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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Somali Journalist Killed While Covering Soccer Match Amid Heavy Fighting

A Somali Sports journalist was hit in the Somali capital of Mogadishu by stray bullets and killed while covering a soccer match, according to the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ).

The death of Ahmed Hassan Ahmed, a sports reporter for SIMBA radio, weeks after a star soccer player was killed in a suicide bombing highlights that nowhere does soccer involve a greater act of courage and defiance than in war-ravaged Somalia, a soccer-crazy Arab nation straddling Africa’s strategic Gulf of Aden.

Ahmed died of bullet wounds in the stomach and the shoulder.
“As we were covering the match between SITT and Dekadaha, Ahmed fell to the ground at the second half of the match ” Somali Football Federation (SFF) spokesman Shafii Mohyadin Abokor said.

Somali league teams SITT and Dekadaha were playing in Mogadishu’s Hodan district as African Union-backed forces were battling militant Islamists of Al Qaeda-associated of Al Shabab, which controls large chunks of Somalia.

Soccer is a major battleground for the government and the Al Shabab who have banned the game as ‘un-Islamic.’ Somalia’s U-20 soccer team suffered a serious setback in February when a militant Islamist suicide bomber killed one of its star internationals and wounded two other players.

The attack was also a blow for the SFF which is waging a campaign to lure child soldiers away from the Islamist militia with the prospect of a soccer career. World soccer body FIFA supports the SFF campaign that has succeeded in turning hundreds of Somali youngsters recruited by the militia into soccer players.

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," Abokar said.

"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.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Egyptian Soccer Players Boycott Training in Protest against Lagging Payment

A majority of troubled Alexandria soccer club Ittihad al-Skandarya’s players have boycotted training for the second time in a month in protest against not having been paid for three months. The protest comes as the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) meets in emergency session to discuss the fallout of political and financial turmoil that month forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign, according to Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com.

Players refused to train earlier this month after the club failed to pay their house rents. Ittihad has an EGP 930,000 ($156,000) a month player payroll.

Demonstrators forced the chairman of Ittihad, a member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, and three of the club’s board members to resign in early March because of Ittihad’s poor performance in the league. The board members were the first casualties of fans flexing the muscles of their newly found people power.

The latest protest comes amid controversy over an EFA proposal to introduce financial austerity by capping transfer prices as well as salaries for players and coaches. The EFA has called an emergency meeting for Thursday to discuss the crisis in Egyptian soccer following the title defender and seven-time champion’s defeat by South Africa last weekend in a key African qualifier.

Players and coaches have rejected the EFA’s call for a cap on salaries but fans have endorsed the proposal. Premier League team Ismailia SC coach Mark Wotte has called on his club’s supporters in the business community to help cope with the financial crisis. Ismailia has not been able to pay several of its players. The club’s ultras, the Yellow Dragons, have threatened to boycott its matches if it fails to cap salaries. “Where are the businessmen supporting the club? The financial issues are negatively affecting the team and the players need to have their wages paid in time”, Wotte said.

Egyptian soccer’s financial plight is likely to encourage a restructuring of club ownership in line with proposals put forward by world soccer body FIFA that would significantly reduce government involvement. Half of Egypt’s 16 Premier League clubs are owned by government institutions, the military or the police.

Soccer vs. Islam: The Battle for Egypt’s Future

Soccer-crazy Egyptians, preoccupied with the direction their revolution is taking in the wake of last month’s ouster of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in office, took this weekend’s defeat by South Africa in a crucial African qualifier in their stride. The loss all but means that the seven-time African champion has no chance of qualifying for this year’s African finals.

The calm with which Egyptians accepted defeat, contrasts starkly with riots that erupted on two continents in late 2009 when Algeria stopped Egypt from making it to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The differing responses to defeat highlight the impact of past political manipulation of the beautiful game and the public’s shifting focus in an environment in which the post-Mubarak military government has not hitched its popularity to soccer success and the fuelling of nationalist sentiment.

“For the first time, I am not upset because we lost. In the past, football was the only thing that cheers us up, but now we are living in a bigger alternative that cheers us up every day,” said Egyptian soccer fan Adel Mazen on Twitter. “When you lose your country, you look for it in football matches, but when you have it back, you can't care less about football,” added Yasser Taha, another soccer fan, in a posting on Facebook.

The concerns of young men like Adel Mazen and Yasser Taha focus these days on ensuring that youth groups that initiated the popular revolt against Mubarak’s regime remain players in the creation of a democratic Egypt, maintaining pressure on the country’s military rulers who took over from Mubarak with a pledge to lead Egypt to democracy within six months and the stemming of the rising influence of Islamist organizations that unlike the secularists have the advantage of an already existing political machinery in forthcoming parliamentary and presidential election.

Mazen and Taha’s shifting focus highlights the change Egypt is experiencing. In Mubarak’s days, Egyptians like many of their brethren across North Africa and the Middle East had few options to express pent-up anger and frustration outside of the mosque and the soccer pitch. For many, soccer matches offered one of few things worth looking forward to in their lives as well as opportunity to express dissent in the protection of large numbers of like-minded fans.

To some Egyptian soccer fans, reduced interest in the game constitutes a protest against the abuse of the game by the Mubarak regime and others ruling the majority of countries in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf, to divert attention from social, political and economic problems and to attempt to polish its tarnished image. “Football is not our priority anymore,” says Ahmed Mohieddin Al-Sayed. Mubarak like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Middle Eastern leaders publicly associated himself with soccer. His visits to the national team’s training sessions and attendance at matches was headline news, often moving uncomfortable political developments or opposition criticism off the news agenda. In a country in which hikes of food prices provoked mass protests, Egypt’s 2006 winning of the African Cup of Nations allowed Mubarak to allow government-controlled prices to rocket unnoticed. “Good, so our national team's schedule is free till 2014. I pity the government now, they have nothing to distract us with,” quipped Ahmed Nour after Egypt’s defeat at the hands of South Africa.

As a result, Egypt’s secretive military rulers are so concerned about soccer’s political impact and its potential as an opposition rallying point that they only recently reluctantly agreed to lift a ban on professional soccer matches almost three months after its imposition at the beginning of the protests that led to Mubarak’s ousting. Military fears of soccer’s rallying potential have been reinforced by the key role militant soccer fans played in the protests as well as their post-revolution efforts to impose change on Egypt’s soccer infrastructure and management that was closely aligned with the Mubarak regime.

The soccer pitch could well again emerge as a platform of protest as Egyptians seek to chart a course towards democracy in an environment marked by confusion about where the military is leading them. Soccer’s potential as a rallying point increased this week with the ruling military council’s decision to declare illegal all demonstrations that impede the work of public institutions. Soccer fans demonstrated their resolve earlier this month when they unfurled banners at a friendly match between two Egyptian Premier League terms criticizing players for not having joined the anti-Mubarak protests. "We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn't find you,” read one banner. The sense of having been let down by players goes a long way to explaining this weekend’s acceptance of defeat. “The team that lost is Mubarak's supporters’ team,” tweeted Khaled Tarek.

Soccer fans may achieve their first post-revolution victory when the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) meets on Thursday in emergency session to discuss Egypt’s poor performance against South Africa. The association is likely to consider firing crowned national coach Hassan Shehata, whom fans want to see dismissed despite his leading Egypt to three straight African titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010, because of his support for Mubarak at a time that they were on the streets of Egyptian cities demanding the president’s resignation. National team captain Ahmed Hassan warned in advance of the meeting against firing Shehata. “We are in a very difficult situation but qualification isn’t impossible yet. It is nonsense to attack the coach - who has led the team to so much glory - after losing one game. The Egyptian Football Association must support Shehata who must make his final decision about leaving or staying in his position without any pressure,” Hassan told Al Ahram Online.

Ironically, the battle for Egypt’s future could well revive soccer’s rivalry with Islam. Across the Middle East and North Africa, soccer constituted until the recent wave of anti-government protests the only institution that rivaled political as well as non-political Islam in creating alternative public spaces to vent pent-up anger and frustration. In various Middle Eastern nations, including Egypt, soccer had emerged as the only non-religious, non-governmental institution capable of successfully taking a stand against militant Islamists or military and security dominated repressive regimes. As the demonstrations created new, unrivalled public space, soccer fans brought organization and street battle experience to the protests.

With Egyptians focusing on what kind of state emerges from their revolution, Islamist groups and Mubarak’s old guard National Democratic Party (NDP) could gain the upper hand in the run-up to elections. The Islamists and the NDP benefit from having already built party organizations while the secularists and others have yet to establish political parties and electoral campaigning capability. As polling scheduled for June and September nears the soccer pitch could become a venue for expression of opposition to the rise of religious forces and the resurrection of the old guard. That is the military’s fear as they anxiously anticipate the resumption of professional soccer matches on April 15.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Portuguese Coach Queiroz to Sign With Iran

Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz will travel to Tehran later this week to finalize his contract as Iran’s new national coach after pro-longing negotiations for weeks to monitor whether anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East would also shake Iran.

Queroz started talks with Iran in February at a moment that opponents of the governments were calling for mass protests in the country. In response, the government temporarily suspended professional soccer matches in the capital Tehran. Government repression stymied the protests before they were able to gain momentum.

State-run Iranian Press TV said agreement with Queiroz was facilitated by the fact that the Portuguese anti-doping agency had lifted its six-month suspension of the trainer for insulting anti-doping agents. Queiroz was sacked as Portugal's national coach as a result of the ban.
Queiroz was Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant manager at Manchester United before becoming Portugal's head coach.

Queiroz initially turned down Iran’s offer of a $6 million, three-year contract as coach citing family reasons. Iranian officials said Queiroz’s wife did not want to live in Iran, a country that imposes strict conservative mores on women in public.

Iran’s persistence in pursuing Queiroz is likely supported by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who has taken an active interest in recent years in the appointment of national team’s coaches. Ahmedinejad sees the team’s performance as a key tool in garnering popularity.

Soccer analysts believe Queiroz could indeed make a major contribution to the Iranian team, which like all other Middle Eastern squads, performed poorly at this year’s Asian Cup.

“It seems to me that Queiroz honestly wishes to do some bottom up constructive work. His ideas are the most comprehensive I have heard from any coach or candidate for the Team Melli (the Iranian national team’s nickname) job in recent years,” said prominent Iranian soccer blogger Afshin Afshar said.

Law Suits likely to Spark Restructuring of Egyptian Soccer

Corruption charges filed against former Egyptian Petroleum Minister Sameh Fahmy in the wake of the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak have heightened concerns that financially troubled top-tier soccer clubs may no longer enjoy generous government support. The fears are compounded by a second case filed by an Egyptian lawyer against Fahmy that seeks to halt all public funding of Egyptian soccer.

If successful, the law suits would initiate a radical restructuring of soccer club ownership in Egypt where half of the country’s 16 Premier League teams and many lower league squads are owned by government institutions, the military and the police. The legal efforts to curtail politically motivated public funding of soccer heighten the financial crisis confronting clubs as a result of the three-month suspension of Egyptian professional league matches in a bid to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point. They are also likely to blow new life into efforts by world soccer body FIFA to persuade the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to reduce public ownership.

As petroleum minister, Fahmy moved to the forefront of the Mubarak regime’s effort to employ soccer to improve its image and distract Egyptians from their myriad economic, social and political problems. Fahmy’s successor, Abdullah Ghorab, the former CEO of state-owned Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation, is believed to be less keen on continuing Fahmy’s generous handouts.

Appointed in 1999, Fahmy poured public funds into soccer powerhouses Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries Club (ENPPI) founded in 1980 barely two years after the creation of his ministry by its subsidiary, the Egyptian Oil and Gas Company (EOGC), and Suez-based Petrojet by another subsidiary, the Egyptian Petrol Company. Fahmy also increased funding for ministry-owned second tier clubs Petrol Asyut and GASCO. The funding enabled ENPPI to graduate to the Premier League in 2002, followed by Petrojet a year later.

Backed by Egyptian oil dollars, ENPPI and Petrojet moved quickly to sign some of Egypt’s top players, including international striker Amr for LE1.5 million in 2003 what was then a whopping $300,000 and international winger Ahmed Elmohamady, who this month was sold to English Premier League club Sunderland for $3 million as well as foreign players like Ghanaian international strikers Eric and Coffi Bekoe.

ENPPI Mahmoud Saleh, speaking to Al Ahram Online, downplayed the threat of reduced funding. “All matters are stable. The departure of Sameh Fahmy will not affect us at all, because the clubs belong to companies not the minister, or the ministry.” Saleh suggested that ENPPI owner EOGC was turning millions of Egyptian pounds in profit and would have no issue maintaining its level of funding.

Fahmy, insisting that he acted on orders of Mubarak, is standing trial on charges of corruption in pricing Egyptian gas exports, including to Israel. Ghorab said he was reviewing Egypt’s export contracts with Israel as well as Jordan. Egyptian media, critical of the petroleum ministry’s expenditure on soccer, said it had spent EGP 82 million ($13.8 million) on player acquisition in the past year.

Lawyer Hesham Abd-Rabou filed a lawsuit against Fahmy for "spending millions from public money to help Petrojet and Enppi compete for the league title". He is demanding that the ministry disassociate itself from the soccer clubs. Fahmy was widely criticised by local media for spending big to strengthen the squads of Petrojet and Enppi last summer.

The two lawsuits, involving expenditure on high salaries for coaches and players, have fuelled controversy over a proposal by the Egyptian Soccer Association (EFA) to cap incomes as part of an effort to impose financial austerity. Fans threaten to boycott matches while coaches and players warn that caps will undermine Egypt’s position as an African soccer powerhouse.

Some coaches and players argue that large amounts are only played by crowned Cairo rival Al Ahly SC, Egypt’s most popular club, Al Zamalek SC. “The reported amounts in terms of salaries or budget are not true. Walid Soliman (nicknamed Egypt’s Leo Messi after the world’s foremost soccer player) is the highest paid player in our squad with an LE900,000 ($150,000) annual salary. Any other player with the same talent at (Cairo's) Ahly or Zamalek receives at least three or four million Egyptian pounds per season,” ENPPI’s Saleh said.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Libyan Islamists stand to gain with or without Gadhafi

By James M. Dorsey

Deutsche Welle

An alleged dual British-Libyan jihadist has been paraded in front of the international media to support the regime's claim that the revolt against Gadhafi's 41-year rule was being directed by al-Qaeda.

Libya has put the spotlight on the fact that it may be one of the Middle Eastern and North African countries where militant Islamists emerge strengthened from the Arab struggle to throw off the yoke of authoritarian rule.

Salah Mohammed Ali Abu Obah, a 43-year old Manchester resident, said he was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an al-Qaeda affiliate founded by Libyan fighters in Afghanistan. He said he had been detained earlier this month by Libyan security forces in the town of Zawiya, west of the capital Tripoli. Abu Obah described himself as a low-level LIFG fundraiser.

Abu Obah's statements did little to substantiate Gadhafi's claim but fuelled Western concerns that jihadists and militant Islamists were playing a key role in the Libyan revolt unlike elsewhere in the world where they have largely been relegated to the sidelines. Abu Obah noted that the LIFG had broken its ties to al-Qaeda in 2007 around the time that its imprisoned leaders engaged in serious dialogue with the regime as part of the government's rehabilitation program.
"The part of the LIFG that I am with does not belong to al-Qaeda," Abu Obah said.

The LIFG alongside dissident elements of the Libyan armed forces are the only two groups within the Libyan opposition with battle experience. The Libyan jihadists fought a bitter insurgency in eastern Libya in the 1990s.

Many of the Islamist fighters who are facing off against Gadhafi's forces were released from prison last year as part of the government rehabilitation program that was overseen by Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam, in which they repented their ways, but did not fully renounce violence.

Analysts said the jihadists' role in the struggle to topple Gadhafi would strengthen their position irrespective of what the outcome is of the battle for Libya. They said the fighters' attitudes once the battle is over would constitute a litmus test for government rehabilitation programs in several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Mauritania. The Saudi program has so far had an 80 percent success rate. Jihadists stand to gain from the Libyan uprising

Western fears that many of the rehabilitated and escapees may revert to their old ways were reinforced by the recent refusal of Sheikh Ali al-Salabi, the prominent Libyan cleric who oversaw the LIFG's ideological rehabilitation, to mediate an agreement between Gadafhi and the rebels. Al-Salabi's refusal was backed by prominent Saudi cleric Salman al-Auda, a reformed militant, and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yousef Qaradawi, who both had earlier supported Gadhafi's rehabilitation effort.

"The real threat to US security is flying under the radar. The fate of once-jailed Islamist fighters who are now at large should be among Washington's top concerns. Islamists freed by Gadhafi and those who escaped from prison during the uprising are now able to operate in an environment of evaporating state control, abundant small arms caches, and under-guarded stocks of chemical warfare agents," Christopher Boucek, an analyst with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said.

Opposition leaders have stressed that their revolt is nationalist rather than Islamist in nature irrespective of the fact that LIFG fighters have joined their battle. "If there's one thing you should remember, it's that this is a people's revolution, a secular revolution," said Khaled Ben Ali, a spokesman for the 13-member rebel national council.
Analysts concede that the Islamists participation in the fight does not necessarily change the nature of the revolt, but cautioned that it remained to be seen whether they had truly broken with their jihadist past.

"They may no longer feel obliged to keep up their end of the bargain with a weakened government - a government many never accepted as legitimate in the first place. Violent Islamists have long sought to bring down the hated Gadhafi regime - just as they have looked to topple other 'apostate' governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen - and some may now see this as their best opportunity to overthrow the government," Boucek said.
Fertile ground

A weakened or partitioned Libya could become a breeding ground for jihadists engaged in a low-level insurgency against the remnants of the Gadhafi regime, officials and analysts said, noting that jihadists flourish mostly in failing rather than failed states.

"There is ... the risk of division within the country and the risk of seeing a failed state in the future that could be a breeding ground of extremism and terrorism, so obviously this is a matter of concern," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a recent meeting of NATO defense ministers.

Libyans constitute the third-largest contingent of jihadists in Iraq after Iraqis and Saudis. Several Libyans also graduated to senior positions in al-Qaeda, including Abu Yahya al-Libi, the group's chief ideologue and a potential successor to Osama bin Laden. The LIFG, which attempted to assassinate Gadhafi on three different occasions, posed the greatest threat to the Libyan leader's regime prior to the popular revolt.

A US diplomat noted in a US embassy cable disclosed by Wikileaks in 2008 after a visit to the eastern Libyan city of Derna, home to many Libyan jihadists, that they were focused less on attacking Western targets than on undermining the Gadhafi regime.

The diplomat said the militants believed that the US and Europe were supporting Gadhafi after his 2003 renunciation of weapons of mass destruction. They saw participation in the Iraqi jihad against US forces as "a last act of defiance against the Gadhafi regime," the US diplomat wrote in the 2008 cable.

Noman Benotman, the London-based former LIFG leader who was one of the group's negotiators with Saif al-Islam, warns that eastern Libya hosts a younger, more radical group of Islamist militants who see jihad as a religious obligation.
Nonetheless, Benotman suggested that Gadhafi's pinning of the revolt against his regime on al-Qaeda meant that former LIFG fighters feared that they may be targeted by the Libyan leader's forces.

"The last time I was in contact with some members was when I was in Tripoli on the 16th or 17th of February," Benotman said." They themselves are afraid of their personal security, because they think they will be a target of the regime, and maybe assassinated or framed for some act of terrorism. So I think they are going to hide, because they start to believe they are a direct target for the regime's security forces."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why Iranian football clubs push for control of broadcast revenues

By James M. Dorsey

The National

The business of football, like many other things in revolutionary Iran, ticks to a clock of its own.

The top football teams pay government broadcasters for the privilege of having their matches aired. Advertising revenues are collected by municipal stadium owners. Income from ticket sales never leaves the coffers of the municipal stadium administrator.

As a result Iranian football clubs are strapped for cash and dependent on government handouts.
Club executives recently gathered to explore ways of gaining greater control of their finances.

One proposal by Ali Fathollahzadeh, a former president of Tehran's Esteghlal Cultural and Athletic Club, one of Iran and Asia's most popular and successful clubs, to challenge existing broadcasting arrangements by launching a privately owned football channel, offered the most far-reaching approach.

If licensed, Mr Fathollahzadeh's channel would become the first privately owned television channel in the Islamic republic's 32-year history.

The channel would offer Iranian clubs in the absence of radical structural reform a limited opportunity to loosen the government's grip on the game and counter Revolutionary Guard influence.

It would shift broadcast revenues that are now raked in by state-controlled television to the clubs and ensure they gain some degree of control of at least one of the three revenue streams alongside advertisement and ticket sales that should fall within their domain.

That would make them less dependent on government institutions and state-run companies that own the majority of the 18 teams in Iran's Premier League and allow them to invest more in improvement of their performance.

Iranian football's financial predicament is as much the result of lack of revenues as it is of widespread corruption.

"There is little monitoring of how this (government) money is spent," says Afshin Afshar, a prominent Iranian football blogger.

"Therefore, trying to create an estimated balance sheet for any of these clubs is an impossible task because there are no public records available. But if one adds up some of the reported salaries for the players, the estimated size of the spent cash will quickly make it clear that the problem may not be cash flow, but cash management or perhaps honest cash management."

To give his proposal wings, Mr Fathollahzadeh has to convince fellow football executive who are suspicious of his motives and overcome government reluctance to surrender control.

Iran's national broadcast agency, the main beneficiary of current arrangements for broadcasting football, has little incentive to kill the goose that lays its golden eggs.

It may however have little choice but to concede once Fifa, the world football body, and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), headed by the Qatari national Mohammed bin Hammam, start pushing Iran's football federation for greater transparency and accountability.

Fifa and the AFC are expected to make their push later this year once Fifa has put its elections behind it in which Mr bin Hammam is likely to stand against the long-serving president Sepp Blatter.

Mr Fathollahzadeh's proposal anticipates the Fifa-AFC push and gives the international football bodies a potential monkey wrench with which they may be able to breach Iranian walls.
How high those walls are is likely to be determined by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, rather than the football association or the broadcast agency.

The question is whether Mr Ahmadinejad will decide to take a leaf out of the playbook of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who last month launched the kingdom's first dedicated sports channel as part of efforts to keep his discontented subjects off the streets.

An independent football channel may hit the pockets of Mr Ahmadinejad's cronies, but it could boost his efforts to curry popular favour by associating himself with Iranian football.
US embassy cables written in 2009 that have been disclosed by WikiLeaks describe how Mr Ahmadinejad repeatedly imposed his will on the Iranian football federation in a failed bid to ensure enhanced performance by the country's national football team.

The president justified his interference, saying "unfortunately, this sport has been afflicted with some very bad issues. I must intervene personally to push aside these destructive issues".
Mr Ahmadinejad is unlikely to tackle the most destructive issue affecting performance - political interference - but he could see political mileage in giving clubs a greater degree of financial independence so they are motivated and able to produce the kind of performance he hopes will rub off on him.

Saudi Drops Yemeni President to Prevent Turmoil from Spilling Across its Border

By James M Dorsey

Middle East Institute blog

Saudi Arabia, in a blow to embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has rejected a request by its erstwhile ally to mediate a resolution of the Yemeni crisis and signaled that it is looking for a peaceful transition of power in the country.

Saudi favoring of Saleh’s departure is fuelled by concern that Yemen could become another Libya with US-trained military units commanded by Saleh’s son and nephew battling the regular armed forces led by popular General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar as well as protesters demanding the president’s resignation. It contrasts starkly with the kingdom’s intervention in Bahrain on behalf of the island’s minority Sunni Muslim rulers. Saudi rulers fear the spillover effect of escalating tension in Yemen on already restive Ismailis in their southwestern Jizan and Najran provinces and hope to limit the spread of the wave of protests further into the Gulf by easing the country’s power transition.

The Saudi decision spotlights the kingdom’s role in Yemen where it is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution. Saudi Arabia demonstrated its degree of penetration into Yemeni society in November when it tipped off Western intelligence about a plot by Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to place parcel bombs on US-bound cargo flights on the basis of information it obtained from informants in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also has close ties to Yemen’s senior military brass, including Al-Ahmar.

Going forward, stabilization of a post-Saleh Yemen will in part depend on Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners in actively bridging the country’s multiple fault lines and boosting economic development. For Saudi Arabia this will have to entail breaking with past policies of playing both ends against the middle. Saudi Arabia filled voids in Yemen with significant cash dispensations that bought the loyalty of segments of the population. In doing so, Saudi Arabia effectively contributed to a weakening of Saleh’s writ and the emergence of alternative power structures. Saudi sponsoring of proselytizing by Salafis and Wahabis contributed to an environment of intolerance and religious dogmatism and was a driver of the recent Shiite Houthi rebellion in the north.

To support a post-Saleh Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners will have to offer their poor stepbrother some prospect of membership or close association with the group albeit on tough conditions, a perspective the GCC has so far refused to entertain. In fact, Yemen’s economic woes have been exacerbated by repeated expulsions over the past two decades of Yemeni workers from the Kingdom and other Gulf states heavily dependent on foreign labor. GCC states will have to put in place labor agreements that regulate the migration of labor and put a halt to the illegal movement across the Saudi border of Yemenis desperate for economic opportunity.

A political marriage between the Gulf states and Yemen is nonetheless likely to prove difficult for the conservative GCC members. In many ways, Yemen and the GCC states have little in common beyond geography and their Arab identity. Yemen is, at least in name, a republican democracy that ousted its royals in the 1960s; GCC members are all authoritarian monarchies that have forgotten that they once wallowed in the same abject poverty Yemen suffers today. Gulf leaders, and particularly Kuwait, have moreover never really forgiven Saleh for his support of Iraq during the 1990 Gulf war in which US-led forces reversed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. To persuade the GCC to be more welcoming, Yemen’s post-Saleh government will have to improve the security situation, narrow the economic divide with the Gulf states, and significantly reduce the country’s addiction to qat, a plant stimulant classified by the World Health Organization as a drug that is consumed by a majority of Yemenis.

In lieu of granting Yemen full membership, the GCC is likely to look at ways of improving employment prospects in a country whose economic problems were multiplied in the early 1990s when Saudi Arabia expelled some one million Yemeni workers in retaliation for Yemen’s support of Saddam. The expulsion deprived Yemen of badly needed remittances that were often invested into small and medium-sized enterprises constituting the backbone of the Yemeni economy. GCC member states are discussing allowing Yemeni workers to return once the country puts its political turmoil behind it – a move that would be welcomed by segments of Gulf society concerned about the high number of foreign, non-Arab workers in their countries.

But twenty years have passed, and many of today’s Yemeni workers lack the skills Gulf states require. One way GCC states may compensate for this deficiency would be to grant Yemenis access to the same professional and technical training available to Gulf nationals. GCC states are also likely to fund job creation programs in Yemen. The Yemeni government recently estimated that Yemen needs to create four million new jobs in the next ten years.

A report by the London School of Economics published weeks before anti-government protests began sweeping the Middle East and North Africa suggested that stabilizing Yemen was a key GCC interest because the country’s problems constituted a warning of problems that could emerge elsewhere in the Gulf. “Yemen is the canary in the coal mine. It is an indication of what can go wrong when a country fails to develop political legitimacy and build a sustainable, productive non-oil economy,” said Coates Ulrichsen, the author of the report. “The challenges to government authority in southern and northern Yemen demonstrate how existing socioeconomic discontent and regional marginalization can fracture and fragment social cohesion. Similar fissures and unequal patterns of access to resources exist in the GCC states and could become transmitters of conflict in the future.”

That is a conclusion the GCC states may have also come to in regards to Yemen, but it is not one they appear to have drawn for their own countries. Saudi policy towards Yemen is primarily motivated by a desire to contain problems rather than a realization that domestic policies are at the root of the protests in Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world and addressing home grown sources of discontent is the only recipe for ensuring long-term stability.

Football Pitches: A Battleground for North Africa’s Future

Football matches are but one battle fought on the pitches of North Africa. The other is the struggle for the region’s future.

By James M. Dorsey
Play the Game 21 March 2011


Egyptian Al-Ahly fans after winning the CAF Champions League in 2005. Photo by Msamy used under a Wikimedia Commons License.

James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and blogger with an in-depth knowledge on sport and the Middle East. This article is the first of three in an article-suite on how sport has been and is an important and considerable influencer on the current upheavals in the Middle East and North African countries.

Football matches are but one battle fought on the pitches of North Africa. The other is the struggle for the region’s future.

With fans emerging as key forces in the anti-government protests that toppled the presidents of football-crazy Egypt and Tunisia and as both hired guns for Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi and participants in the rebellion to overthrow his 41-year old rule, authorities in all three countries have banned professional matches since the beginning of this year.

Popular pressure earlier this month persuaded Egypt’s reluctant military authorities to authorize a resumption of the country’s league on April 15, two months after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

Football fans as a force to be reckoned with
Concern that the football pitch could become a renewed rallying point for public pressure on the post-revolt governments of Egypt and Tunisia is rooted in the pitch’s political history as well as the fact that football fans emerged from the successful overthrow of Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali with a heightened sense of empowerment. That sense coupled with the organizational skills and street battle experience that the ultras of Cairo arch rivals Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC brought to the protesters’ stronghold on the city’s Tahrir Square makes them a force to be reckoned with.

The ultras’ influence was evident in the organization and social services as well as the division of labour established on the square as thousands camped out for 18 days until Mubarak was left no choice but to step down on February 11. Much in the way that a municipality would organize services, protestors were assigned tasks such as the collection of trash. They wore masking tape on which their role as for example medics or media contacts was identified in writing.

Street battle-hardened ultras meanwhile joined those patrolling the perimeters of the square and controlling entry. Their experience in brawls with rival fans and battles with the police benefitted them in the struggle for control of the square when the president’s loyalists employed brute force in a bid to dislodge them. The ultras’ battle order included designated rock hurlers, specialists in turning over and torching vehicles for defensive purposes and a machine like quartermaster crew delivering projectiles like clockwork on cardboard platters.

Officially, the ultras - fanatical fan organizations modelled on Italy’s autonomous, often violent fan clubs - participated in the protests as individuals rather than as representatives of their organizations. Yet, they did so with the tacit sanctioning of their groups, whose membership represents a cross section of Egyptian society.

Colonial opposition
The ultras’ key role in the revolt extends a tradition of soccer’s close association with politics in Egypt that dates back to when the then British colonial power introduced the game to the North African country in the early 20th century.

Founded about a century ago as an Egyptians only meeting place for opponents of Britain’s colonial rule, Al Ahly, which means The National, was a nationalistic rallying ground for common Egyptians. Its players still wear the red colours of the pre-colonial Egyptian flag.

Dressed in white, Zamalek, which first was named Al Mohtalet or The Mix and then Farouk in honour of the hated and later deposed Egyptian monarch, was the club of the British imperial administrators and military brass as well as the Cairo upper class. The clubs’ bitter feud has been no less political since Egypt became independent.

Football as a political means for both rulers and opposition
The ultras emerged in Egypt as soccer increasingly became a political football in recent years. The Mubarak regime, much like Gadaffi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, viewed the game as a way of garnering popularity and diverting attention away from popular grievances while its opponents saw the pitch as a rare venue to express pent-up anger and frustration.

US embassy cables disclosed by Wikileaks describe how opposition leader Ayman Nour, the leader of the Kifaya movement who was jailed in on forgery charges to stop him from challenging Mubarak in presidential elections, was welcomed in 2009 at a soccer match by spectators shouting ‘Down with Mubarak.’

The cables also detail the fuelling of nationalist emotions by Mubarak’s sons Gamal, who the president was believed to be grooming as his successor, and Alaa, to shore up the regime’s image after riots erupted in the wake of a crucial 2009 World Cup qualifier in which Algeria dashed Egypt’s hopes of playing in the finals in South Africa. A November 25, 2009 cable said the only time Gamal displayed emotion during a presentation on healthcare was when he discussed the violence that took place in the Sudanese capital Khartoum where the match was played.

“He leaned forward in his seat and told the audience that Egyptians must have national pride. Growing increasingly passionate and raising his voice for the first time, Gamal stated that our voice must be heard in the Arab World,” the cable said. It quoted Gamal as saying that he had stayed in Khartoum to accompany the Egyptian team to the airport to ensure their safe departure from Sudan.

With Mubarak and his sons fanning the flames, the soccer riots brought the world for the first time since the 1969 football war between Honduras and El Salvador to the brink of a soccer-inspired conflict. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Algeria while Algeria slapped Egyptian-owned Orascom Telecom’s Algerian operation with a tax bill of more than half a billion dollars. Libyan leader Col. Moammer Gadaffi intervened to prevent the dispute from escalating.

Soccer also goes a long way to explain the military's popular support in football-crazy Egypt, which last month forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. At least half of the Egyptian Premier League's 16 teams are owned by the military, the police, government ministries or provincial authorities. Military-owned construction companies built 22 of Egypt's soccer stadiums.

Protests in Tunisia
Much like Egypt, anti-government protests on the football pitch preceded the mass demonstrations that erupted in Tunisia in December and sparked the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. 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 started to surface at football 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. Football fans, many of whom are unemployed, recognized themselves in Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who sparked the demonstrations that led to Ben Ali’s downfall by setting himself on fire in protest against the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation he suffered at the hands of a municipal official.

Benghazi vs. Tripoli
Gadaffi’s controversial football-playing son, Saadi, a leader in his father’s fight for survival, took manipulation of the game to garner public support to the extreme. Football became an arena of confrontation between Gadaffi supporters and opponents long before the eruption last month of the revolt. Resentment against the Gadaffis in the eastern opposition stronghold of Benghazi started to build up when the fortunes of the city’s soccer team, Al Ahli (Benghazi), tumbled on and off the field a decade ago when Saadi took a majority stake and became captain of it its Tripoli namesake and arch rival.

Saadi’s association with Al Ahli (Tripoli) meant that the prestige of the regime was on the line whenever the team played. Politics rather than performance dictated the outcome of its matches. 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 also 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.

The Benghazi – Tripoli rivalry is still being played out as opponents aided by the imposition of a no-fly-zone above Libya by an international military coalition and supporters of Gadaffi battle for the future of Libya. For Al Ahli (Benghazi) fans, the wresting of control of the city from Gadaffi’s forces represents payback time. By contrast, Al Ahli (Tripoli) fans last month cheered Saadi as he toured Tripoli’s Green Square on the roof of a car, waving and shaking the hands of supporters, who chanted “God, Libya and Moammar only.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Qatar Hopes to Cool Stadiums with Artificial Cloud

A Qatar University group of scientists has designed a remote control artificial cloud that would hover like a helicopter in the air during the 2022 World Cup to cool off stadiums and shield them from the desert country’s blistering summer sun.

Saud Abdul Ghani, head of the university’s Mechanical and Industrial Engineering department, said his group would collaborate with the Qatar Science and Technology Park to build a prototype of the cloud at a cost of about $500,000.

The cloud, filled with helium and built of light carbon material, would use four solar-powered engines provide shade by manoeuvring between the stadium and the sun.

Ghani said commercial models could be used at beaches and car parks and could possibly be fetched by mobile phones.

Qatar was awarded the hosting of the 2022 World despite a warning by FIFA investigators that s that the summer heat – which can rise to 50° Celsius or 122° Fahrenheit – could pose a potential health risk to players, officials and spectators.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Egyptian Team’s Tarnished Image Rides on Soccer Match against South Africa

Egypt’s national soccer team may be ill-prepared for this Saturday’s crucial African championship match against South Africa, but the popular revolt that last month ousted President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power has heightened its motivation, according to the squad’s controversial coach, Hassan Shehata.

A seven-time winner Africa Cup of Nations, Egypt, which is languishing at the bottom of its group, needs to defeat South Africa to revive hope of qualifying for the finals. The team is gearing up for the game with professional league matches suspended for the past three months as a result of the popular revolt that toppled Mubarak.

"The game is going to be tough because all local competitions have been halted for a while, and we didn't prepare well for the match. But what I'm sure of is that the players are high-spirited; they became more attached to Egypt after the revolution," Shehata said in an interview on Egyptian TV.

Shehata and the team have more than just qualification riding on Saturday’s game. Egypt’s performance could decide the fate of Shehata, a crowned former player and coach, whose career may depend on his squad’s performance against South Africa.

Some supporters of the team have demanded Shehata’s resignation because of his support of Mubarak at a time that thousands of fans were demonstrating against the former president. Shehata has also been criticized for failing to bring new players into the national team.

Similarly, fans have taken players to task for staying on the side line during the popular revolt rather than supporting it. At a recent friendly played by Al Ahly SC, Egypt’s most popular club and important supplier of players to the national team, fans held up a banner saying: "We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn't find you."

Shehata conceded that his team needs to shore up its image. “Everyone is looking to change the wrong image of us that was conveyed of late. We represent Egypt's name and hope that people wish us good luck, because it's not about individuals,” Shehata said.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Soccer Wars: The Battle for the Future of Somalia’s Children

Soccer goes to the core of war-ravaged Somalia’s battle for the future of its children.

Senior Al Shabab commander Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys this weekend fired a shot across the bow of the campaign of the Somali Football Federation (SFF) to lure child soldiers away from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militia that controls large chunks of Somalia and its capital, Mogadishu.

“We recruit underage children to fight for us, the children are ready to die for their country and religion” Aweys said defiantly in a speech in a mosque in Elasha Biyaha, a camp for Somalis displaced by the Islamists’ war against the embattled US-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

Aweys described the case of a 13-year old who although traumatized by the sound of artillery and frightened by the fighting declared before he died that Jihad is sweet.

The 13-year old’s death is what the SFF has set out to prevent by offering child-soldiers a career in soccer. The SFF’s campaign, backed by world soccer body FIFA, local businessmen and the Somali Youth League, independent Somalia’s first political party, throws down the gauntlet to jihadists who lure child soldiers into their ranks.

Mahad Mohamed was 11 when he joined an Islamist militia in war-ravaged Somalia.

By the time he was 14, he realized that doing a jihadist warlord’s bidding in a country savaged for two decades by civic strife and brutal militias wasn’t giving meaning to his life. When the opportunity arose, he swapped fighting for playing. He made his debut on Somalia’s Under-17 national team in December 2009. Since then, Mahad, a lanky, broad-shouldered teenager with a penetrating glaze in his eyes, has become the team’s captain and star defender. The youngest son of a construction worker, he dreams of being a soccer coach, a pilot and a computer teacher.

“People were afraid of me when I had an AK-47; now they love and congratulate me. I thank the football federation, they helped me,” he says, preferring to speak in several telephone interviews adequate English rather than Somali or Arabic. “I just drifted into being a soldier; I can’t say how it happened. Friends of mine became fighters and they told me that it was a good and exciting life. It was much better than doing nothing or hanging around on the street. Once I got involved, I realized that it wasn’t like that at all. I was happy to escape,” Mahad recalls. “It is difficult to be a soldier and football is much more interesting. You get paid for playing if you are a good. I don’t want to return to the life of a soldier,” he adds.

The opportunity to escape the militia presented itself after fighting for three years against government troops, rival jihadis, warlords, and African Union peacekeepers when the warlord he served as a bodyguard was killed. Mahad ran away and returned home to play soccer in a nearby open field. An SFF scout spotted him and offered him a chance to play on its youth team.

Mahad’s shift from boy killer to soccer star stands out in Somalia, a football-crazy country that straddles Africa’s strategic Gulf of Aden along which Al Qaeda-linked jihadists draconically impose an austere lifestyle. The US-backed head of Somalia’s transitional government is hanging on to power by the skin of his teeth. The jihadists have reduced its authority to a few blocks around his embattled presidential palace in the crumbling, battle-scarred capital of Mogadishu.

The jihadists, supporters of a fiercely puritan interpretation of Islam that makes Saudi Arabia seem liberal, banned soccer as satanic and un-Islamic while Mahad was still a fighter. They also outlawed music, movies, moustaches, bras and gold fillings. Theirs is a world in which men are forced to grow beards, women can't leave home without a male relative, limbs are chopped off as punishment, and executions by stoning are a form of public entertainment.

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the jihadist Harakat Al Shabab Al Mujahidin (Movement of the Martyr Youth) is a product of a failed foreign invasion that did little but exacerbate political, social and tribal fault lines. In 2006, US-backed Ethiopian forces ousted the hard-line Islamic Courts Union barely six months after they had driven the warlords out of Mogadishu on the eve of the 2006 World Cup in an alleged bid to restore law and order in Somalia.

The invasion destroyed Somalia’s chance for democratic government by Islamists eager to be part of the international community. Their brief rule defied perceptions of a militant Islamic governance that restricts individual freedoms and cruelly takes joy out of life.

Couples strolled at sunset along Mogadishu’s corniche enjoying the salty breeze from the sea. Girls attended school; boys played after school soccer on makeshift fields against the backdrop of a city scarred by 15 years of anarchy and civil war that in Western minds is associated with the downing of US Black Hawk helicopters and the brutal killing of 18 marines. Militant leaders canvassed for popular support by organizing a clean-up of the city, initiating a construction boom and building confidence by ensuring that police were attentive – a stark contrast to the terror wielded by the warlords they had defeated. “Judge us by our deeds,” the Courts’ foreign minister, Ibrahim Hassan Addo, said at the time, denying claims that his government had links to Al Qaeda.

To defend themselves against a US-backed coalition of warlords that sought to preserve their privileges and stymie the rise of more militant Islamists, the Courts, an alliance of Islamists, clan-based courts and businessmen, created in 2004 Al Shabab, a militia made up of young, bearded religious fighters who wore green skull caps. Their devotion and abstinence from tobacco and qat, a popular narcotic plant consumed on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, won them popularity.

The Ethiopian invasion, like the US effort a decade earlier recounted in Ridley Scott’s war movie Black Hawk Down, failed to restore stability to Somalia and instead sparked the emergence of even more radical forces and a cycle of ever more vicious violence. Al Shabab, radicalized by the West’s refusal to give the Courts the benefit of the doubt, emerged as the country’s most powerful militia. One of its first decrees was to ban the watching of World Cup matches. Some 21,000 people have been killed since the invasion in Islamist resistance first against the Ethiopians and then against US-backed forces of the transitional government and African Union peacekeepers; another 1.8 million have fled their homes to become refugees.

The campaign against soccer has been an Al Shabab theme ever since. An Islamist suicide bomber last month killed a star international on war-torn Somalia’s U-20 soccer team and wounded two other players. The attack constituted a setback for the squad as well as the SFF’s efforts to lure child soldiers away from the Islamist militia. Thousands signed a book of condolence that was opened at the SFF's headquarters in Mogadishu.

Mahad exemplifies the serious challenge soccer poses to the jihadists’ dire worldview. The scout who discovered him was on no ordinary recruitment drive. His slogan was ‘Put down the gun, pick up the ball.” Says Moyhaddin Abokar, one of the driving forces behind the campaign: "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."

Mahad is one of hundreds the association assisted in swapping jihad for soccer, the only institution that competes with radical Islam short of mass anti-government protests in offering youth in authoritarian Middle Eastern and North African states a prospect of a better life. "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," says Somali soccer association head Abdulghani Sayeed. To shield himself from threats by Al Shabab, Sayeed operates from a heavily guarded Mogadishu hotel.

He refuses to move the association’s headquarters out of Mogadishu’s Al-Shabab-controlled Suuqa Bakaaraha which would give the jihadists further reason to depict soccer and its institutions as US and Western imports. An open air market in the heart of the city, Suuqa Bakaaraha is famous for its trade in arms and false documents and as the crash site of one of two downed US Black Hawk helicopter in the 1993 Battle for Mogadishu. Shoppers fire weapons in the air to test them in a part of the market dubbed Sky Shooter. A short distance away, they test anti-aircraft guns and mortars. Somalis are one of the world’s most heavily armed populations. Aid agencies estimate that two thirds of Mogadishu’s 1.5 million inhabitants own an assault rifle.

In the epic match between soccer and Islam, Somalia is the pitch and battle-hardened kids like Mahad the ball. Players and enthusiasts risk execution, arrest and torture. Militants in their trademark green jumpsuits and chequered scarves drive through towns in southern Somalia in Toyota pickup trucks mounted with megaphones. 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. "I don't go anywhere. I just stay at home with my family so that the Shabab don’t catch me,” says Mahad who runs a double risk as a teenager and a deserter.

Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Aros, a militant cleric who doubles as head of operations of Hizbul Islam, an Islamist militia that recently merged with Al Shabab, condemns soccer as “a waste of money and time” and “an inheritance from the primitive infidels.” His campaign reaches a crescendo every four years during the World Cup – a moment when most of the world is glued to the television and much of Somalia risks public flogging and execution to catch a glimpse of the game. To Sheikh Mohammed whose fellow warlords were soccer’s most powerful supporters and who provided security at local matches before they lost control of Somalia to the Islamists, the World Cup is the equivalent of Karl Marx’s opium for the masses. In his mind, soccer diverts the Muslim faithful from jihad; the World Cup offers the youth a stark reminder that watching games and waging battles on the pitch is a heck of lot more fun than the austere life of a fighter who defies death in street battles.

To mark the kick-off of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Sheikh Mohammed cautioned "all Somali youth not to dare watch these World Cup matches… They will not benefit anything or get any experience by watching semi-nude madmen jumping up and down and chasing an inflated object... we can never accept people to watch it.” During the match between Germany and Australia, Sheikh Mohammed’s fighters raided a private home in the town of Afgoye, twenty kilometers south of Mogadishu. Tens of soccer fans cluttered in the house around one of the country’s relatively few satellite TVs. To avoid drawing attention, they watched the game with the volume turned off, one eye on the game, the other on the door in case of a raid. Sheikh Mohammed’s fighters killed two in the raid and detained 30 others among them 14 teenagers.

Somalia’s multi-ethnic, multi-clan national team, The Ocean Stars, has never made it to a World Cup or even to the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s championships. FIFA has banned its members from playing in Somalia. Neighboring Djibouti is as much home to Mahad as is Mogadishu because it’s a safer training ground. Yet, Somalia - "the hardest place on earth right now" in the lyrics of Mogadishu-born Somali-Canadian poet and rapper Kna’an - was not totally absent from last year’s World Cup in South Africa. Kna’an performed his runaway hit, Wavin’ Flag – “Learn from these streets, it can be bleak, accept no defeat” – at the tournament’s opening ceremony concert. Coca Cola chose a remixed version as its anthem for the World Cup.

Players like Mahad raise the specter of a life beyond the sectarian fighting and boost Somali hopes that their team will eventually successfully compete in international competitions. Former child soldiers who exchange their AK-47s for soccer balls live and train for up to five years in SFF camps. National coach Mohamed Abdulle Farayare visits the camps once a month to identify the best players and take them under his wings. “We want more boys to play football. We check out a boy’s situation and target soldiers as well as those from poor backgrounds. Word spreads. They go home to tell their families and friends. This in turn inspires others,” Farayare says.

Mahad takes pride in flying the Somali flag at international matches and showing the world that there is more to his country than wild-eyed fanatics, suicide bombers and pirates. Soccer allows him to briefly forget the tragedies that dominate life beyond the pitch. His soccer earnings went as 2010 made way for 2011 to pay medical bills for his older brother Said shot in crossfire between Al Shabab and government forces. Mahad pays each day $30 for his brother to be treated in an overcrowded hospital where most patients lie on the floor because of a lack of beds and doctors are unable to cope with the onslaught of young men with gunshot wounds, malnourished children and elderly men and women with malaria and cholera that in other world capitals are easily prevented and treated.

It doesn’t make Mahad’s transition from child solider to national star any smoother. “I lost everything when I was a fighter, I had nothing,” he says. Soccer training for Mahad and his fighter-turned-player team mates involves far more than just gearing up for the next match. Psychologists helped him transition back to a semblance of normal life in a country that is stumbling from bad to worse. “They have problems when they arrive, they are aggressive. We calm them down, it’s amazing how mentally strong they are,” Farayare says.

They are aided by the fact that the football association constitutes an island of relative normalcy. Buoyed by its success in wrenching some 400 child fighters from the clutches of the Islamists and placing them with Somali soccer clubs, the association upped the stakes in its battle with the militias. In the spring of 2010, it revived for the first time in three years the country’s football championships at a ceremony on the well-protected grounds of the Somali police academy in Mogadishu. It also launched a tournament for primary and secondary school students.

Colonel Ahmed Hassan Maalin, Mogadishu’s barrel-chested, thinly moustachioed, fatigues-clad police chief, whose embattled forces all but control the capital, committed hundreds of policemen to secure the tournaments. With the city’s stadium – once one of East Africa’s most impressive filled with 70,000 passionate fans during games – turned into an Islamist training and recruitment center, most of the matches are played on the academy’s grounds. Mahad’s squad practices for the tournament in ragged attire on a patch of earth on the base that is covered with mud, rocks and rusty cans, and has no goal posts.

The jihadists have responded to the SFF’s challenge with threats and violence. “If we kill you, we will get closer to God," they said in an email sent to the association in December 2009. Several days later, they sent a second mail. "This is the last warning for you to take the path of Islam. If you don't, you have no choice but to die. Do you think the non-believer police can guarantee your security?"

Hitting Gadaffi: More Questions Than Answers

Reports of initial European-US military strikes against Libya raise the question of what the Western military has to achieve to fulfil the United Nations Security Council authorizing a no-fly zone. They also beg the question of how the United States and Europe will ensure that military operations do not backfire politically on the West as well as the rebels opposing Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi. What is immediately clear is that the military operations are designed to spark dissent within Gadaffi’s own forces in the hope that this leads to their collapse. It is a strategy that failed in the case of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

At the very least, Western forces with the United States, France and Britain in the lead, will have to establish a buffer zone dividing Gadaffi’s forces from the rebels in their bid to guarantee that Gadaffi does not retake the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya. That may be difficult with air power alone. So will protection of rebel pockets in Misurata and Zawya in western Libya. French military aircraft have been in action above Misurata but with Gadaffi’s forces deployed close to populated areas, air power is likely to prove insufficient to dislodge them. Mission creep seems inevitable.

If military operations do not lead to an internal collapse of Gadaffi’s forces, the question arises where the buffer zone should be drawn and for how long a stalemate will be acceptable in the battle between Gadaffi and those seeking an end to his 41-year rule. One would assume that rebel territory would have to include Libyan oil fields, facilities and pipelines in the east of the country. This would deprive Gadaffi from revenues and provide the rebels with a source of funding. Alternatively, Western nations will probably give the rebels access to Libyan assets frozen abroad.

The drawing and maintenance of a long-term buffer zone would amount to a division of Libya between the rebel-held east and the government-controlled west. Instability is an inevitable consequence. Eastern Libya would become the equivalent of Iraqi Kurdistan, which was an Iraqi protectorate shielded by US air power from Saddam Hussein’s wrath in the years between the 1991 Gulf war and the toppling of Saddam in 2003.

US, British and French objectives, however, appear to go far beyond the creation of a protectorate if the rhetoric emanating from Washington, London and Paris is anything to go by. That rhetoric implies that the goal is regime change, which stretches the terms of the UN Security Council resolution authorizing military operations. The goal of regime change would necessitate expanded military operations, including strikes against Gadaffi’s ground forces. Saddam responded to that strategy by digging in; he managed to hang on to power for 12 years despite punishing sanctions and international isolation.

The absence of forces from the two countries, Egypt and Tunisia, that this year successfully toppled their authoritarian leaders casts a shadow over the military operation. Lip service rather than military assets paid by the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates does not compensate for the failure to ensure Egyptian and Tunisian participation. Initially, western powers will benefit from the argument that their intervention is to protect a popular uprising in parts of Libya from Gadaffi’s brutal crackdown. That is an argument that is likely to wear thin over time.

Ultimately, the absence of active, frontline Arab military participation in the attack on Gadaffi will lend credence to the Libyan leader’s argument that he is fighting a foreign conspiracy to split Libya and gain control of its oil riches.

It could allow Gadaffi to persuade at least some of the undecided in Libya to support him in defence of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moreover, it would enable him to associate his current battle with Libya’s struggle against Italian colonialism, which still figures vividly in the nation’s memory.

Pro-longed military operations, despite the lip service to the attack paid by a host of Arab countries, will enable authoritarian leaders to reframe the debate in their countries by positioning themselves as bastions of resistance against foreign conspiracies to undermine their independence.

This argument will gain weight as Western forces slide down the slippery slope that begins air strikes to impose a no-fly zone but likely ends with an ever expanding military engagement involving more extensive air strikes and the deployment of ground troops.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

African Soccer Body Bans Matches in Libya and Ivory Coast

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has ordered an African Champions League match between Libya's Al Ittihad, the club that Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gaddafi's controversial son Saadi used to play for, and Ivory Coast's Jeunesse Club Abidjan, to be played in a third country because of the political violence in the two African nations.

The United Nations Security Council declared this week a no-fly zone above Libya in a bid to prevent Gadaffi from using his air force against protesters and rebels demanding an end to the Libyan leader’s 41-year rule. Gadaffi’s brutal crackdown on the protests has earned him international condemnation. Ivory Coast is wracked by violence sparked by the refusal of the country’s incumbent president to step down after having lost an election to his political opponent.

Al Ittihad and Jeunesse Club Abidjan were due to face each other this weekend but must now agree on a neutral venue for a one-off match to be played between April 1 and 3, CAF said in a statement.

CAF is likely to also decide that an African Nations Cup qualifier between Ivory Coast and Benin scheduled for next weekend in Abidjan should be played on neutral territory. CAF has already delayed Libya’s qualifier against the Comoros Islands that was supposed to be played in Libya next weekend.

Earlier, CAF moved the eight-nation African Youth Championships that was supposed to kick off in Libya on Friday to South Africa. The tournament, which will decide which four African countries go to the under-20 World Cup in Colombia this year, was rescheduled for April 16.

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 in mid-April despite their longstanding football animosity.

Tunisians were the first in the Arab world to rise in protest, forcing Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali in January seek exile in Saudi Arabia. Demonstrators last month ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in office.

The uprisings have sparked a wave of anti-government protests across the Middle East and North Africa that have sparked brutal crackdowns in Libya and Bahrain.

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’s military rulers this week authorized a resumption of the country’s league on April 15. Tunisia has yet to follow suit. Tunisian authorities, concerned that the soccer pitch could become an opposition rallying point, have ordered the country’s most popular club, Esperance to play their Champions League match against ASPAC of Benin on March 19 behind closed doors.

To avoid protests, the Egyptian-Tunisian friendly will be played in either Britain or the United Arab Emirates. The match will be played in honour of the hundreds who died in the mass protests in both countries.

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.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bin Hammam Challenges Blatter for FIFA Presidency

Asian Football Confederation chairman Mohammed Bin Hammam, in a move designed to increase Qatari and Middle Eastern influence in global soccer, announced that he will challenge Sepp Blatter in FIFA presidential elections scheduled for June 1.

Bin Hammam, a Qatari national with close ties to his country’s royal family, has long been critical of Blatter’s undisputed 12-year old leadership of world soccer’s governing body. Bin Hamman, whose candidacy comes three months after Qatar won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup, argues that change is needed to shore up FIFA’s image tarnished by a number of corruption scandals.

FIFA insiders believe that Bin Hammam has at best a 50 per cent change of defeating Blatter, who is being challenged in an election for the first time.

Bin Hammam said in remarks announcing his candidacy that he would broaden FIFA's decision-making power to make it more inclusive would and spread its wealth. Bin Hammam said he would replace the current 24-member executive committee with a 41-member board by increasing European body UEFA’s quota from eight to 12, doubling the number of seats for Africa and Oceania as well as for North and Central America and the Caribbean and granting South America an additional seat.

He described FIFA as being too bureaucratic and centralized and questioned its efficiency in technical and legal areas.
He hoped to set up a new transparency committee, have fair distribution of World Cup revenues and annual grants to FIFA's 208 members doubled to US$500,000. The upper limit for development projects, which provide valuable cash support for smaller nations, should be doubled to $1 million, Bin Hammam said.

If elected, Bin Hammam would be the first FIFA president not to hail from European stock. His election would raise the profile of the Middle East as well as of Asia in world soccer. FIFA under Bin Hammam would likely take a greater political interest in the Middle East, involving pressure on Israel to reduce restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinian players and employing soccer to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians.

Blatter last month attempted to undermine Bin Hammam’s portrayal of himself as the clean, transparent alternative to an imperious, corruption-tainted leader by publicly confirming that Qatar had agreed with Spain and Portugal to swap votes in their respective bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids in violation of bidding rules.

By doing so, Blatter indicated that he felt concerned enough about a possible Bin Hammam challenge to contradict FIFA’s earlier statements that an investigation had produced no evidence of the alleged vote swap. Blatter’s attempt to spread the taint has had little impact on Bin Hammam so far but could come back to haunt Blatter.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Palestinian Emerges Against the Odds as Israeli Soccer Star

Taleb Tawatha’s emergence as one of Israel’s brightest soccer talents is a tale of fighting the Israeli odds of being an Arab in a predominantly Jewish society, a black in a majority Palestinian white community and a scion of one of the Israel’s most disadvantaged, underdeveloped towns.

A shy, scrawny 18-year old whose family hails from Sudan, Tawatha cemented his billing as the world’s best Under-20 left back and a rising star in Israeli Premier League team Maccabi Haifa’s last six matches where he substituted for injured international defender Peter Masilela, one of the team’s best ever left-backs..

His performance earned him an invitation by Israel national team coach Luis Fernandez to train with his squad, which is in desperate need for a reliable left flank defender.

Tawatha’s journey to soccer stardom started in Jisr ez-Zarka an Arab town that lies in between the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa and is known as one of Israel’s municipalities with the lowest average income and highest high school dropout rate and tense racial relations.

None of this phased Tawatha whose father, the principle of the town’s school, ensured that he balanced his soccer training with his need to complete his secondary school education. Maccabi Hiafa assisted with funding for tutors to help him achieve high scores.

Tawatha demonstrated his metal on and off the pitch. In his private life, he has refused to allow bigotry disrupt his long-standing relationship with a girl from Jisr ez-Zarka’s majority white community, whom he is determined to marry.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Israel’s perennial conflict with the Palestinians shaped Tawatha’s decision to play for Haifa when he was just 11 years old. Tawatha had just decided to attend the soccer school of Maccabi Tel Aviv when his uncle, a staunch Maccabi Haifa supporter, was killed in a terrorist attack in the nearby Israeli town of Afula. To honor his uncle, Tawatha headed for Haifa.

He made his debut last season and looks set to permanently occupy the left-back position at Haifa’s Kiryat Eliezer Stadium with Masilela expected to this summer transfer to a European team.

Ironically, soccer is the one of the few things that lets Palestinians and Israelis at times look beyond their daily confrontations. Palestinian obsession with soccer translated into reduced anti-Israeli violence on the West Bank during the 2010 World Cup while Israel’s football association is the only soccer institution in the region to have launched a campaign against racism and bigotry.

The success of a Palestinian team, Bnei Sakhnin, winning the 2004 Israeli championship won it funding from Qatar to build its own stadium. The funding constitutes a rare direct Arab investment in Israel, which is largely boycotted by Arab states because of its unresolved dispute with the Palestinians.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Egyptian Military Authorizes Resumption of Soccer Matches

Egypt’s military rulers have authorized a lifting of a ban on professional soccer matches in a bid to limit the impact of the two-month old suspension, prevent an exodus of players and coaches and quell growing unrest among fans.

Egyptian Football Association (EFA) spokesman Azmi Megahed said matches would resume on April 15. He said the league season would last until July 11.

The government and the military banned soccer matches in late January as mass anti-government protests erupted that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign on February 11 after 30 years in office.

The military has since been reluctant to authorize a resumption because it feared that the soccer pitch would become a rallying point for continued protests that would undermine its efforts to return Egypt to business as usual and lead it to free and fair elections within six months.

The lifting of the ban came days after the Egypt’s Premier League clubs threatened to refuse to lend their top players to the military’s soccer team that will be competing in this year’s World Military Cup in Brazil.

The threat struck at one pillar of the military’s popularity that has so far earned it the benefit of the doubt in its efforts to rebuild the state and lead Egypt to democracy. The military owes its popularity to its refusal to fire on protesters in the build-up to Mubarak’s ousting, its minimal use of force since the president’s resignation and the fact that it owns at least a quarter of the 16 Egyptian Premier League teams.

With the military in power, Egypt’s five-time World Military Cup winning team will be playing for more than just the Egyptian military’s honor in the tournament; it will be the equivalent of Egypt’s crowned national soccer team competing in the World Cup, the world’s largest sporting event.

Soccer club executives charged that the military’s concern about its own soccer performance contrasted starkly with its reluctance to allow Egyptian soccer to return to normal. The clubs have repeatedly warned that the continued suspension of professional league matches could ruin Egyptian soccer, one of Africa’s best performing.

The military’s lifting of the ban on soccer also followed threats by foreign players that they would seek greener pastures if Egypt’s military rulers fail to lift the two-month ban on professional league matches and Egyptian clubs prove unable to live up to their financial commitments.

The loss of foreign players and possibly coaches could severely damage the soccer standing and performance of Egypt, one of Africa’s best performers and one of the few that has been able to fund the acquisition of talent from abroad.

The lifting of the ban addresses one concern among foreign and domestic players alike but leaves controversy over EFA proposals to cap transfer prices and salaries for players and coaches unresolved. The EFA is pushing for the caps in an effort to introduce financial austerity as clubs struggle with the financial fallout of Egypt’s political crisis.

Fans have backed the call for caps, arguing that players earn exorbitant salaries in a country in which half the population lives on $2 a day.

In response to fan criticism, Premier League team ENPPI, which is owned by Egypt’s oil ministry, said it would donate part of it’s the fee for the transfer of Ahmed Elmohamady's transfer fee to English Premier League team Sunderland FC to the families of the more than 300 people who died in the protests that toppled Mubarak.

"It's just a contribution to ease the woes of the families of those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of their nation," ENPPI football director Alaa Abdul-Sadek said.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ex Turkish Player Hakan Sukur to Run for Parliament

Legendary Turkish soccer player Hakan Sukur will run for parliament on the ticket of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Democratic Party (AKP) in elections scheduled for June 12.

By recuiting Sukur and other celebrities as well as increasing the number of women running for parliament, Erdogan hopes to secure a sufficient majority for further changes to Turkey’s constitution.

Sukur last year supported Erdogan’s referendum that approved initial changes to the 1980 constitution drafted under military rule.

Former Prisoner Accuses Egyptian Goalkeeper Coach of Beating Him in Prison

A former political prisoner who was jailed for 12 years by the government of former President Hosni Mubarak has accused Egyptian national team goalkeeper coach Ahmed Soliman of assaulting and beating him in prison.

Magdi Zaki, who was detained for 17 years, said the incident happened when Soliman, widely believed to be an officer of the hated Egyptian police force, intervened in an altercation between Zaki and a police informer.

In a video posted on YouTube, Zaki points to scars from stitches on his face and head, which he says were the result of Soliman’s beatings.

Soliman has yet to comment on the allegation.
video

Soliman is reportedly also under investigation for corruption alongside other senior Egyptian soccer executives.

Links between the Mubarak regime and the country’s soccer management go far beyond Soliman. Egyptian national team coach Hassan Shehata is under fire for having supported Mubarak while many of the team’s fans were on Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding the president’s resignations.. Mass protests forced Mubarak to step down on February 11 after 30 years in office.

For much of his time in prison, Zaki was held by the dreaded State Security Investigations SSI, whose offices were raided by soccer fans and others earlier this month. Many Egyptians are demanding the dissolution of the SSI.

"I spent 12 years in the political section of Liman Abu Zaabal prison - without charge, without visits. When I saw my two kids I did not recognise them and they did not recognise me. But worst of all was the month I spent in the state security building," Egyptian media quoted Zaki as saying.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Foreign Players Threaten to Leave Egypt Because of Financial Turmoil

Foreign players playing for Premier Egyptian League clubs are threatening to seek greener pastures if Egypt’s military rulers fail to lift the two-month ban on professional league matches and Egyptian clubs prove unable to live up to their financial commitments.

The loss of foreign players and possibly coaches could severely damage the soccer standing and performance of Egypt, one of Africa’s best performers and one of the few that has been able to fund the acquisition of talent from abroad.

Egypt’s military rulers have been reluctant to lift the ban on matches, imposed in late January when mass anti-government protests erupted that last month forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. The military fears that soccer matches could become a rallying point for protesters who would complicate its efforts to lead Egypt to democracy by this fall.

The ban has deprived clubs of revenues. With half of Egypt’s 16 Premier League clubs owned by government institutions, the military and the police, many clubs fear that they may no longer be able to count on public funding.

The financial crisis has already prompted storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC to announce that it would no longer be hiring foreign personnel for all its sports teams, with the exception of its top tier soccer team.

Foreign players and coaches are also considering their options because of controversial proposals by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to cap transfer pricing and salaries for players and coaches and fears that the current soccer season could be cancelled in its entirety. They are further disconcerted by the fact that the political turmoil engulfing Egypt has extended into the realm of soccer.

Several senior soccer executives are under investigation of corruption. Fans have turned on players and managers for not supporting the anti-Mubarak protests and for resisting pay cuts in a country in which half the population subsides on $2 a day.

Fans are also demanding the resignation of pro-Mubarak executives and have already forced the chairman of the port city of Alexandria’s Premier League team, Ittihad al-Skandarya, a member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, and three other board members to resign.

Several Ittihad players failed to show up for training last week after the club had been unable to pay their housing rents. Cameroonian striker Edet Otobong was evicted from his home as a result of Ittihad’s financial difficulty. “I couldn’t pay the rent of my apartment because I don’t get paid anymore by the club. I am looking for a solution to this tough situation and I am currently discussing my future with my agent,” Otobong told Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com.

Otobong’s departure would be a blow to Ittihad. He has so far nine league goals to his name and is key to Ittihad’s determination to work itself up from the bottom half of the league.

Qatar forward Hussein Yasser has warned that he would leave Zamalek if this soccer season was called off.

“Every player is looking for regular football. If the season was called off, several players will demand moves away from their clubs and I could be one of them. I never thought of leaving Zamalek but this could finally happen if the cancellation decision was made, especially with present interest from other clubs,” Yasser told FilGoal.com.

Manuel Jose Da Silva, the Portuguese coach of Al Ahly SC, Egypt’s most popular club, warned earlier this month that the continued suspension of league matches threatened to ruin Egyptian soccer.

The EFA is pushing the military to authorize a resumption of matches by mid-April but soccer executives and military leaders have yet to agree on the terms. The EFA has rejected a proposal to allow games to be played behind closed doors because that would not help alleviate their financial squeeze and would likely prompt protests from fans. The military has yet to comment publicly on a lifting of the ban.

Former Soccer Player Leads Libyan Opposition

A former striker for Libya’s national soccer team with a passion for Italian soccer, who served until last month as Col. Moammar Gadaffi’s justice minister has emerged as the undisputed leader of the Libyan opposition.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a soft-spoken lawyer, who heads the opposition National Council in rebel-controlled Benghazi, has no ambition according to friends, to succeed Gadaffi. He owes his leadership to the fact that he was the only member of Gadaffi’s cabinet who dared criticize the Libyan leader publicly while in office and to his popularity as a soccer player.

Human Rights Watch last year praised Jalil for his criticism as justice minister of the security services, charging that they ignored court orders and held people in attention who had been acquitted by the courts.

Jalil brings to the task of coordinating the resistance to Gadaffi, achieving international recognition of the opposition, securing international military assistance and holding the opposition together a dogged determination not to be defeated.

Abdullah al-Mortdy, an architect and opposition activist in al-Bayda, remembers Jalil’s wild fury when he lost a football match as a boy. It was, Al-Mortdy told the Financial Times, symptomatic of a more important character trait: “He doesn’t like to be defeated.”

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Bin Hammam Calls For FIFA Pressure on Israel But Stops Short of Launching Soccer Peace Initiative

World soccer body FIFA is likely to toughen its stance on Israel if Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed Bin Hammam succeeds in challenging Sepp Blatter in FIFA presidential elections scheduled for June.

That is the conclusion of remarks made to World Football Insider by Bin Hamman, who has hinted that he will challenge Blatter, but has yet to formally announce his candidacy.
Bin Hammam has argued in recent months that FIFA needs a change of leadership to polish its image tarnished by corruption scandals and Blatter’s 12-year long imperious rule. FIFA insiders say Bin Hammam has only an outside chance in defeating Blatter.

Speaking to World Football Insider, Bin Hammam took FIFA to task for doing too little to press Israel to drop its crippling travel restrictions on Palestinian national team players who are based in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and need Israeli permission to travel from one territory to the other.

Palestinians attribute their failure to advance in the Olympics 2012 qualifiers to Israel’s refusal to allow eight of the 12 Gaza players requested by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) to travel to the West Bank for last week’s match against Thailand, the first official soccer game ever to be played on Palestinian territory.

Thailand won the match 6:5 on penalties.

PFA president Jibril Rajoub told World Football Insider that five of the eight banned players would have played against Thailand had they been allowed to travel. “Politics has nothing to do with sport. The Israelis are using this as an excuse, which is false and baseless, just to justify their irrational ideology to our Palestinian athletes,” Rajoub said.

Bin Hammam, who attended the match, said soccer could play a role in resolving the Israeli-Arab dispute, but that Israel had a responsibility to guarantee the freedom of movement of Palestinian players. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national who carries a diplomatic passport, was held by Israeli authorities at the border for two hours before being allowed to enter the West Bank.

“Through FIFA we are trying to correspond and encourage FIFA to take actions. But so far there is very little. I think Palestinians playing here on their soils we’ll be demanding much, much more than we used to do in the past,” Bin Hammam said, adding that this was “a big issue for the AFC.”

Blatter played a major role in making FIFA one of the few international organizations to recognize Palestine as a state, and admitting Palestine to the world soccer body as the only entity that does not represent a state. Blatter was also instrumental in the 2008 funding of the refurbishment of the Faisal al Husseini Stadium on the outskirts of Jerusalem where Palestine played its match against Thailand.

“I would like to support the Palestinian athletes, especially the footballers, to gain their independence and gain their own character,” Bin Hammam said.

Palestinian soccer players and officials say the travel bans prevent their national team from building cohesion. “Because we don’t meet all the time it is hard to create a proper harmony between the team,” said defender Nadeem Basem Barghot, who broke into tears at the end of the match against Thailand.

Bin Hammam said that he hoped that Israeli officials and supporters had watched the match and that that would allow the AFC as well as Palestinians and Israeli to “build the bridges between national associations and sports people.”
Israel competes in Europe since 1994 after it was earlier expelled from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). That was prior to Bin Hammam’s ascendancy to the AFC presidency in 2002.

Former Israeli player Mordechai Spiegler, who played alongside Pele at the New York Cosmos and scored Israel’s only World Cup finals goal in 1970, was one of the few Israelis to attend Palestine’s match against Thailand.

Bin Hammam suggested that the popular revolts against authoritarian rule sweeping the Middle East and North Africa could contribute to improving relations, at least as it regards soccer, between Israel and the Arabs. He said Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup would help to break down barriers in the region.

“The vision of Qatar 2022 is peace in the Middle East, and Palestine and the Israelis is the best example of where we’d like to see that -- this World Cup changing the lives of youth for the two nations,” Bin Hammam said.

Bin Hammam stopped short however of putting his money where his mouth is: pushing the AFC to readmit Israel. That would create an environment in which Israeli and Arab perceptions of one another could be broken down and in which Bin Hammam’s ambition to build bridges through soccer could flourish.

International tennis has created a precedent for Bin Hammam to match his words with deeds. In 2010, three Israeli tennis players appeared at the ATP World Tour and World Tennis Association tournaments in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates despite the two countries’ long-standing ban on sports encounters with Israel and Israeli passport holders crossing their borders.

Moreover, relations with Israel are no longer an alien concept for Middle Eastern nations. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with the Jewish state. Bin Hammam’s native Qatar alongside Oman, Bahrain, Morocco and Tunisia established trade relations with Israel during the heyday of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations following the Palestine Liberation Organization’s establishment of the Palestinian Authority as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Mauritania, a member of the Arab League, established full diplomatic relations with Israel. Those trade and diplomatic relations were only frozen when Israel attacked Gaza in late 2008.