By James M. Dorsey
Bahrain scored from its perspective well on and off the pitch in its second, politically laden 2014 World Cup qualifier.
For starters, the 1:1 draw keeps Bahrain in the race to play in the finals in Brazil in three years’ time. The draw was a far better performance than the 6:0 thrashing Iran meted out to Bahrain at their first encounter in Tehran a few weeks ago.
As important as the score on the field however, was the political battle in the stands between two nations whose relations are strained as a result of the mass anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Bahrain accuses Shiite Muslim Iran of early this year having instigated its majority Shiite population to rise up against the Gulf island’s long-reigning Sunni Muslim dynasty.
Some 30 people were killed in a Saudi- and Gulf Cooperation Council-backed government crackdown that pushed the protests out of the capital in Manama and reduced them to more isolated, far smaller village demonstration beyond the glare of the international media. Iran has denied the charge and denounced the crackdown and introduction of predominantly Saudi GCC forces in Bahrain.
The Bahraini-Iranian confrontation on the soccer pitch takes on additional significance because in contrast to most Arab autocracies coping with popular revolts, Bahrain athletes and sports executives took an active role in the protests. Some 150 sports people, including three national soccer team players, were fired or arrested and held for up to three months in prison. Many, who were sentenced to prison in secretive military trials, charge that they were abused and tortured.
Bahrain Supreme Council for Youth and Sport and Olympic Committee chairman Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, who is believed to have ordered the crackdown on the athletes, praised that national soccer team’s performance against Iran. "Bahrain National Football team still has a good chance to qualify in the coming matches", the official Bahrain News Agency quoted Sheikh Nasser as saying.
The agency said Sheikh Nasser had also paid tribute to the spectators, many of whom were waving Saudi in addition to or instead of Bahraini flags, burning Iranian ones outside the stadium, and throwing water bottles at Iranian players as they were leaving the field, according to Bahraini activists – an indication that authorities had populated the stadium with regime supporters and a taunting of the Iranians. Sheikh Nasser warned during the revolt early this year, according to ESPN, that “Whoever calls for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his children.”
Played at home in Manama’s Bahrain National Stadium, Bahrain had the advantage certainly on the stands. The Iranian Football Federation complained to world soccer body FIFA that Iranian fans and journalists who had been given visas to attend the match had been barred entry at Bahrain’s airport and forced to return to Iran.
In a letter to the Bahrain Football Association, quoted on Iran’s Press TV, FIFA reportedly advised the Bahrain Football Association that “…FIFA expects all the participating member associations… to comply with the international standards established for adequate media coverage of FIFA World Cup qualifiers… In the event that these conditions are not given or fulfilled for every match, FIFA would need to submit the matter to the Organizing Committee for the FIFA World Cup.”
FIFA has had a publicly gloves-on approach to Bahrain’s crackdown on sports people. National soccer team player Mohammed Hubail, who was sentenced to two years in prison and barred from soccer on the island, was reportedly released pending his appeal due to FIFA pressure. But FIFA has remained silent in response to the BFA’s assertion that no soccer players or officials had been penalized because of their participation in protests. BFA made the assertion in answer to an earlier FIFA inquiry.
Friday’s pro-government and pro-Saudi manifestations contrasted starkly with the anti-government protests on the stands of Tehran’s Azadi Stadium when the two teams played their first round on October 11 in the Iranian capital. The chants – ‘Death to the Dictator’; ‘No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, My life only for Iran’ rejecting Iran’s involvement with Hezbollah and Hamas; and against the basij, the Iranian regime’s paramilitary voluntary militia – call into question the sincerity of the Islamic republic’s support of anti-regime protests in Bahrain. To be sure, so does its support of the increasingly brutal crackdown in Syria.
The protest in Tehran follows the arrest of some 30 soccer fans in the northwestern Azeri city of Tabriz who were protesting against an Iranian parliamentary decision not to fund measures to save an environmentally endangered lake. The protests spilled out of the stadium into the city into demonstrations demanding unification between the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan and Iranian Azerbaijan.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.