Yemeni president Saleh poses with national soccer team (Source: Reuters)
By James M. Dorsey
Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s meeting Sunday with his country’s national youth soccer team highlights the importance of soccer as a battlefield in the struggle between Arab autocrats and pro-democracy activists.
Mr. Saleh congratulated team for their qualification for the 2011 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup finals barely two days after returning to Yemen from three months of treatment in Saudi Arabia of severe wounds he suffered in an attack in June on his presidential compound by opposition forces.
The Yemeni leader took time out to bask in the success of the squad in a bid to shore up his tattered image in a soccer-crazy country that is teetering on the brink of civil war as a result of sixth months of mass anti-government protests demanding his resignation from 33 years in office. He did so as troops commanded by his son attacked protesters and clashed with rebel army units in battles that raised the death toll of eight days of violence to more than 100 despite Mr. Saleh’s declaration of a ceasefire.
Associating himself with one of the country’s greatest passions is part of Mr. Saleh’s survival strategy that involves as he announced in a televised speech on Sunday early presidential elections. Mr. Saleh’s proposal is unlikely to curry favor with his opponents who demand his immediate resignation, constitutional reform and only then elections. Mr. Saleh repeatedly agreed earlier this year to a Gulf-Cooperation Council (GCC) deal in which he would resign in exchange for immunity from prosecution only to back out at the last minute.
In associating himself with soccer, Mr. Saleh is following in the footsteps of other Middle Eastern and North African autocrats, including the ousted leaders of Egypt and Libya and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who saw soccer as a way to boost their tarnished images.
US embassy cables disclosed by Wikileaks detail the fuelling of nationalist emotions by Mr. Mubarak’s sons Gamal, who the president was believed to be grooming as his successor, and Alaa, to shore up the regime’s image after riots erupted in the wake of a crucial 2009 World Cup qualifier in which Algeria dashed Egypt’s hopes of playing in the tournament’s finals in South Africa. A November 25, 2009 cable said the only time Gamal displayed emotion during a presentation on healthcare was when he discussed the violence that took place in the Sudanese capital Khartoum where the match was played.
A 2009 US cable describes how Mr. Ahmadinejad sought with limited success to associate himself with Iran’s national team and soccer’s popularity. The Iranian president went as far as in 2006 lifting the ban on women watching soccer matches in Iranian stadia, but in a rare public disagreement was overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Iranian leader has also been hands-on in the management of the Iranian team. The cable reports that he pressured the Iranian football federation to lift its 2008 suspension of star Ali Karimi so that he could play in 2010 World Cup qualifiers, engineered the 2009 firing of Ali Daei as coach, ensured that Mr. Daei’s successor Mohamed Mayeli-Kohan lasted all of two weeks in the job and ultimately was succeeded by the president’s candidate, Afshin Ghotbi.
Mr. Ahmadinejad justified his interference by saying that “unfortunately, this sport has been afflicted with some very bad issues. I must intervene personally to push aside these destructive issues.”
Mr. Saleh heaped praise on the Yemeni youth team. “Your performance has been excellent. You have proved that the Yemeni sports are continuously developed and able to compete in the Arab, regional and international sports events" the president told them. He said that he had followed the team closely during his recovery in Saudi Arabia and that his government would fully support it.
Mr. Saleh’s meeting with the soccer players echoes rifts in society and the game that emerged during the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya where managers and players often stayed on the side lines of the battle for greater freedom or even expressed support for the embattled leader. In Egypt, militant fans unfurled a banner during one of the first matches after Mr. Mubarak’s demise that read: "We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn't find you."
Player and soccer manager attitudes towards the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa reflect a complex relationship of the ruled with the dictator that is evident across the region. It is an attitude that cannot be reduced to vested economic interest or privilege but constitutes an expression of the dictator’s success in getting those he rules to internalize his positioning as the nation’s father. It is that rupture of the internalization articulated in statements of protesters that they had broken the barrier of fear that constitutes the core of the region’s newly found people power.
The internalization of the dictator as a father figure means that players and managers often support protesters’ demands for an end to corruption, greater transparency and more freedom, but object to the perceived indignity to which they see their leader or father as being subjected to. It is an attitude that resembles that of a child who defends his father irrespective of whether his father is right or wrong.
Mr. Saleh’s focus on soccer highlights the struggle between autocrats and activists for control of the soccer pitch and the credibility that emanates from the one institution and venue that commands the kind of deep-seated passion evoked by religion in a conservative swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the oil-rich sheikhdoms of the Gulf.
For militant soccer fans, who emerged as soccer increasingly became a political football, wresting control of the pitch from autocratic regimes is a battle against the yoke of autocratic rule, economic mismanagement and corruption. It also signifies the quest for dignity; for national, ethnic and sectarian identity and women’s rights.
Fans from Algeria to Iran have resisted the efforts by the region’s autocrats to politically control stadiums by repeatedly turning them into venues to express pent-up anger and frustration, assert national, ethnic and sectarian identity and demand women’s rights. “The battle is on the soccer pitch because there is no freedom and no political competition. Talking doesn’t change things. We fought for our rights in the stadium for four years. That prepared us for the day that the revolt against Mubarak erupted,” said Ahmad Fondu, a leader of militant, highly politicized, violence-prone soccer fans in Egypt.
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.