Amedspor, and Galatasaray SK, a storied Istanbul club popular among Kurds because imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan identified himself some two decades ago as a Galatasary fan, witnessed despite pro-Kurdish expressions by supporters of both clubs the stoning of the Galatasaray team bus. Police using teargas intervened. “We love you, we love the one who loves you even more,” said a banner hoisted by Galatasaray fans in an apparent reference to Mr. Ocalan. Fans whistled as the Turkish national anthem played.

In October, the Swedish football federation took Dalkurd FF, a club in the town of Borlänge 300 kilometres north of Stockholm that has close ties to the PKK to task for unfolding a banner and collecting donations during a match for the besieged Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. Kurdish fighters have for months been holding off attacks on Kobani by the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq.

Turkey’s refusal to come to the aid of Kobani, even though it allowed some 150 Iraqi Kurdish fighters to transit Turkish territory en route to the Syrian town, sparked mass protests last October in which some 50 people were killed.

The protests like the renaming of the Diyarbakir club reflect growing scepticism among Kurds about the peace talks between the government and the PKK. More recently Kurdish disaffection has exploded in unrest in the town of Cizre in south-eastern Turkish where at least five Kurds have been killed in the last month.

Non-Kurdish soccer teams visiting Cizre have seen their buses and players repeatedly attacked with stones. As a result, Mr. Cavcav’s Genclerbirligi was transported in armoured vehicles when it came to play in Cizre in December. Media reports said the same vehicles had brought the Iraqi Kurdish fighters to the Turkish Syria border from where they headed to Kobani.

Government officials charge that the PKK is fuelling the tension in a bid to pressure Ankara. The charge is rejected by Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a left-wing pro-Kurdish party that acts as an interlocutor between Mr. Ocalan, who has been imprisoned on an island in the Sea of Marmara since 1999, PKK commanders based in mountainous areas of northern Iraq, and the government. The HDP asserts that the unrest is being stoked by elements of the government opposed to the peace talks.

Writing in Turkish daily Vatan, a reporter in Cizre noted that “nobody knows the reasons (for the unrest) in Cizre. Opinion leaders can’t explain their meaning. Public officials cannot explain the depth of the incidents, but step by step things are getting out of control.” Hurriyet columnist Serkan Demirtas warned that Cizre “shows that the peace process is still very fragile and existing mechanisms are still unlikely to respond effectively to such attempts at unrest in the region.”

HDP officials note that Turkey has long had a deep state that rejects any modification of the notion, coined by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, that Turks are one people. They also point to the recent leaking of Gendarmerie documents that show that three intercepted trucks belonging to Milli İstihbarat Teskilati (MIT), Turkey’s national intelligence agency, were carrying weapons destined for an Al Qaeda group in Syria.

In a bid to quell growing unrest among Turkish Kurds, the government has stepped up talks with the HDP and changed the structure of the peace talks. Senior government officials are working with the HDP to quell the unrest in Cizre. At the same time, the government, the PKK and the HDP have agreed to establish a committee for the talks. Previously, HDP officials shuttled between the government, Mr. Ocalan’s prison cell and PKK commanders in Iraqi Kurdistan alongside reported direct talks between the PKK leader and MIT head Hakan Fidan, a close associate of Mr. Erdogan.

Both Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the HDN are negotiating with one eye on parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year. Although the AKP has boosted its prestige by engaging in talks with the PKK, few expect the government to provoke Turkish nationalists prior to the elections by granting the Kurds substantial concessions.

As HDN debates whether to run as a party in the elections in which it would have to garner at least ten percent of the vote to be represented in parliament or field independent candidates, many Kurds question whether the government would be any more forthcoming after the poll.
Pessimism is prompting Turkish Kurds to raise their international profile on and off the pitch. The HDP recently sent a delegation to Moscow to negotiate the opening of a representative office in the Russian capital.  

The mounting tensions have prompted warnings that the situation in southeast Turkey, inundated by Syrian refugees, was becoming incontrollable. Writing about the spiralling soccer violence in Cizre, sports writer Zafer Buyukavci warned: “Gentlemen are you aware: The country is slipping through our fingers.” Speaking after last month’s Amedspor-Galatasary match, Amedspor president Ihsan Avci quipped that it was not “Diyarbakır’s team but Kurdistan’s team, the people’s team” that had won the match.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Turkish soccer: Illiberal President Erdogan’s latest victim

Tayip Recep Erdogan helps carry the coffin of Ulker founder Sabri Ulker to its final resting place in 2012

By James M. Dorsey

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s illiberal policies have targeted the media, the judiciary, the police, militant soccer fans, and anti-government protesters. Now they threaten to claim yet another victim: the game of football itself.

In a major blow to troubled Turkish soccer, Yildiz Holding, a conservative conglomerate known for its confectionary and biscuit business and close ties to Mr. Erdogan that is one of Turkey’s largest sponsors of soccer, said in a letter to the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) that it would no longer fund the sport because of violence and tensions associated with it and government efforts to politically control the beautiful game.

The company’s reference to tensions was not simply a reference to stadium incidents but also to Mr. Erdogan’s interference in a match-fixing scandal, attempts to depoliticize stadia, and legal proceedings against members of Carsi, the militant support group of storied Istanbul club Besiktas JK.

Carsi, one of Turkey’s most popular fan groups stands accused of being a terrorist organization whose members sought to overthrow the government. The charges are based on Carsi’s key role in the mass-anti-government Gezi Park protests in 2013. The trial was postponed until April after the first day of hearings in December.

The charges are part of a government effort to purge dissent from the pitch. It started immediately after the Gezi park protests with the banning of chanting or display of banners with political slogans and a demand that spectators sign a pledge before entering a stadium that they would refrain from participating in activities during matches that could “trigger mass, political or ideological events.” Carsi’s response to the government efforts was to chant during matches, "everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance."

Match attendance has moreover dropped dramatically as a result of a fan boycott of Passolig, an electronic ticket system, that critics charge is designed to give the government access to fans’ personal data. A recent match in Istanbul’s 82,000-seat Ataturk Olympic Stadium between Besiktas and Eskeshehirspor Kulubu that would normally have been attended by some 20- 30,000 spectators drew only 3,000 fans. Ticket sales for matches of Galatasaray SK, another Istanbul giant, are down by two thirds with fans gathering in cafes and homes to watch games they would have attended in the past.

Yildiz Holding has over the last decade invested some $215 million in Turkish soccer with sponsorships of major clubs such as Besiktas JK, Bursapor FC, Fenerbahce SK, Galatasaray and Trabzonspor FC as well as the Turkish national team.

The company’s decision is not simply a setback for Turkish soccer but for Mr. Erdogan personally whose family has a long association with Yildiz and its owners, the Ulker family, who made their name as successful, religiously conservative entrepreneurs. Yildiz chairman Murat Ulker moreover was a classmate of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul’s prestigious boys' school, Istanbul Erkek Lisesi.

Members of the prime minister’s family owned in the past up to 50 percent of Emniyet Foods, the distributor of Yildiz’s Ulker brand, as well as a stake in Ihsan Foods, the distributor of the company’s dairy products and Yenidogan Foods Marketing, its soft drinks distributor. Writing in Middle East Quarterly, Michael Rubin reported that Turkey’s Kemalist military long refused to buy Yildiz products because of the Ulker family’s religiosity.

Yildiz chairman Murat Ulker said in his letter to the Turkish federation, according to Hurriyet newspaper that “I have to let you know that unfortunately, today it has become meaningless to support teams or games thanks to such a fall in interest and value… When we became a sponsor, what we had in mind was the development of Turkish football, raising new players and success in Europe and the world. However, at the end of the day, we could not find what we were looking for,”

Mr. Ulker asserted elsewhere that soccer’s brand value had deteriorated because stadia were empty and the current soccer environment no longer stroked with notions of fair play. “No one wants their information to be collected, even by the state; this is disturbing. Many fan groups have boycotted the practice, which has added to the low attendance numbers. It is impossible to not admire the spectators in the UK or Germany. I am very sad for the country. I went to a game in the UK. recently and the atmosphere was great. This is what we cannot find in Turkey. We should not block the joy from the fans,” Mr. Ulker said earlier this month in an interview with Haberturk.

The government has sought to drive a wedge between militant fans and other supporters by arguing that e-ticketing was a way to combat illegal ticket scalping, increase tax revenues and ensure that stadia are safe for families.

That portrayal was rejected by some 40 fan groups who charged in a statement last year that “the e-ticket system does not only demote the concept of supporters to a customer, but it also files all our private data. The system aims to prevent supporters from organizing and is designed to demolish stadium culture and supporter identity.”

To be fair, Turkish stadia have a long history of violence. A third of Carsi’s original founders have died a violent death since the group’s founding in the early 1980s. A truce arranged at a gathering of heavily armed rival supporters after a Besiktas fan was trampled to death in 1991 by his Galatasaray adversaries reduced but did not put an end to the violence. Two Leeds United fans in Istanbul for their team’s match against Galatasaray were stabbed to death in 2000 during a soccer riot on Taksim. Stray bullets fired into the air to celebrate the Turkish team’s victory killed a third person and wounded four others.

The high stakes battle over e-ticketing goes to the heart of a struggle for Turkey’s soul that erupted with the Gezi Park protests sparked by Mr. Erdogan’s effort to impose greater control on people’s lives and restrict personal and political freedom and unfettered access to information. Fans moreover are irked by the president’s manipulation of due process in what was the most serious match fixing scandal in the history of Turkish soccer, a run-up to his squashing of an investigation into the most serious corruption scandal in his career.

“While Turkey seems to be on a downward path in democracy, freedom of speech and fighting against corruption, the situation of the country’s football is no different… If other sponsors follow Ulker’s footsteps, accompanied by the continued boycott of the supporters, Turkish football might have a chance to die in peace, rather than struggling to survive in such dire conditions. Maybe then we can have a chance to reclaim the ‘beautiful game’ cleared of violence, politics and match fixing,” Hurriyet columnist Ozgur Korkmaz said in an editorial entitled “Dear sponsors, please let Turkish football die.”

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.