By James M. Dorsey
Millions across the Middle East and North Africa will cheer Algeria, the only Arab squad to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, when it meets Belgium this week in its first tournament match. That enthusiasm, certainly among fans who are aware of their power, is however likely to be tempered by the growing realization that politics, political interference, and whimsical micro-management by vain club owners has stymied performance by potential regional powerhouses.
Fan power has been evident across the region since the first popular revolts erupted in the Middle East and North Africa more than three years ago even if many did not realize that they were continuing a tradition of soccer playing an important role in the region’s development for more than a century.
Militant, highly politicized, well-organized and street battle-hardened fans helped topple in 2011 Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as well as Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Algerian stadia are hotbeds of opposition against the country’s military-dominated regime and have been for much of the past century. Fans in Saudi Arabia forced the first ever resignation in the Gulf as a result of popular pressure of a member of a ruling family. Soccer pitches in the kingdom, where women’s sports remains controversial and enjoys no government support, are also battlegrounds for the right of women to play soccer.
Across the region, stadia are barometers of a country’s political temperature and venues where political and social taboos are first broken. The battle for greater political freedom often starts in stadia, one of only two public spaces alongside mosques that autocratic leaders find difficult to fully control and cannot simply shut down because of soccer’s immense popularity.
“The fact is that sport cannot be separated from what goes on in a particular society and how this society’s institutions function. As such, there is no reason for a nation to perform well in football when it is suffering from an institutional failure in every other sector,” said Faisal J. Abbas, editor of the English-language website of the Saudi-owned Arabiya network, established to counter Qatar’s Al Jazeera.
In a remarkably blunt editorial published in the Saudi Gazette, Mr. Abbas identified the Middle East and North Africa’s core problem: the lack of properly functioning institutions that are often little more than hollow shells or whose functioning is impeded by autocrats who fear anything and everything that they cannot fully control.
As a result, the boards of soccer clubs and associations are populated by regime lackeys, corrupt officials and members of the ruling elite. Proper management is complicated by rulers’ efforts to identify themselves with the game to shore up their often tarnished images and whimsical micro-management by princely club owners.
A cursory look at Middle Eastern soccer tells it all. Palestinians are pressing world soccer body FIFA to sanction Israel for preventing the proper functioning of their national squad by imposing travel restrictions and other restrictive measures. They are also campaigning against an Israeli bid to become one of 13 host cities of 2020 European Championship or Euro 2020.
Israel competes in Europe after Middle Eastern soccer associations forced it out of the Asian Football Association (AFC) in the early 1990s. Palestine, a national team without a country, never made it out of the starting block in the walk-up to the World Cup four years ago because Israel prevented it from fielding the required 11 players for their first qualifying match against Singapore.
Iran, the only other Middle Eastern squad competing in Brazil, was hampered in its preparations by lack of funds as a result of sanctions imposed because of the nuclear issue. Iranian media reported that the country’s soccer federation, was forced to purchase poor quality kits. It reportedly instructed players to wash their kits in cold water to avoid shrinkage and not to engage in Brazil in the traditional exchange of shirts with opponents because the federation could not afford to buy enough.
Lebanese preoccupation amid a domestic political crisis and the potential fallout of sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq with the fact that a majority of the population is unable to watch World Cup matches on television because of the high cost of decoders says much about the importance of soccer. Interior Minister Nohad al-Mashnouk raised this issue with Qatar, which owns regional broadcast rights after it was discussed in the Cabinet, according to Al-Monitor. Shite militia Hezbollah refused during the Cabinet meeting to share its cracking of the code needed to watch matches with its Sunni counterparts.
Saudi soccer is hampered not only by politics but also by opposition by parts of its clergy which sees the sport as an infidel conspiracy. Saudi players find it tough to keep up with international standards because the government and the soccer association discourage the kingdom's players from joining foreign clubs. Fans of popular club al-Hilal are meanwhile in uproar because the wife of its Romanian coach gambles in Las Vegas and is a Playboy model.
“It is the absence (in the World Cup) of the more stable Gulf countries, renowned for their feverish fondness for football, which raises several questions, particularly as most Gulf nations have a vast amount of resources and are able to provide the infrastructure and facilities for their players to enable them to compete at an international level. Actually, it is embarrassing that the national teams of countries, such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar did not qualify for Brazil 2014, while these countries, or representatives of them, own some of the biggest and most successful European football clubs,” Mr. Abbas said.
In a country, in which editors are government-appointed, that views elections as an infidel institution, has responded to calls for change across the region by increasing both social spending and repression, and in which the results of premier league clubs associated with various members of the kingdom’s secretive royal family are seen as a barometer of their relative status, Mr. Abbas did not mince his words.
“There are some positive signs that Gulf football might be headed in the right direction. In Saudi Arabia, where the responsibility for developing the sport is entrusted to the head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), an interesting development is that it has recently been decided that the president of SAFF will no longer be appointed, but is to be elected. This means that what was once an honorary position filled by a member of the Royal Family, who is not necessarily an athlete or a footballer himself, will now be up for grabs and will be filled by a suitable candidate who will be held accountable for the success or failure of the national team,” he said.
Fan anger at the poor performance of the Saudi national team in recent years and some members of the ruling family who see clubs they own as their personal fiefdoms forced in 2012 the unprecedented resignation of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal as head of the SAFF. Unlike the prince, his successor, a commoner, storied former player Ahmed Eid Alharbi who is widely viewed as a reformer and proponent of women’s soccer, was elected. Prince Nawaf retains however ultimate power through his position as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and the government’s General Presidency of Youth Welfare that effectively controls the SAFF.
Mr. Abbas did not limit his criticism to the kingdom. Referring to allegations of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, he said: “it is also additionally embarrassing that our capability – as Arabs – to dominate newspaper headlines is confined to accusations based on recently leaked documents and letters showing that Qatar paid large sums of money to secure the honour of hosting the World Cup in 2022. If proven, such accusations are not only going to turn what was perhaps the only Arab success into a scandal, but will also be damaging to the reputation of Qatar, and of Arabs in general, given that they reinforce a negative stereotype that we – as Arabs – can’t secure a victory unless we buy it.”
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title