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Monday, February 28, 2011

Italy may score an own goal with its reliance on Libyan money

By James M. Dorsey

The National, Feb 27, 2011

Italy's most popular football club, Juventus, is facing a dilemma as it prepares to discuss tomorrow the brutal clampdown by the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, its second-largest shareholder.

It is a quandary that is also affecting a host of high-profile Italian companies, including UniCredit, Italy's largest bank, and the car maker Fiat in which Col Qaddafi's investment vehicles hold stakes.

For Juventus, however, the dilemma is particularly acute. The club's failure to win a trophy since it was stripped of its 2005 and 2006 Italian titles as the result of a corruption scandal makes it especially vulnerable to criticism from its fans. Amid mounting revulsion, Juventus is finding it increasingly difficult to explain its cosy relationship with the Libyan leader and his sons.

Juventus is likely to be forced to confront the issue publicly after tomorrow's board meeting that will discuss the Libyan crisis alongside the club's results.

UniCredit said last week it had put Libyan voting rights under "careful review". Juventus officials said it was unclear whether the board meeting would be attended by Khaled Fareg Zentuti, the long-term investment portfolio manager of the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company (Lafico), who represents Col Qaddafi's 7.5 per cent stake, valued at US$17.5 million (Dh64.2m).

Lafico, a subsidiary of the Libyan Investment Authority, the country's sovereign wealth fund, acquired the stake in 2001 as much as a financial investment as because Col Qaddafi's son, Saadi, a failed professional footballer, supported the Turin-based club.

Club officials hope the popular revolt against the Qaddafi regime will prompt an international freeze on Libyan assets that would take them off the hook. Short of that, they say there is little they can do to cut their umbilical cord with the Qaddafis.

The club's predicament is heightened by the fact that many Italians fear that the Libyan turmoil could bring a wave of refugees on to their shores at a time when Italy is suffering its own economic woes.

Hopes that a freeze on Libyan assets will resolve the club's dilemma is likely to prove wishful thinking. The Juventus association with the Qaddafis contrasts starkly with the club's insistence that it seeks to reconcile the "professional and business side of football with its ethical and social role".

The club did itself few favours when a spokesman suggested last week that the Qaddafis had been model investors. "They've always supported the company [Juventus], for example they participated fully with the recent capital increase in 2007. We are an investment for them," Marco Re, the spokesman, said.

If the club's public relations debacle and Saadi Qaddafi's football career prove anything, it is the greed and abandonment of principle of Italian football clubs. Saadi Qaddafi's football career seems to have been propelled more by Italian and Maltese interest in his nation's oil reserves and the Libyan regime's use of the game as a diversion from the country's problems than by any real sports ambition.

The younger Qaddafi, who heads the Libyan Football Federation and has a majority stake in Tripoli's Al Ahly sports club, initially signed up 10 years ago with the Maltese team Birkirkara, but never showed up.

Three years later, he joined Italy's Perugia but was suspended after only one game for failing a drug test. The incident earned him the reputation of being Italian Serie A's worst ever player.

His dismal record did not stop him from enlisting in 2005 with Italy's Udinese team, where he was relegated to the role of bench warmer except for a 10-minute appearance in an unimportant late-season match.

Riccardo Garrone, the president of Sampdoria and head of the oil company Erg, subsequently invited Saadi Qaddafi to train with his team in the hope that it would open the door to Libyan oil contracts.

The public focus on the Qaddafis paints an uncomplimentary picture of Italian football.

It is a portrait coupled with the Juventus debacle that is likely to make European football clubs on the prowl for cash-rich foreign investors more cautious as the wave of protests sweeps across the Middle East and North Africa and beyond.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Postings

Postings to this blog may be fewer for the next two days but reporting will return to normal by Tuesday, March 1.

Thank you for your continued interest in this blog and for your understanding

Anti-Government Protests Force Second Postponement of Yemen’s Olympic Qualifier

FIFA, soccer’s ruling world body, has postponed for the second time Yemen’s home Olympic Games qualifier against Singapore because of anti-government protests wracking the country.

In a statement FIFA said that the initial and the return match between Yemen and Singapore would have to be played in a third, neutral country to ensure that they take place 'in a totally safe and secure environment'.

The soccer body said a third country and new dates for the matches would be decided by the Asian Football Confederation.

Yemen has been witnessing for the past month mass protests demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 30 years in office. Supporters and proponents of the Yemeni leader have repeatedly clashed in the capital Sana’a in the last two weeks of uninterrupted demonstrations.

The protests are part of a wave of anti-government demonstrations sweeping the Middle East and North Africa that have already toppled two leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, and led to brutal crackdowns by security forces in Bahrain and Libya.

Egypt and Algeria have suspended all professional league matches to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for the protesters.

Egyptian Protests Force First Soccer Resignations

Egyptian mass protests that earlier this month overthrew President Hosni Mubarak have forced the country’s first soccer resignations.

Angry fans demonstrated outside the headquarters of Ittihad Al Skandarya, the port city of Alexandria’s main team, demanding that board reshuffle because of the club’s poor performance.

The protests prompted club president Mohamed Moselhi and three other board members to resign.

"Moselhi, vice president Ali Seif, Ashraf Sedki and Zeinab Mahmoud have already quit," Ittihad general manger Gasser Mounir told Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com.

Ittihad is languishing at the bottom of the Egyptian Premier League, which has been suspended since late January because of the mass protests that virtually paralyzed Egypt for much of February.

The resignations are likely to be followed by further changes in the top management of Egyptian soccer. Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata and Ibrahim and Hossam Hassan, members of the board of storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, also face mounting calls for their resignations because of their support for the ousted Egyptian president.

Egyptian state prosecutor Abdul Mejid Mahmoud is investigating corruption charges against several other senior figures in Egyptian soccer, including Egyptian Football Association (EFA) president Samir Zaher, whose portfolio includes soccer, and Egyptian national team goalkeeper coach Ahmed Soliman, according to officials, analysts and Egyptian media reports.

Egyptian newspaper Al Dostor quoted officials in the prosecutor’s office as denying that they had seized funds of

Al Ahly SC executives Hassan Hamdy, the chairman of Egypt’s most popular club, who also reportedly heads the advertising department of the government-owned Al Ahram publishing house as well as the EFA’s sponsorship committee, and the club’s deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Khateeb.

The officials said neither executive had as yet been questioned by the prosecutor’s office. They said military police had seized three boxes of documents that Hamdy and Al Ahram editor-in-chief Osama Saraya had allegedly attempted to smuggle out of the editor’s office when they were confronted by publishing house employees who suspected that the boxes contained documents that would prove the two men’s involvement in corruption.

The investigations are part of an anti-corruption campaign being waged by Egypt’s military rulers in response to the demands of the protesters who earlier this month forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. The military has detained a number of Mubarak’s senior officials and a prominent businessman on charges of corruption. It has promised to lead Egypt to democracy within six months.

Brazilian Club Opens Soccer School in Iran

Brazilian soccer club Football Club Internacional, following similar Middle Eastern initiatives by Real Madrid, Inter-Milan and Arsenal, has agreed to establish Iran’s first foreign football school.

The Limeira-based club sees the school in the capital Tehran as the first of several in Iran, the Fars news agency quoted the Iranian chairman of the Iran-Brazil Friendship Society, Mir Qassem Momeni, as saying.

Momeni said the school would cater to youngsters between 9 and 15 years old, who would be sent to Brazil in summer months for more advanced training.

The rash of school openings in the Middle East constitutes an effort by soccer clubs to forge closer ties with oil-rich Gulf states, some of which such as Iran and Bahrain are feeling the heat of a wave of anti-government protests sweeping the region.

Real Madrid earlier this month inaugurated Saudi Arabia’s first soccer academy. FC Inter Milan and FC Arsenal last month announced school openings in the region.

The clubs are seeking to capitalize on mounting criticism that Middle Eastern nations have failed to nurture soccer talent at a young age resulting in their disappointing performance at last month’s Asian Cup in Qatar.

Friday, February 25, 2011

African Soccer Leaders and Blatter Delay Depriving Libya of U-20 Soccer Tournament

Depriving Libya of the right to host next month’s Under-20 African soccer championship amid widespread international condemnation of Col. Moammar Gadaffi’s brutal crackdown on protesters seeking to oust him after 41 years in office would seem a no-brainer.

That however is not the case in the minds of the executive committee of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and FIFA president Sepp Blatter despite growing concern among African teams about security in Libya and revulsion at the violence employed by Gadaffi.

“We cannot risk the lives of our players by taking them to a battle field,” said Lesotho Football Association spokesman Baba Malephane in the latest African expression of concern.

South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria have indicated that they would be willing to replace Libya as hosts of the 20-nation tournament which is scheduled to open in Libya on March 18 with matches in Tripoli at the Great Man-Made River stadium where fighting is intense and the Hugo Chavez Stadium in Benghazi, which has been wrested from the control of pro-Gadaffi forces.

The tournament’s organizing committee is still headed by Gadhafi's eldest son Mohammed even though the Libyan leader’s various sons have been in commanding positions of the crackdown.

CAF president Issa Hayoutou and Blatter were expected to announce which country would replace Libya as host at a news conference in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Friday. Hundreds of people have been killed in Gadaffi’s crackdown and significant chunks of the country have fallen into the hands of ant-government forces after heavy fighting.

Hayatou and Blatter nonetheless used the news conference to say that they continued to monitor the turmoil in Libya and had yet to decide whether to move the tournament to elsewhere in Africa.

Hayatou said the CAF executive committee would meet "very soon" to take a decision. African soccer leaders were in Khartoum this week to attend the second African Cup of Nations for Home-Based Players (CHAN 2011.

"We still have to sit and talk about it. In the meantime we hope to see peace not only in Libya but in the whole continent," Hayatou said.

Islamist Seek to Regain Spotlight with Attacks on Soccer and the Olympics

Islamist militants on the edge of the Middle East and North Africa, where soccer fans have played key roles in sweeping authoritarian leaders from power, are targeting soccer and the Olympics as un-Islamic in a bid to return the jihadist movement to center stage.

Protests in the Middle East and North Africa have so far toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali and shaken the regime of Libyan Col. Moammar Gadaffi to its core, prompting it to brutally crackdown on protesters. The demonstrations of people power have largely side lined radical Islamist forces seeking to establish an Islamic government with a campaign of terror.

In a bid to put themselves back in the spotlight, Somali Islamists associated with Al Qaeda earlier this week killed a star international on war-torn Somalia’s U-20 soccer team and wounded two other players in a suicide bombing in which 11 people died and 40 others were injured.

Islamic militants in southern Russia, which frames the Middle East in the north, are increasingly launching attacks closer to the Black Sea resort of Sochi that is scheduled to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The attacks have prompted calls by local officials for a temporary halt to tourism in the area.

Russian military aircraft struck last week at militant targets in Kabardino-Balkaria in the Caucasus following the February 18 killing of Russian tourists at a ski-resort in the region.

The attack occurred on the same day that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev were hosting Jean-Claude Killy, head of the International Olympic Committee’s 2014 organizing commission, in Sochi 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the west of Kabardino-Balkaria to tout the city’s preparations for the tournament.

Islamists are expected to step up their attacks the region in advance of the Olympics. Russian officials say more than 300 militants have been killed in the last year by security forces who suffered 268 casualties.

The number of bombings in Kabardino-Balkaria has more than tripled to 41 in the last year, according to Caucasian Knot, a Moscow-based news and analysis group that tracks the situation in the North and South Caucasus. The Russian government is investing $15 billion to develop tourism in the region.

“The successful turnover of elites in the Middle East is mesmerizing not just militants, but also hundreds of thousands of practicing Muslims” in the region, says Caucasian Knot chief editor Grigory Shvedov.

The International Olympic Committee has expressed confidence in the ability of Russian authorities to ensure security and put a halt to the attacks. “We have no doubts that the Russian authorities will be up to the task,” the Lausanne, Switzerland-based group said in a response by email to questions addressed to Killy by Bloomberg.

Online Soccer Network Plays Key Role in Eastern Libya

An online soccer network in eastern Libya played a key role in informing the outside world of developments in the eastern city of Benghazi and shuttling foreign journalists from the Egyptian border into areas controlled by forces opposed to Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi.

Tawfik al-Shohiby, a rebel in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city which fell to the protesters after bitter fighting, used his soccer network to initially distribute flash drives and CDs with videos of the fighting in Benghazi and elsewhere in the country to friends in other towns and to journalists. It was their way of circumventing the Gadaffi regime’s efforts to prevent news of the regime’s brutal crackdown to reach the outside world by clamping down on Internet access and telephone communications.

Once anti-Gadaffi forces gained control of towns in eastern Libya, the soccer network began shuttling the first journalists to those areas. The Gadaffi regime has refused to let journalists into the country.

"I have friends from east to west, north to south," Al-Shohiby said referring to his soccer network. "There are two guys in Sabha, one in Zawiyah, three friends in Misurata, for example," he said, speaking of towns where pro- and anti-Gadaffi forces clashed this week.

Al Shohiby said one of his relatives bought $75,000 in automatic weapons from arms dealers on the Egyptian border at the beginning of the revolt against Gadaffi and distributed them to citizens' groups in towns like Al Bayda, hometown of the mother of soccer playing Gadaffi son Saadi al-Gadaffi..

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Al-Shohiby’s network also played a role in distributing the arms.

US Embassy Cancels Funding for Egyptian Police Soccer Program

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo has cancelled plans to fund an Egyptian Interior Ministry youth soccer mentorship program because of the ministry’s brutal use of police and security forces to crackdown on protesters that earlier this month forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office.

In a letter to Congress obtained by The Cable, a Foreign Policy magazine blog, State Department Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affarirs Richard Verma said that "based on the events of the past week, questions have arisen about the appropriateness and feasibility of proceeding at this time with the proposed youth soccer mentorship program in Egypt.

Verma noted that “there are questions about the role of the Egyptian Ministry of Interior and the Egyptian Police in recent events. Before proceeding with a youth engagement activity involving the two organizations, additional time for the situation to settle is needed."

Interior ministry forces are believed to be responsible for most of the 365 deaths of protesters over a period of 18 days of demonstrations that finally resulted in Mubarak’s departure.

Verma’s letter was intended to withdraw his earlier notification on January 25, the day the mass protests erupted in Egypt, that the State Department had allocated $667,200 for the soccer program from its fiscal 2010 budget for non-proliferation, anti-terrorism, demining, and related programs (NADR).

The cancellation came as Ittihad El-Shorta (Police Union), a top-tier Egyptian soccer club owned by the police, sought to distance itself from the interior ministry.

“The team is independent from the Ministry of Interior; we’re a separate sports entity that has nothing to do with politics. So please there is no need to be hostile against our club,” Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com quoted Ittihad El-Shorta manager Talaat Youssef as saying.
Youssef said several of the clubs players had joined the protesters on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Soccer Politics: Egyptian Police-Owned Team Distances Itself from Hated Police Force

Egyptian top tier, police-owned soccer club Ittihad El-Shorta is seeking to distance itself from Egypt’s hated police force, identified by many as a pillar of the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

In the latest reverberations in Egyptian soccer of the mass protests that paralyzed Egypt earlier this month and forced an end to Mubarak’s 30 years in office, Ittihad El-Shorta manager Talaat Youssef noted that several of his players had joined the protests.

The Egyptian police and security forces are widely blamed for the deaths of 365 people in the protests and for two days of violent attacks on the protesters by pro-Mubarak forces.

“The team is independent from the Ministry of Interior, we’re a separate sports entity that has nothing to do with politics. So please there is no need to be hostile against our club,” Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com quoted Youssef as saying.

Youssef’s remarks follow several statements this week by
Ibrahim Hassan, a controversial board member of Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, insisting that his support and that of his brother, another Zamalek executive, for Mubarak during the revolt did not mean that they opposed the protesters demand for an end to corruption and greater freedom.

“I know that several Zamalek and Ahli fans are asking me and Hossam to step down, but I want to clarify that we weren’t against the revolution. We didn’t like vandalizing properties and we were totally against humiliating the president because he is a symbol of the nation,” FilGoal.com quoted Hassan as saying.

Fans of Al Zamalek and its arch rival Al Ahly SC played an important role in the protests that toppled Mubarak.

The statements by Yousef and Hassan come as the Egyptian state prosecutor is investigating allegations of corruption in Egyptian soccer. Officials and analysts say senior Egyptian Football Association officials and others are likely to be soon indicted. Neither Youssef of Hassan, who had close ties to the Mubarak regime, are believed to be among those under investigation.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Soccer Salaries: Egyptian Players Threaten to Walk Off the Job

A growing number of Egyptian soccer players are publicly opposing an Egyptian Football Association (EFA) proposal to cap transfer pricing and salaries.

In the latest rejection, four players - Islam Awad, Walid Soliman, Adel Mostafa and Nader Al-Ashri - for ENPPI that is owned by the country’s oil ministry threatened to leave if their club attempted to limit their salaries.

“The board is considering lowering our wages, which we fully reject. We have deals. We have a lot of tempting offers from other clubs and if the board wants to minimize the budget, they can sell us before we leave for free,” Egypt international Awad said on behalf of his teammates.

Awad’s statement followed similar declarations by Ibrahim Hassan, a controversial board member of Al Zamalek SC, one of the most storied and crowned clubs in the Egyptian Premier League, and Amr Zaki, a striker for the club.

Hassan and his brother Hossam, who is also an Al Zamalek board member, face mounting demands by fans that he resign because of their support for ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak was earlier this month forced to resign after 30 years in office by mass protests that paralyzed the country. For the second time in a week, Hassan said that his defense of Mubarak did not mean that he did not support the revolt’s goals of an end to corruption and authoritarian government.

“I know that several Zamalek and Ahli fans are asking me and Hossam to step down, but I want to clarify that we weren’t against the revolution. We didn’t like vandalizing properties and we were totally against humiliating the president because he is a symbol of the nation,” Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com quoted Hassan as saying.

It wasn’t immediately clear how real a threat Awad was making. Egyptian Premier League clubs, half of which are owned by the government or the military, are bracing themselves for economic austerity in the wake of the protests and the continued suspension of professional league matches as a result of the turmoil.

In addition, many Egyptians say soccer, a national passion and pastime, is not a priority at a moment that they are more concerned about ensuring that Egypt moves towards a more democratic society. They want to see political and economic reform that would also include the country’s soccer infrastructure.

Many Egyptians fear that without continued public pressure, Egypt’s new military rulers, who temporarily have taken power after Mubarak’s departure, may not live up to their promise to lead the country within six months to democracy.

Diminished government funding and popular demand for greater transparency reinforces FIFA’s insistence that Egyptian clubs reduce government involvement, become incorporated companies or associations and move towards private ownership and possible listing on the Egyptian stock exchange.

The ENPPI players’ threat and the rejection by Hassan and Zaki is likely to also spark criticism from clubs’ fans.

The Yellow Dragons, ultras of Ismailia SC, have threatened to boycott their team’s matches if the club fails to cap players’ salaries. They are backed by the club’s management. Ismailia chairman Nasr Aboul-Hassan has suggested that all Premier League clubs should introduce a fixed budget for players’ salaries.

“Things cannot be the same in football after the revolution. There must be a limit for the millions spent on footballers by club boards. I suggest that each club should pay a maximum of EGP 20million ($3.4 million) per season on players’ wages,” Aboul-Hassan said.

Aboul-Hassan’ statement and the Yellow Dragons’ threat has thrown into doubt Ismailia’s negotiations with star midfielder Hosni Abd-Rabou who is reportedly demanding an unprecedented $850,000 in a country where half the population lives off $2 or less a day.

Cameron Visit to Qatar Highlights Differences in Perceptions of Soccer

This week’s visit to Qatar by British Prime Minister David Cameron highlighted differences in how the West and the Middle East view soccer in political and social terms.

News reports about a press conference held jointly by Cameron and Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al Thani focused on Cameron’s insistence that gay soccer fans should not be discriminated against during the 2022 World Cup which Qatar will host and Al Thani’s admission that he knows little about soccer. Qatar like most Muslim nations bans homosexuality.

"To me it is clear – football is for everybody. No one should be excluded on the basis of their race or religion or sex or sexuality. It is absolutely vital that is the case. I am sure that will be the case when the football World Cup comes here to Qatar,” Cameron said.

Yet that is where the West and the Middle East, and the Gulf in particular, part ways. Change means different things to both worlds.

To Cameron it involves an embrace of all segments of the population irrespective of race, creed, religion, gender or sexual disposition even if Europe in the wake of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and economic malaise has made the continent more hostile to immigrants.

To Al Thani, change means economic and technological progress while at the same time preserving the conservative and religious values in a country in which Qataris constitute only one third of the population.

Cameron’s creed of employing soccer to break down barriers is one that Al Thani embraces to the degree that it does not endanger the Qatari minority’s national and cultural identity and privileged position.

To be fair, Al Thani’s caveats about the acceptable limits of change are in effect no different from Britain and Europe’s changing attitudes towards immigrants and minorities. The difference is that Al Thani doesn’t face Cameron’s problem of reconciling his rhetoric with reality.

Similarly, Al Thani’s frank admission “that I am very weak in the sport, I don't know the rules" of soccer, highlights differences in how the West and the Gulf define the purpose of the beautiful game.

To Cameron, sports is a key pillar of civic society and an economic generator. To Al Thani, soccer is a tool that allows the tiny Gulf state to project itself onto the world stage, establish itself as a global sports hub and create economic opportunity.

"I like sport, of course, but I am not involved in sport. I suspect Fifa chose Qatar for 2022 to take it to different grounds, different culture, different geography. This shows that football is international," Al Thani said.

Opposition Mounts to Potential Cap on Egyptian Soccer Salaries

Opposition to an Egyptian Football Association (EFA) proposal to cap transfer pricing and players’ salaries constitutes a shot across the bow of mounting pressure to radically reform Egyptian soccer.

Ibrahim Hassan, an outspoken board member of Al Zamalek SC, one of the most storied and crowned clubs in the Egyptian Premier League, and Amr Zaki, a striker for the club, have publicly rejected the proposal announced by the EFA on Sunday after a meeting with representatives of the country’s top clubs.

“I totally reject this option. Controlling wages and contracts has no place in the world of professional football,” Zaki told Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com.

Hassan echoed Zaki’s position, arguing that “since players vary in their standards, it is logic that wages are also variable. It is a supply-and-demand situation… Every player is worth what he deserves.”

The EFA effort to cap transfer pricing and salaries in a bid to stymie spiralling demands by players constitutes a first step towards austerity in Egyptian soccer prompted by the economic fallout of mass protests that earlier this month ended the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak and pressure from FIFA, soccer’s world body.

The proposal was welcomed almost within hours of Sunday’s meeting by Nasr Aboul-Hassan, chairman of Ismailia SC, who suggested that all Premier League clubs should introduce a fixed budget for players’ salaries.

“Things cannot be the same in football after the revolution. There must be a limit for the millions spent on footballers by club boards. I suggest that each club should pay a maximum of EGP 20million ($3.4 million) per season on players’ wages,” Aboul-Hassan said.

Ismaili’s ultras, the Yellow Dragons, threatened boycott their team’s matches if the club failed to cap players’ salaries.

Aboul-Hassan’ statement and the Yellow Dragons’ threat has thrown into doubt Ismailia’s negotiations with star midfielder Hosni Abd-Rabou who is reportedly demanding an unprecedented $850,000 in a country where half the population lives off $2 or less a day.

Players’ demands also contrast starkly with salaries paid to coaches. “My salary is exactly what it was four years ago. The salary inflation does not apply to coaches,” said Ismailia’s Dutch coach Mark Wotte.

Ismailia, like many top Egyptian teams, is government-owned.
Government funding, already reduced prior to Mubarak’s ousting, has become uncertain as Egypt seeks to recover economically from mass protests demanding Mubarak’s departure that paralyzed the country for more than three weeks. So has its sponsorship from business that has suffered losses as the result of the turmoil.

“Economic losses will of course have an impact on the generosity of businesspeople when it comes to sponsoring,” Wotte said.

The protests coupled with demonstrations sweeping North Africa that also toppled Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali and have sparked a bloody crackdown in Libya has reduced tourism, a main stay of the region’s economy, to a trickle.

Egyptian soccer clubs are also feeling the pressure with professional league matches suspended since late January because of the turmoil and the country’s soccer fans like much of the Egyptian public focused on ensuring that

Mubarak’s departure leads to political and economic reform. Many Egyptians fear that without continued public pressure, Egypt’s new military rulers may not live up to their promise to lead the country within six months to democracy.

Diminished government funding and popular demand for greater transparency reinforces FIFA’s insistence that Egyptian clubs reduce government involvement, become incorporated companies or associations and move towards private ownership and possible listing on the Egyptian stock exchange. At least half of the Premier League’s teams are owned by the government or the military.

“Based on a decision of the FIFA Congress all statutes of the 208 member associations have been or are reviewed and aligned to the FIFA statutes. The EFA is currently in process of revising its statutes accordingly,” FIFA said in an emailed statement.

Gadaffi Prodigy Offers Study in Politics of Middle Eastern Soccer

Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi’s controversial soccer-playing son, Saadi, offers a study in the use of soccer by authoritarian Arab regimes to distract attention from economic and political problems and of the embattled Libyan dictator’s divide and rule approach to governance.

Described by a 2009 US diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks as “notoriously ill-behaved,” Saadi, a former board member of Italian soccer club Juventus FC, is a leader of his father’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters seeking an end to Gadaffi’s 41-year rule.

The protests are the latest in a wave of anti-government demonstrations sweeping the Middle East and North Africa that has already toppled two leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali.

Saadi last week reportedly joined his brother Khamis, a Russian-trained elite special forces commander, and military intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi in an effort to wrest control of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, from protesters who control the city. Hundreds are reported to have died in Benghazi. Saadi’s father vowed on Tuesday to fight his opponents to the last drop of his blood.

Benghazi is familiar ground for Saadi. Benghazi, long seen as a stronghold of anti-Gadaffi sentiment, saw the fortunes of its soccer team, Al Ahli Benghazi tumble a decade ago on an and off the field when Saadi captained its Tripoli namesake and arch rival Al Ahli, a team in which the Gadaffi prodigy owns a majority stake. Al Ahli means in Arabic ‘The National’.

Al Ahli Tripoli supporters together with fans of its Tripoli nemesis Al Ettihad demonstrated in Tripoli’s Green Square last week chanted “God, Libya and Moammar only” as Saadi toured the square on the roof of a car, waving and shaking hands.

In a country in which the mosque and the soccer pitch were the only release valves for pent-up anger and frustration prior to this month’s protests, Saadi’s association with Al Ahli meant that the prestige of the regime was on the line whenever the team played. As a result, soccer was as much a political match as it was a sports competition in which politics rather than performance often dictated the outcome.

Journalist and author Brian Whitacker describes a match in the summer of 2000 in which Al Ahli Benghazi had a 1:0 lead on Al Ahli Tripoli in the first half, “but in the second half the referee helpfully imposed two penalties against it and allowed al-Ahli Tripoli an offside goal.” Benghazi's players walked off the pitch but were ordered to return by Saadi's guards and Tripoli won 3-1.

Whitacker recalls a July 20, 2000 game that Al Ahli Benghazi played against a team from Al-Baydah, the home town of Saadi’s mother and the place where the first anti-Gadaffi demonstrations against corruption in public housing were staged last month. Benghazi fans were so outraged by a penalty that they invaded the pitch, forcing the game to be abandoned.

Off the pitch, the angry fans set fire to the local branch of the Libyan Football Federation headed by Saadi. In response, the government dissolved the Benghazi club, demolished its headquarters and arrested 50 of its fans. Public outrage over the retaliation against Benghazi forced Saadi to resign as head of the federation, only to be reinstated by his father in response to the federation’s alleged claim that it needed Gadaffi’s son as its leader.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Islamist Suicide Bombing Kills Somali Star International

An Islamist suicide bombing that killed a star international on war-torn Somalia’s U-20 soccer team and wounded two other players constitutes a setback for the squad as well as efforts by the country’s football federation to lure child soldiers with the prospect of a soccer career away from the Islamist militia.

The attack is likely to figure prominently when FIFA President Sepp Blatter meets Somali Football Federation (SFF) president Said Mahmoud Nur on Thursday at a Confederation of African Football (CAF) gathering in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. FIFA supports the SFF campaign that has succeeded in turning hundreds of Somali youngsters recruited by the militia into soccer players.

The three players were targeted by the suicide bomber when they walked home earlier this week from training in a heavily fortified police academy in Hamar Jajab District, an area of several blocks in the bullet-scarred Somali capital of Mogadishu that are controlled by the US-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) rather than the Islamist insurgents of Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Under-20 international Abdi Salaan Mohamed Ali was among 11 people killed when the suicide attacker rammed his van packed with explosives into a police checkpoint. Players Mahmoud Amin Mohamed and Siid Ali Mohamed Xiis were two of the 40 people injured. Abdi Salaan was widely viewed as one of Somalia’s best young players.

Thousands have signed a book of condolence that was opened at the Somali Football Federation's headquarters in Mogadishu.

The SFF’s FIFA-backed campaign under the slogan ‘Put down the gun, pick up the ball” is one of the few successful civic efforts to confront the jihadists.

"However difficult our situation is, we believe football can play a major role in helping peace and stability prevail in our country, and that is what our federation has long been striving to attain. Football is here to stay, not only as a game to be played but as a catalyst for peace and harmony in society," says Shafi’i Moyhaddin Abokar, one of the driving forces behind the campaign.

"If we keep the young generation for football, al-Shabab can't recruit them to fight. This is really why al-Shabab fights with us," adds another Somali soccer executive, Abdulghani Sayeed.

Players and enthusiasts risk execution, arrest and torture in Somalia, where jihadists who control much of the country have banned soccer as un-Islamic. Militants in their trademark green jumpsuits and chequered scarves drive through towns in the south of the country in Toyota pickup trucks mounted with megaphones to enforce the ban.

Families are threatened with punishment if their children fail to enlist as fighters. Boys are plucked from makeshift soccer fields. Childless families are ordered to pay al-Shabab $50 a month, the equivalent of Somalia's monthly per capita income. Local soccer club owners are detained and tortured on charges of misguiding youth.

Egyptian Soccer Stadiums Emerge as Venue for Sexual Harassment

A Los Angeles Times report identifies soccer stadiums as a prime venue in Egypt for sexual harassment and by implication revives the question whether soccer fans who played an important role in the protests that earlier this month swept President Hosni Mubarak from power may have been responsible for a brutal sexual assault on an American journalist.

This month’s brutal sexual attack on CBS foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan while she was covering the celebrations on Cairo’s Tahrir Square immediately after Mubarak’s resignation focused attention on the problem of sexual harassment. Prominent Washington Post columnist David Ignatius raised the spectre that ‘soccer hooligans’ may have been responsible for the vicious attack on Logan.

Logan was attacked by a group of unidentified men who ripped her clothes off. Her body was covered with welts and bruises when soldiers finally came to her rescue. She was evacuated to the U.S. and hospitalized for several days.

Egyptians like others were shocked but unlike non-Egyptians not surprised by the attack, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The paper quotes human rights groups, social scientists and diplomats as saying that catcalls, fondling, indecent exposure and other forms of sexual harassment of women by strangers are an everyday occurrence on the streets of Cairo.

Predatory packs have brutalized women at several public places, including a soccer stadium, in recent years, the
paper quotes witnesses and local news accounts as saying.

"There is increasing violence against women in our society," The Los Angeles Times quotes Nehad Abul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, a nongovernmental group that campaigns against such abuse as saying.

A recent U.S. State Department travel advisory for American visitors to Egypt warns that unescorted women are "vulnerable to sexual harassment and verbal abuse." It cites "increasing reports over the last several months of foreigners being sexually groped in taxis and in public places."

Sexual harassment is the premise behind "678," a feature film that opened last month in Cairo. Inspired by true stories, the movie portrays three women — one veiled and poor, one middle-class and striving, the other rich and privileged — who fight back after a lifetime of indignities and mistreatment.

Some critics denounced the film, warning it would tarnish Egypt's image, but women have packed theaters to see it, The Los Angeles Times said.

Mohamed Diab, the director, shot some scenes at a packed Cairo soccer match last February. His script, which includes a gang assault on the rich woman, proved prophetic.

"We went in only 50 steps, and men in the crowd grabbed my actress and pulled her away," he said. "Her clothes were ripped off. She fainted. The actors had to fight their way over to rescue her."

Saudi Arabia Celebrates Return of King Abdullah with New Sports Channel

Saudi Arabia is to receive a new sports channel to celebrate the return to the kingdom of King Abdullah from a two month-absence for medical treatment in much the same way that a father brings gifts for his children when returning from a business trip.

The announcement by Assistant Culture and Information Minister and supervisor general of Saudi Sports Channel Turki Bin Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz goes to the heart of the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa that has already toppled two leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, and has sparked a brutal crackdown by embattled Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi.

It also highlights the use of sports, and particularly soccer, by authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes whose rulers position themselves as father figures and address their subjects as sons and daughters. Soccer is par excellence the tool the Middle East’s authoritarian leaders use in their attempts to divert attention from their countries’ political and economic problems. As a result, governments keep a tight grip on football associations in a bid to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for the expression of pent-up anger and frustration.

Criticism of the government emerged in January after Saudi Arabia’s dismal performance in the Asian Cup in Qatar. The kingdom fired two coaches within as many weeks during the tournament. Saudi media blamed their team’s performance on the kingdom’s failure to nurture sport talent from a young age. Spanish club Real Madrid earlier this month announced the opening of the kingdom’s first soccer academy.

To be sure, few analysts believe that discontent in Saudi Arabia will explode any time soon onto the streets of Saudi cities. The kingdom nonetheless has like much of the region high unemployment rates, especially among youths who constitute a majority of the population. Its puritan interpretation of Islam leaves little room for individual freedoms and provides equally few release valves.

Turki’s announcement that Saudi Sports 2 will start broadcasting on Wednesday positioned the initiative as part of gradual reforms being introduced in the kingdom but packaged it as a continuation of policies that have failed elsewhere in the region and ultimately prompted the current wave of protests.

King Abdullah, who has been absent from the kingdom since having a back operation in New York in December, is widely credited with efforts to slight loosen the government’s tight reign, liberalize the economy and create job opportunities.

Turki said the new sports station was part of the contribution of the media to the “program of reform and modernization taken up by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the Crown Prince, and the Second Deputy Prime Minister,” a reference to King Abdullah and two of his brothers, Prince Sultan and Prince Nayef.

“The Saudi media has to be a partner in bringing about this historic phase, and invest the input of support and backing which it enjoys from our leadership,” Turki said. “That is what lies behind the qualitative transition which the media is currently going through in terms of both quantity and quality.”

The Saudi media, to be fair, although government-controlled has experienced in recent years a greater if still restricted degree of freedom with issues that once were taboo being openly discussed and criticism of the government being tolerated as long as it does not involve the royal family and its grip on power.

Nigeria Compensates Iran for Cancelling Match To Protest Arms Shipment

Nigeria has agreed to pay the Iranian football association $250,000 in compensation for its cancellation of a friendly soccer match in Tehran in protest against an alleged Iranian attempt to smuggle weapons to Nigerian opposition groups.

“We have reached a mutual consensus of paying them $250,000. We don’t have any other option in the case,” said Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) spokesperson Ademola Olajire in defense of the controversial payment.

Nigeria officially cancelled the match that had been scheduled for November 17 of last year because some its top players were still recovering from injuries.

Privately, however, Nigerian officials said the match was cancelled in response to Nigerian authorities seizing 13 containers with Iranian weapons, including rockets, grenades and mortars labelled as building materials. The authorities believe the weapons confiscated in the port of Lagos were intended for militant Nigerian Muslim groups.

French shipping company CMA CGM SA said that an Iranian company used one of its vessels to illegally transport the arms to Lagos after labelling them as “packages of glass wool and pallets of stone.”

The Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran FFIRI) had demanded $300,000 in compensation for expenses occurred. It won FIFA backing for the claim. FIFA’s support was based on the fact that there was no hard evidence that Nigeria cancelled because of the arms shipment.

A Nigerian suspect, Ali Abbas Jega, and an Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Azim Aghajani, charged with involvement in the arms shipment, are standing trial in a Nigerian court. The two men have pleaded innocence.

The arms shipment has drawn international attention because it could constitute a violation of United Nations sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. It has also sparked diplomatic tensions between West African nations and Iran.

Aghajani's lawyer, Chris Uche, said the arms shipment was a "normal business transaction" between Iran and Gambia, which Tehran says was the final destination for the weapons.

Gambia has denied it was the intended recipient of the weapons and has cut diplomatic ties with Iran over the dispute. Senegal has expressed concern that the arms could end up in the hands of separatist rebels in its south.

Qatar in firing line as Fifa's political football

By James M Dorsey

Published in The National, Feb 23, 2011

Barely three months after winning the right to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup, Qatar's bid campaign is under increasing scrutiny. What was supposed to be the crowning of its efforts to position itself as a global soccer powerhouse is turning into a public relations nightmare.

The state is fending off assertions it employed its financial muscle to influence crucial votes on the executive committee of Fifa, football's world body. Despite that, there is little doubt its campaign fitted within Fifa's broad interpretation of its bidding rules and its accepted practices.

Qatar, nonetheless, is getting the short stick of the debate. Its deep pockets rather than the loopholes in Fifa's bidding rules are the focus of the debate that is coloured by the body's reputation having been tainted by a series of corruption scandals. Those deep pockets have so far not been employed to shift the focus of the debate on to Fifa, the core of the problem.

Qatar's failure to fend for itself beyond formal denials offers only one explanation for why it is in the eye of the storm. Equally important is the fact that Qatar is an obvious target as it seeks to capitalise on its success of becoming the first Middle East nation to host the world's biggest sporting event.

Less than two weeks after winning the bid contest, Qatar sealed a US$200 million (Dh734.58m) sponsorship agreement with FC Barcelona, one of the world's richest and most successful football clubs. Since then, Mohamed bin Hammam, the president of the Asian Football Confederation and a Qatari national with close ties to the Royal Family, has all but officially announced he will challenge Sepp Blatter, the imperious Fifa president, in that organisation's presidential elections scheduled for June. To top it all off, Qatar, despite official denials, is thought to be negotiating to acquire the English club Manchester United.

Ironically, Chuck Blazer, Fifa's outspoken US executive committee member, is one of the few to come out in Qatar's defence. In an interview to be published in next month's edition of World Soccer Magazine, Mr Blazer praises Qatar's bid campaign while acknowledging it raises questions about Fifa's bidding rules and attitudes.

At the core of the criticism of Qatar are allegations that it colluded with Spain and Portugal, which were jointly gunning for the 2018 World Cup, to trade votes for their respective bids and that it had promised to invest in the building of stadiums and soccer academies in the home countries of executive committee members. Qatar has denied the allegations.

To make things worse, Mr Blatter this month claimed the collusion did occur, despite Fifa earlier saying it had investigated the matter and had failed to find evidence to support the allegations. Mr Blatter's move achieved what he had hoped it would - tarnish Qatar and with it Mr bin Hammam who asserts Mr Blatter's 12-year tenure needs to be ended to ensure Fifa becomes a more transparent, more accountable organisation.

In his interview, Mr Blazer lays the blame where it belongs; he lashes out at Fifa's pooh-poohing of collusion and its acceptance of what he terms "legacy", the influencing of Fifa executive members with promises of assistance in building training facilities and stadiums in their home countries. For Qatar, however, that is a mixed blessing. While it exonerates the country from wrong doing, it leaves the question hanging about whether Qatar should have been awarded the World Cup.

Mr Blazer also takes Fifa to task for ignoring a Fifa inspection report that described Qatar's team facilities as "high risk" and concluding that granting it the World Cup would pose a "medium risk" in eight other categories. The report also warned that Qatar's scorching summer heat posed a potential health risk to players, officials and spectators.

Qatar's image problem is likely to be aggravated with Thomas Kistner, a prominent German sports journalist, promising to document at a conference in Miami in April Qatar's splurging of at least $200m on its campaign to win its World Cup bid. Qatar has never published its bid budget, but past estimates have put its marketing and event-related spending at $45m - compared with the $10m spent by the US on its campaign.

None of this belittles Qatar's success in winning the World Cup bid. If anything, it reinforces the call for reform of Fifa. However, it also highlights the challenges Qatar faces as it plays in football's big league. To succeed at that level, Qatar will have to radically revamp its public relations strategy and adopt a far more proactive and transparent approach. Failure to do so will prevent it from turning the tables on its detractors and condemn it to remaining the punch bag in other people's battles.

CAF to Decide Fate of African Matches Threatened by Political Turmoil

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) is set to decide the fate of Egypt’s African qualifier against South Africa as well as of the U-20 African championship and home matches in Libya and Algeria in the wake of the political turmoil sweeping North Africa.

CAF together with FIFA president Sepp Blatter will meet on Thursday in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum on the side lines of the second African Cup of Nations for Home-Based Players (CHAN 2011). CAF President Issa Hayatou and Blatter are scheduled to announce at a news conference on Friday what consequence the turmoil will have for African soccer.

Tunisia, which last month sparked the wave of protests wracking the Middle East and North Africa with the toppling of President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, on Tuesday beat Algeria, which also is witnessing mass anti-government protests, 5:3 to qualify for the CHAN 2011 final against Angola.

CAF will almost certainly seek an alternative venue for the U-20 championship, which is scheduled to open in Libya on March 18. Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi in an angry, rambling televised speech vowed to continue to the bitter end his brutal crackdown which has already led to the deaths of hundreds of protesters.

Beyond security concerns, international condemnation of the use of snipers, heavy machine guns and fighter aircraft in the crackdown makes Libya a virtually unacceptable venue.

Analysts say South Africa, which last year made its mark as host of the World Cup and the African Women’s Nations Cup, would be the most likely alternative to Libya.

"We are evaluating the situation right now, so there is no point rushing into taking a decision for matches that are happening in one month," said CAF interim secretary general Hicham El Amrani.

FIFA last week rescheduled a 2012 Olympic qualifier between Yemen and Singapore because of mass protests wracking Yemen.

A rescheduling of Egypt’s crucial qualifier against South Africa is likely to prove the most controversial issue CAF has to resolve.

The South African Football Association (SAFA) has rejected Egyptian suggestions that the match scheduled for March 27 should be postponed until June to give Egypt time to prepare. SAFA officials say there is no reason to postpone the match given that it is scheduled to be played in South Africa rather than Egypt.

Egypt argues that it needs more time because all league matches remain suspended since late January as a result of protests that earlier this month toppled President Hosni Mubarak. An Egyptian failure to defeat South Africa would almost certainly end the three-time African champion’s hopes to qualify for the 2012 African Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

CAF is likely to move next month’s qualifier between Libya and the Comoros scheduled to be played in the Libyan capital Tripoli. Less clear is whether the African soccer body will also move the March qualifier between Algeria in Morocco that is to be played in Algiers. CAF may find it difficult to let the match go ahead as planned in a country where anti-government protests have also forced the suspension of professional league matches.

Any rescheduled matches would probably be played between June 3 and 7, the slot available on FIFA's international calendar for return games.

The one match CAF is certain to leave untouched is the February 27 return game in Cairo between storied Cairo club FC Zamalek SC and Kenya’s Ulinzi Stars. The match will be the first soccer game in Egypt since the suspension of professional league games.

Zamalek beat the Stars in a controversial match in late January in Nairobi played as protesters, including Zamalek fans, were in the streets of Egyptian cities demanding Mubarak’s ouster. Some Zamalek coaches and players joined the protests after the team’s return to Cairo.

The Egyptian military, in what amounts to a test case, has agreed to allow the match to be played with spectators. The military, which rules Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster, has refused to lift the ban on league matches because it fears the soccer pitch could become a rallying point for protesters eager to ensure that it keeps its promise to lead Egypt to democracy within six months.

“I want to thank the armed forces because they accepted our request and granted us permission to host the game at home. I think the crowd attendance at the Ulinzi game could be the gate towards having the domestic league back in action,” said Hassan Ibrahim, a Zamalek board member.

Ibrahim is believed to have close ties to the military. His word carries weight because of his controversial support for Mubarak, a former air force commander, during the protests that led to the president’s resignation.

Some Egyptian Premier League clubs fear that the pro-longed suspension will lead to a cancellation of this season’s competition.

“The fact that the FA (Egyptian Football Association) remained undecided about the date raises doubts that the season could be called off. The players are starting to get worried and their motivation level in training is affected by the uncertainty,” Ahmed Qenawi, the assistant coach of Ismailia SC, said.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

CAF Under Pressure to Take U-20 African Championship Away from Libya

Pressure is mounting on the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to identify an alternative host for next month’s U-20 African soccer championship scheduled to be held in protest-wracked Libya.

Analysts warn that even if the protests aiming at overthrowing Libyan leader Col. Moammer’s Gadaffi’s 41-year old were to end quickly, Libya would hardly be ready for the scheduled March 18 opening of the tournament.

Nor would Libya be acceptable as a venue after the country’s army and air force brutally intervened in a so far failed bid to crush the popular revolt by randomly killing hundreds of protesters with snipers, heavy machine guns and air strikes.

Reports of splits within the country’s armed forces, units for and against Gadaffi fighting each other and weapons captured having been distributed among the population hardly make Libya an acceptable security risk.

Nigeria’s U-20 squad narrowly escaped the Libyan violence earlier this month when it played Libya in Benghazi on the eve of the violence.

Libya’s ruptured reputation as a result of Gadaffi’s scrupulous determination to hang on to power at whatever cost is likely to also call in to question Libya’s hosting of the 2012 African Cup of Nations.

Libya is reportedly high on the agenda of CAF officials gathered in Sudan for the second African Cup of Nations for Home-Based Players (CHAN 2011). CAF has so far been silent on the escalating situation in the country, but is believed to have approached South Africa as a possible alternative venue of the U-20 tournament.

South Africa already made its mark as a host with last year’s World Cup and its hosting of the African Women’s Nations Cup.

Professional Footballer Leads Pro-Gadaffi Charge in Benghazi

A professional footballer and son of embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi is believed to be leading the Gadaffi family’s brutal efforts to restore control of Benghazi, the country’s second largest city.

Two Libyan fighter pilots defected Monday with their planes to Malta after refusing orders to open fire on protesters in the city demanding an end to Gadaffi’s 41-year rule.

Gadaffi last week put one of his seven sons, Saadi al Gadaffi, described by a 2009 US diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks as “notoriously ill-behaved,” in charge of defending Benghazi, which increasingly seems to have slipped from the Libyan leader’s control.

Saadi engineered before his departure for Benghazi a pro-Gadaffi manifestation on Green Square in the Libyan capital Tripoli in which he was cheered by some 1,000 soccer fans of Tripoli clubs Al Ahli, in which Saadi has a significant equity stake, and Al Ettihad.

Benghazi’s soccer stadium has since Saadi took charge of the pro-Gadaffi forces become a safe haven for thousands of Turks seeking to flee the Libyan regime’s vicious attempts to put down the popular revolt.

Saadi’s soccer career seemed more driven by Italian and Maltese interest in his country’s oil reserves and the Libyan regime’s efforts to use soccer as a diversion from the country’s political and economic problems than by any real ambition of Saadi himself.

Saadi initially signed up ten years with Maltese team Birkirkara F.C., but never showed up. Three years later, he joined Italy’s Perugia instead, but was suspended after only one game for failing a drug test. The incident earned him the reputation of being Italian Series A’s worst ever player.

Saadi’s dismal performance didn’t stop him from enlisting in 2005 with Italy’s Udinese where he was relegated to the role of bench-warmer except for a 10-minute appearance in an unimportant late season match. Samdoria president Riccardo Garrone, head of oil company Erg, subsequently invited Saadi to train with his team in the hope that it would open the door to Libyan oil contracts.

Saadi chose instead to become president of the Libyan Football Federation for a limited period of time. He had garnered experience in management as a board member of Juventus FC in which the government-controlled Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company (Lafico) has a 7.5 per cent stake.

Latifco is currently represented on the Juventus board by the manager of its Long Term Investment Portfolio, Khaled Fareg Zentuti. Zentuti has so far remained quiet about events in his homeland.

Corruption Investigation Signals Restructuring of Egyptian Soccer

Egyptian state prosecutor Abdul Mejid Mahmoud is investigating corruption charges against senior figures in Egyptian soccer, including Egyptian Football Association (EFA) president Samir Zaher, according to soccer officials and analysts as well as Egyptian media reports.

Some analysts and sources close to the prosecutor said that Mahmoud is likely to file formal charges related to the financial management of those under investigation.

The sources said the officials under investigation also included Egyptian national team goalkeeper coach Ahmed Soliman and National Sport Council Chairman Hassan Mohamed Ezzat Sakr, whose portfolio includes soccer.

Zaher, Soliman and Saqr did not respond to requests for comment.

“It is my understanding that an investigation has been opened into highly placed officials of Egyptian soccer and the financial flows associated with them,” said Mark Wotte, head coach-manager at Egyptian Premier League club Ismailia SC, who refrained from identifying specific officials.

Yasser Thabat, author of Soccer Wars, an Arabic-language book on Egyptian soccer, said the “prosecutor is expected to indict” Zaher and other officials in the near future.

Egyptian newspaper Al Dostor quoted officials in the prosecutor’s office as denying that they had seized funds of Al Ahly SC executives Hassan Hamdy, the chairman of Egypt’s most popular club, who also reportedly heads the advertising department of the government-owned Al Ahram publishing house as well as the EFA’s sponsorship committee, and the club’s deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Khateeb.

The officials said neither executive had as yet been questioned by the prosecutor’s office. They said military police had seized three boxes of documents that Hamdy and Al Ahram editor-in-chief Osama Saraya had allegedly attempted to smuggle out of the editor’s office when they were confronted by publishing house employees who suspected that the boxes contained documents that would prove the two men’s involvement in corruption.

The investigations are part of an anti-corruption campaign being waged by Egypt’s military rulers in response to the demands of the protesters who earlier this month forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. The military has detained a number of Mubarak’s senior officials and a prominent businessman on charges of corruption. It has promised to lead Egypt to democracy within six months.

The investigations, coupled with demands by FIFA, are likely to spark a major restructuring of Egyptian soccer that goes far beyond a change of faces at the top.

It could mean replacing crowned but controversial Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata and is certain to involve greater transparency, financial austerity, caps on transfer pricing and players’ salaries and major changes in the legal status and ownership of clubs

Criticism of Shehata is mounting because of Egypt’s poor performance in the most recent African championship matches in the period preceding the turmoil, his failure to inject fresh blood into the national team and his close ties with the Mubarak family and public support for the president in the days leading up to the president’s ousting.

Shehata’s tenure, analysts say, depends on how Egypt performs in its upcoming, crucial match against South Africa. Egypt is asking the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to postpone by three months the match scheduled for March 24 to allow its national team to get back in shape after more than a month of inactivity.

The EFA in late January suspended indefinitely all professional league matches to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for Mubarak’s opponents. The EFA is waiting for military approval for the lifting of the suspension.

Cairo club Al Ahly SC star Mohamed Abou-Treika said the toppling of Mubarak would motivate Egypt’s national team to reach next year’s African Cup of Nations finals in Guinea and Equatorial Guinea. “I know that people are worried over our chances of qualifying for the Nations Cup but I’m not worried at all,” said Abou-Treika, who played a key role in Egypt’s 2006 and 2008 African triumphs.

In a further indication of the coming restructuring, the EFA on Sunday called after a meeting with Premier League clubs for a capping of transfer pricing and players’ salaries. The call was immediately embraced by Ismailia chairman Nasr Aboul-Hassan and the club’s ultras, organized fanatical soccer fans, who said they would boycott club matches in protest of players’ salaries.

The EFA call and the boycott is likely to stymie star midfielder Hosni Abd-Rabou’s negotiations with financially troubled Ismailia in which he is reportedly demanding an unprecedented $850,000 a year in a country where half the population lives off $2 or less a day. “There will be a healthy levelling” of players’ salaries, Ismailia coach-manager Wotte said.

Responding to the demand for caps as well as the fact that few players and coaches participated actively in the anti-Mubarak protests, Premier League clubs announced unanimously that they were donating 25 per cent of the value of players’ contracts to the families of the 365 people killed in the uprising as well as the hundreds injured.

Cairo arch rivals Al Ahly and Al Zamalek SC are reportedly discussing a friendly match, the revenues of which would also be donated to the victims of the uprising.

The proposal is being fuelled by the fact that ultras of the two rivals worked side by side to contribute to the success of the anti-Mubarak revolt while the political dividing lines between the clubs’ managements was repeatedly evident in their attitudes towards proposals inspired by the Mubarak regime in a bid to create the impression that Egypt was returning to business as usual.

Zamalek board member Hassan Ibrahim
said over the weekend that he supported the protesters’ calls for change and an end to corruption despite his declarations in favour of Mubarak during the uprising.

The cooperation between the ultras and a possible friendly constitute a marked departure from what has been until now the world’s most violent derby. The government has insisted for years that derby matches between the two Cairo clubs matches are played on neutral ground with foreign referees flown in to manage the game.

Hundreds of black-clad riot police, soldiers and plainclothes security personnel, worried about what the teams’ ultras may have in store, surrounded the stadium whenever the two teams met. Routes to and from stadiums were strictly managed so that opposing fans don’t come into contact with one another before or after the match.

The donation of a portion of players’ contracts and the friendly are also a reaction to many Egyptians exhibiting, at least temporarily, less interest in the beautiful game as they focus on which direction their country takes in the wake of Mubarak’s fall and the need to maintain pressure on the military to ensure it leads the country towards democracy.

If the Mubarak regime employed soccer to divert public attention from the country’s political and economic issues, the public now is downgrading the importance of the game to ensure that there is no diversion. “People no longer want to be diverted,” Thabat said.

That is likely to have consequences, certainly in the short term, for club finances already hit by the suspension of matches and uncertainty over continued government support.

Ismailia is a case on point. Nominally managed by the governorate of the port city of Ismailia, Ismailia received some government funding, but generated already prior to the revolt much of its revenue from television rights, ticket sales and primarily the buying and selling of players, Wotte said.

He said Ismailia also received some sponsorship fund through advertisement in Al Ahram, but with the troubled head of Al Ahly, Hassan Hamdy, chairing the EFA’s sponsorship committee “we didn’t get very much.”

Diminished government funding and popular demand for greater transparency reinforces FIFA’s insistence that Egyptian clubs reduce government involvement, become incorporated companies or associations and move towards private ownership and possible listing on the Egyptian stock exchange. At least half of the Premier League’s teams are owned by the government or the military.

“Based on a decision of the FIFA Congress all statutes of the 208 member associations have been or are reviewed and aligned to the FIFA statutes. The EFA is currently in process of revising its statutes accordingly,” FIFA said in an emailed statement.

Libyan Soccer Stadium Becomes Safe Haven for Fleeing Turks

The soccer stadium in the Libyan city of Benghazi has become a safe haven for thousands of Turks seeking to flee the Libyan regime’s brutal attempts to put down a popular revolt seeking to oust Col. Moammar Gadaffi from power.

Turks in the stadium said they could hear fire fights and explosions in the distance. They said children in Libya’s second largest city as young as 15 were armed with automatic Kalashnikov guns.

Turkey's foreign trade minister Kursad Tuzman said looters had attacked Turkish companies, which have projects in Libya worth more than $15 billion, and officials estimated there were 25,000 Turks working there.

Some 600 Turks were evacuated from Benghazi over the weekend and another 250 were said to be travelling by bus to neighbouring Egypt.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has made forging closer diplomatic and economic ties with the Middle East and the Arab world a priority, said four planes and two ships were being sent to Libya to evacuate stranded citizens.
He said Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone to Gaddafi, who last November presented Erdogan with the Gaddafi Prize for Human Rights – a prize Erdogan may well regret having accepted.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Is Democracy a Threat to the World Cup?

By Tom Taylor, Columnist of The Stanford Daily and TTWMES Guest Columnist

When FIFA chose the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups it picked the two least democratic countries from the list of bidding nations. Qatar is an absolute monarchy, and Russia, while technically a democracy, is virtually a one-party state.

With such infinite power it is hard to question the ability of the Russian and Qatari governments to put on a show. Not only do both have fantastic resources at their disposal, but they also are under no pressure to justify their actions to a demanding electorate. They are thus free to lavish these resources on whatever might take their fancy.

The difference between democratic and non-democratic nations holding sporting tournaments is acutely clear in the run up to the 2012 Olympics in London. Where Chinese authorities in Beijing could do absolutely anything, even jailing dissidents and forcibly evicting many of their own citizens to make way for construction, the organising committee in London has struggled to explain a ballooning budget and to live up to promises made.

Qatar further highlighted the distinction with its bid for the World Cup, spending more in a single year just on communications than the, in comparison, paltry total of $25 million spent by traditional soccer power England for its whole campaign. The money Qatar spent on the bid, though, is nothing compared to that pledged towards construction work essential to live up to the promises made.

The bid received the highest risk rating, and the scale of the task lying before this small country is huge. The cost for redeveloping three existing stadiums and building nine more will run to at least $3bn, but even that is nothing compared to the $50bn to be spent on the public transport system.

The hosts selected, the FIFA Executive Committee has probably turned much of its attention to Brazil 2014, but perhaps they should keep a cautious eye on what is happening across North Africa and the Middle East. 2022 is a long way off, but the growing unrest has surprised everyone, not least the former rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, and with two solid victories already the wave of protests in the region has certainly shown it has teeth.

This situation could grow out of control and spark a major war. It would be a great leap to say that Qatar itself is currently threatened, but then few expected a burgeoning revolution in Bahrain, just a few short miles away.

Most will be hoping that this worst case scenario is averted, but it seems increasingly hard to imagine that the Arab world can quickly turn the clock back to its status quo of relative stability at the expense of freedom.

The idealistic alternative to a major war or a return to tyranny would be the peaceful transition to true democracy throughout the region. Much seems stacked against this path, from internal power battles to external influences, but maybe, just maybe, it might happen.

Out of these three choices it is certain that FIFA would most dread war, but perhaps it also would have something to fear from democracy. If Qatar did adopt real democracy then it would be a very different country a decade from now. Sitting on the world’s third largest natural gas reserves, it would still be able to afford the World Cup bill, but whether an elected government would really be able to justify spending so much of the public’s money is another matter.

With a population of just 1.7 million it would probably be cheaper for the Emirate to pay for each of its citizens to have a first class trip to a World Cup abroad than to host one on home ground. Some of the construction will provide a lasting legacy for Qataris, but much will not. The total capacity of the twelve giant white elephant stadiums will dwarf its fledgling soccer culture. As it is unlikely to be dealing with anything else close to the tourist influx of this tournament, much of the transport infrastructure may be redundant.

An enfranchised population might decide that it is better to scale down and reduce costs, breaking promises made to FIFA, but conserving money that could be better spent more directly on the Qatari people. After all, why waste funds on small things when the country will still have made history by becoming the first ever Arab nation to host the World Cup, even if it is not quite the tournament Sepp Blatter is hoping for?

Tunisian Soccer Protests Preceded Revolt That Toppled the President

A build-up of sporadic anti-government protests on the soccer pitch preceded the mass demonstrations that erupted in Tunisia in December, led to the toppling of Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, and sparked the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, according to Tunisian and Arab soccer analysts.

Tunisian fans jeered Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou in November during the Orange CAF Champions League return final between Esperance Tunis and TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The fans charged that the Togolose referee in the first encounter between the two teams in Congo in which Esperance lost had been corrupt and waved banknotes at Hayatou.

The protests led to clashes between the fans who like their counterparts in Egypt are street battled-hardened and police.

As far back as 2005, dissatisfaction with the Ben Ali regime boiled to the surface at soccer matches. Fans shouted anti-Ben Ali slogans during the Tunisia Cup final that year and insulted the Tunisian leader’s son Chiboub, forcing him to leave the match prematurely.

Analysts say Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation he suffered at the hands of a municipal official, resonated with soccer fans, many of which are unemployed. Bouazizi’s death sparked the protests in Tunisia.

Soccer fans were not involved in the planning or initial organization of the protests that ended Tunisia’s dictatorship, but actively participated in them.

The fans are “informal groups that are unstructured, talk among themselves in and around stadiums, but do not act in town,” said Faouzi Mahjoub, author of the French-language Miroir du Foot Africain blog, describing why the pitch was often the venue for expressing anti-government sentiment prior to last month’s revolt.

Egyptian Soccer Clubs Urge Speedy Resumption of Suspended League (Updated)

Egypt’s major soccer clubs have urged the country’s football federation to quickly lift its month-old suspension of professional league matches imposed at the outset of anti-government protests that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The soccer clubs made their demand known in a meeting to discuss the 2010-2011 season with Egyptian Football Association (EFA) President Sami Zaher that was attended by 14 of the Premier League’s 16 members.

The conclusions of the meeting, published on the EFA’s website, made clear that the Egyptian military, which is running the country since Mubarak’s forced resignation earlier this month, would have the final say in deciding when the Premier League would be restarted.

The EFA said the clubs had requested the restart of the league “in arrangement with the country’s authorities.”

To compensate for the fact that teams have not trained and played for a month, the clubs asked the EFA to annul for the current season any potential relegation.

A proposal to restart the league behind closed doors and ban spectators in a bid to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for anti-government protests is likely to prove to the most controversial measure under consideration.

The proposal, originally tabled by the EFA prior to Mubarak’s ousting, highlighted the political fissures within the association, particularly between the Cairo powerhouses and bitter arch rivals, Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek.

Al Zamalek, which traces its roots to the British colonial administration in the early part of the 20th century favoured the proposal, which in effect supported Mubarak’s effort to create a semblance of normalcy despite the turmoil, while Al Ahly, rooted in Egypt’s nationalist politics, opposed it in line with the opposition’s rejection of the embattled Egyptian’s attempts to undermine the protests.

The clubs called in the first indication of the impact of Egypt’s transition away from dictatorship on soccer for a limit on transfer prices and salaries. Economic reform is likely to mean soccer privatization in the longer term with half of the Premier League teams owned by the government or the military and a degree of austerity in the short term as Egypt seeks to recover from the economic cost of the revolt.


Fanatical supporters of the Ismaili, the financially troubled soccer club of the port city of Ismailia, responded almost immediately to the proposed, cap on salaries by announcing they would boycott the team’s matches in protest of the high wages paid to footballers, according to the Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com.

The Ismaili ultras dubbed the Yellow Dragons announced their boycott as the club was seeking to reach agreement with star midfielder Hosni Abd-Rabou who is reportedly demanding an unprecedented $850,000 in a country where half the population lives off $2 or less a day.

Ismaili chairman Nasr Aboul-Hassan welcomed the demand by the ultras, saying that all Premier League clubs should introduce a fixed budget for players’ salaries.

“Things cannot be the same in football after the revolution. There must be a limit for the millions spent on footballers by club boards. I suggest that each club should pay a maximum of EGP 20million ($3.4 million) per season on players’ wages,” Aboul-Hassan said.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Iran Gets Paid For Nigerian Match Cancellation despite Seizure Iranian Arms Shipment

Iran, supported by FIFA, soccer’s world body, has succeeded in having cake and eating it at the same time.

After being caught supplying arms to Nigerian opposition groups, Iran is being reimbursed for the expense of Nigeria cancelling a friendly soccer match in Tehran.

Officially Nigeria cancelled the match two weeks before it was scheduled to take place in November because it said some of its top players were suffering injuries.

Privately, Nigerian officials said the match was cancelled in response to Nigerian authorities seizing 13 containers with Iranian weapons, including rockets, grenades and mortars labelled as building materials. The authorities believe the weapons confiscated in the port of Lagos were intended for militant Nigerian Muslim groups.

French shipping company CMA CGM SA said hat an Iranian company used one of its vessels to illegally transport the arms to Lagos after labelling them as “packages of glass wool and pallets of stone.”

The Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) took its demand for $300,000 in compensation for expenses occurred to FIFA, which pronounced in its favour. Nigeria has offered to pay $200,000 but has yet to receive a response from Iran. FIFA’s support of Iran’s demand is based on the fact that there is no hard evidence that Nigeria cancelled because of the arms shipment and therefore the Islamic republic is entitled to compensation.

A Nigerian court on Friday adjourned the trial of a Nigerian suspect, Ali Abbas Jega, and an Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Azim Aghajani, charged with involvement in the arms shipment so that it could hear the Iranian defendant’s bail application. Aghajani and Jega have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The arms shipment has drawn international attention because it could constitute a violation of United Nations sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. It has also sparked diplomatic tensions between West African nations and Iran.

Aghajani's lawyer, Chris Uche, said the arms shipment was a "normal business transaction" between Iran and Gambia, which Tehran says was the final destination for the weapons.

Gambia has denied it was the intended recipient of the weapons and has cut diplomatic ties with Iran over the dispute. Senegal has expressed concern that the arms could end up in the hands of separatist rebels in its south.

Libyan Soccer Fans Cheer Gaddafi Son in Tripoli

Soccer fans in Libya, wracked by anti-government protests in which security forces have killed dozens, appear to be playing a very different role from their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia.

If Libyan state-run television is to be believed, some 1,000 fans of Tripoli clubs Al Ahli and Al Ettihad gathered in the Libyan capital’s Green Square to cheer one of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gaddafi’s son, Saadi.

Saadi toured the square on the roof of a car, waving and shaking the hands of supporters, who chanted “God, Libya and Moammar only.”

The cheering of Saadi, who several years ago imposed himself as a member of Libya’s national team as part of the Gaddafi family’s effort to employ soccer as a form of political and social control, contrasted starkly with events elsewhere in North Africa.

Soccer fans in Egypt and Tunisia played key roles in overthrowing the dictatorships of Messrs. Hosni Mubarak and Zine Abedine Ben Ali.

The cheering of Saadi came as he was put in charge of brutally crushing the revolt in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city 1,000 kilometres east of Tripoli and a centre of the anti-government protests. Many of the deaths in recent days reportedly occurred in Benghazi.

While the Gaddafis traditionally enjoy more of a powerbase in Tripoli than in eastern Libya, it was not immediately clear what persuaded the soccer fans to cheer Saadi Gaddafi. Libyan opposition supporters suggest the fans may not have had a choice, noting that the government keeps a tight political reign on the soccer clubs.

Egypt to Request Postponement of African Championship match Against South Africa

Egypt will ask the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to postpone by three months its crucial match against South Africa scheduled for March 24 because of the turmoil in the country.

Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com reported that the postponement was designed to allow the country’s national squad to get up to speed after a month of forced inactivity.

The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) suspended all professional league matches on January 24 and banned training to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for the opposition that earlier this month forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office.

"The team must have suffered a dip in form after the league was halted, so we want to put off the game with South Africa," FilGoal.com quoted Egyptian assistant national coach Hamada Sedki as saying.

"We will send a letter to CAF on Wednesday. We will ask them to play the game in June should they accept our request," Sedki added.

Fans have demanded the resignation of Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata because of his support for Mubarak during the protests.

The EFA has agreed meanwhile with Tunisia, the only other Arab country where the wave of protests sweeping the region has succeeded in toppling its dictatorship, to play a friendly dubbed ‘the revolutionists’ game’ at a date yet to be determined. Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali fled last month into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The request to postpone South Africa follows an EFA decision to allow Cairo club Zamalek SC’s return match against Kenyan champions Ulinzi Stars on February 27 in Cairo, the first soccer match to be played since the protests erupted on January 25.

The CFA has been considering ordering the match to be played in Libya. That proposal is now off the table because of the anti-government protests wracking Libya that security forces are brutally seeking to suppress. At least 80 people have been killed by security forces in recent days.

Zamalek defeated the Stars 4:0 in Nairobi while many of its supporters back home joined the protests. Some Zamalek players and coaches participated in the demonstrations after returning to Egypt, suggesting the political tensions in the country were reverberating within the club. Zamalek board members this weekend sought to downplay their support for Mubarak, saying they too wanted change and an end to corruption.

EFA President Sami Zaher is scheduled to discuss this weekend with Premier League clubs a resumption of league matches.

Premier League team Ismaili warned that it may with draw from the CAF Confederation Cup if the Egyptian League is cancelled. The EFA earlier this week cancelled the Egypt Cup.

"The possible cancelation of the league could prompt us to drop out of the Confederation Cup," Ismaili club president Nasser Aboul-Hassan told FilGoal.com. "The same circumstances will be there when we have to play in Ismailia."

Arab Revolutionaries to Play Soccer Friendly despite Historical Animosity

Egypt and Tunisia, the two Arab countries most successful to date in overthrowing their dictators, have agreed to play a soccer friendly despite their longstanding football animosity.

Egyptian Football Association board member Ayman Younes said a date for the match, dubbed “the revolutionists’ game,” had yet to set.

Tunisians were the first in the Arab world to rise in protest, forcing Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali to last month seek exile in Saudi Arabia. The uprising has sparked a wave of anti-government protests across the Middle East and North Africa that earlier this month toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and has sparked brutal crackdowns in Libya and Bahrain.

Younes said Egypt and Tunisia hoped that FIFA would incorporate the match in its international calendar as an annual event.

Both Egypt and Tunisia, alongside Algeria, which is also confronting anti-government protests, have suspended all professional league matches to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point.

Egypt last played Tunisia in a match it lost 2:0 in 2005. Riots erupted in Cairo when storied Al Ahly SC beat Tunisia’s Esperance 2:1 in October of last year.

“Egyptians and Tunisians have a long history of feuds over football matches; a fact the tyrants exploited to exert control,” said Nawara Najem, an Egyptian journalist and blogger who was a spokeswoman for the anti-Mubarak demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in an article in The Guardian.

Football fans in both countries played important roles in the overthrow of their dictators.

Najem, speaking about the protests in Egypt, said the demonstrators “began to plan how to outmanoeuvre the security forces; experiences of football crowds which have long faced off against the security forces were helpful here.”

Anti-Government Protests Force FIFA to Postpone Yemen Qualifier

FIFA, soccer’s ruling world body, has postponed Yemen’s home Asian qualifer against Singapore because of anti-government protests wracking the country.

In a burst of optimism, FIFA postponed the match for a week, scheduling it for March 2. Privately, however, Yemeni soccer officials say they are discussing with FIFA and Singapore playing the match in a third country.

Yemen has been witnessing for the past month mass protests demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 30 years in office. Supporters and proponents of the Yemeni leader have repeatedly clashed in the capital Sana’a in the last eight days of uninterrupted demonstrations. Six people were killed in the protests on Friday.

The protests are part of a wave of anti-government demonstrations sweeping the Middle East and North Africa that have already toppled two leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, and led to brutal crackdowns by security forces in Bahrain and Libya.
Egypt and Algeria have suspended all professional league matches to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for the protesters.

In a statement, FIFA acknowledged that the protests in Yemen could prevent the match against Singapore from being played in Yemen, insisting that it needed to be played in a “totally safe and secure environment.”

“In the event that the situation in Yemen does not clearly improve in the next days, the match would need to take place on neutral ground; in such case, the venue would be selected in consultation with all the parties concerned, including the national associations of Yemen and Singapore,” the statement said.