Richard Whittall:

The Globalist's Top Ten Books in 2016: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

Middle East Eye: "

The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is one of the weightiest, most revelatory, original and important books written about sport"

“The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer has helped me immensely with great information and perspective.”

Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach: "James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport: “Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”
Play the Game: "Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal: "No one is better at this kind of work than James Dorsey"
David Zirin, Sports Illustrated: "Essential Reading"
Change FIFA: "A fantastic new blog'

Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life:
"James combines his intimate knowledge of the region with a great passion for soccer"

Christopher Ahl, Play the Game: "An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football

Monday, January 31, 2011

USSF Reluctant To Cancel Egyptian Soccer Match Reflects Muddled U.S.Foreign Policy

As the United States muddles through the crisis threatening the 30-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, so does the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) as it struggles with what to do about a friendly against Africa champion Egypt scheduled to be played in Cairo on February 9.

By failing to postpone the match amid warnings to travellers by the U.S. State Department not to travel to Egypt that is being wracked by mass anti-government demonstrations, U.S. plans to evacuate American citizens and the cancellation of most international flights to Cairo, the USSF like the U.S. government does not want to be seen as turning against an Egypt governed by Mubarak.

The USSF’s reluctance to cancel the match contrasts starkly with the Egyptian Football Association’s decision on Thursday to cancel all premier league matches in a bid to prevent soccer matches from becoming another platform for further protests.

The federation has yet to comment officially on the status of the match six days into massive demonstrations that have already forced Mubarak to appoint a new government and are gunning for his ousting. USSF officials say they are monitoring events in Cairo closely and are in contact with both the State Department and the U.S. embassy in the Egyptian capital.

In a bid to salvage the situation, the USSF is exploring the seemingly improbable possibility of playing the match in a third country.

Beyond the fact the Egyptian squad may find it difficult to get flights to a third country as long as Egypt is in turmoil, it also seems unlikely that the team and its management would want to leave behind their loved ones at a time that the country is in turmoil and Egyptians are forming neighbourhood militias to protect their families and property.

The team is also unlikely to want to risk being seen as abandoning what is a defining moment in Egyptian history. That risk is all the starker with Egyptian soccer fans playing a key role in the anti-government protests.

The U.S. team is scheduled to start arriving in Cairo late this week.

Anti-government protests in Sudan Could Threaten African Soccer Tournament

Anti-government protests sweeping the Arab world expanded into Sudan on Sunday, threatening the second African Cup of Nations for Home-Based Players (CHAN2011), scheduled to kick off on February 4.

Officials of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) are closely monitoring developments in Sudan after police beat and arrested students demanding the resignation of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir. Officials said privately they saw as of this writing no reason for the tournament to be cancelled.

CAF concern however is fuelled by mass protests in Egypt, with which Sudan is closely linked, that have already forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to appoint a new government and that are gunning for an end to his 30-year rule.

The Sudanese protests were inspired by the revolt in Egypt as well as mass protests in Tunisia that earlier this month ousted President Zine Abedine Ben Ali.

The student demonstrations coincided with the first announcement of the results of a referendum that is likely to see the cessation of the oil-rich southern part of Sudan from the rest of the country.

Uganda threatens meanwhile to become a casualty of the turmoil engulfing Egypt. Officials of the Federation of Ugandan Football Federations (FUFA) say the Egyptian turmoil has put into jeopardy the Ugandan national team’s preparations for the African Cup.

FUFA had expected to fund the preparations with $125,000 in prize money the national team earned earlier this month by ending second in the inaugural Nile Basin tournament that Egypt had organized prior to the eruption of the anti-Mubarak protests.

Egypt beat Uganda 3-1 in the final of the competition initiated by the Egyptian government to foster better relations among Nile Basin countries strained by disputes over water rights.

FUFA officials told Ugandan news website New Vision that Egypt was supposed to wire the prize money last week.

“With the current political changes taking place in Egypt, we are worried about the availability of the money,” New Vision quoted a FUFA official as saying. 

Libya Bans Soccer Matches In Fear of Anti-Government Protests

Libya, concerned that mass anti-government demonstrations in neighbouring Egypt and the toppling of President Zine Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia on its western border could fuel further protests in the North African country, has cancelled all soccer matches, according to Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language news network quoted unidentified Libyan sources as saying a state of emergency and a security alert had been declared in Libyan areas bordering on Egypt. It said security sources were deploying in the region.

The sources told Al Jazeera that security forces were instructed to stop all public gatherings. The decision of the Libyan Football Federation to cancel all matches is believed to have been taken as a result of government attempts to prevent further demonstrations in Libya.

Soccer has emerged as an important factor in the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world. Soccer fans in Egypt are a major force in the protests that have already forced President Hosni Mubarak to form a new government and are gunning to put an end to his 30-year rule.

Soccer riots in Jordan in December that left 250 people, including 30 policemen, wounded, exposed a deepening cleavage between the kingdom’s East Bank Bedouin population and Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

Algeria earlier this month also cancelled all soccer matches in a bid to prevent the pitch from becoming a platform for mass protests that forced the government to put a lid on commodity prices.

Libyans took to the streets earlier this month to protest corruption in public housing.

Egypt vs Mubarak

Farid Kahhat just posted this on his Facebook wall:

Blair Jr Hopes to Trade on Tarnished Name as Middle East Soccer Agent

The son of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Nicholas Blair, hopes to trade on the family name as a soccer agent for Middle Eastern players at a time that the policies with which his father is identified appear to be crumbling on the streets of Cairo and other Arab capitals.

Nicholas Blair has registered as a soccer agent with the Football Association in England.

Blair, 25, reportedly, established Magnitude Football together with Gabriel Moraes, a university friend. The two are believed to be scouring the Middle East for budding Arab soccer stars.

The younger Blair may have chosen an inconspicuous moment to target the Middle East. 

Events in the region over the past months have left core policies associated with Tony Blair, already identified with the controversial Iraq war, in shambles.

Blair, the current Middle East peace negotiator, for the Quartet which groups the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, has seen hopes dashed for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A combination of Israeli intransigence, Palestinian weakness and a disclosure that the Obama administration has all but abandoned the principles for peace adopted by the Quartet has all but given the peace process a death knell.

Soccer fans in Egypt are playing a key role in shaking the 30-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to its core in mass anti-government demonstrations in Egyptian cities.

The protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world that earlier this month toppled 
Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, put paid to Tony Blair’s support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East in the belief that Western interests were better served by stability than by democracy in the region.

The Middle East Nicholas Blair hopes to scour is even with the fate of Mubarak still hanging in the balance a very different world from the one in which his father was a prominent personality with unrivalled access to the chambers of power.

Middle Eastern rulers are rattled by the events in Cairo as well as the mass protests in Amman, Algiers, and Sana’a and rumblings of protest in Saudi Arabia, Syria,Kuwait, Libya and Sudan.

Irrespective of whether the toppling in in Ben Ali and the protests in Egypt spark a domino effect across the region, Middle Eastern leaders will have to be seen to be more in tune with the popular mood.

Britain is among several European nations that cautioned Mubarak in recent days not to employ violence to resolve the crisis engulfing his regime.

Nicholas Blair may well find that the new mood in the Middle East is one that further tarnishes the Blair name and could reduce the goodwill the soccer agent hopes to derive from it.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Zamalek Beats Ulinzi While Ahly Tries to Beat Mubarak

The roots of the rivalry between Cairo arch rivals Zamelek FC and Al Ahly Sporting Club were evident this weekend with Zamalek beating Kenya’s Ulinzi Stars 4:0 in Nairobi’s Nyayo National Stadium, while Ahly fans focused on protesting against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in the streets of Cairo.

“This victory is for Egypt,” Kenya’s The Nation newspaper quoted Zamalek coach and Africa’s most capped player, Hossam Hassan, as saying.

“We just played our best and concentrated on the game on the pitch. We pray and hope that things will be back to normal when we play in the return match at home,” Hassan said.

Zamalek scored its victory at the very moment that Al Ahly soccer fans emerged as one of the most significant forces in four days of protests that have already forced Mubarak to dismiss his government.

To be sure, large numbers of Zamalek fans went shoulder-to-shoulder on Egyptian streets with their Ahly rivals, demanding the departure of Mubarak as well as forming neighbourhood watch groups to guard against looters and thugs. Whether the bonding on the embattled streets of Egypt has a long-term effect on relations between the two clubs remains to be seen.

The dichotomy of Zamalek playing while much of Egypt battled to seal the country’s future is however more likely to ultimately fuel the two clubs’ century old feud.

The feud amounts to social and political warfare. Their vicious derbies on and off the pitch have caused death, destruction and in at least one case in the early 70s, the entire league to be cancelled. At stake is far more than pride; theirs is a struggle about nationalism, class and escapism. The rivalry was one reason the Egyptian Football Federation on Thursday cancelled all matches.

So deep-seated is their rivalry that the government insists that matches be played on neutral ground with foreign referees flown in to manage the game.  Hundreds of black-clad riot police, soldiers and plain clothes security personnel, worried about what the teams’ ultras, particularly those of Al Ahly, may have in store, surround the stadium on game day. Routes to and from stadiums are strictly managed so that opposing fans don’t come into contact with one another before or after the match.

The roots of their rivalry pre-date the revolution to when Britain ruled Egypt and soccer was regarded as the colonial power’s only popular cultural import. Founded more than a hundred years 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 average Egyptians. Its players still wear the red colors of the pre-colonial Egyptian flag.

Dressed in white, Zamalek, which originally was named Al Mohtalet or The Mix and then Farouk in honour of the than hated Egyptian monarch, was the club of the British colonial administrators and military brass as well as the Cairo upper class.

Independence did little to resolve the feud. El Ahly republicans represented the faithful, the poor and the nationalist. They battled Zamalek’s conservative royalists and bourgeois middle class and still do.

“Zamalek is the biggest political party in Egypt. We see the injustice of the football federation and the government against whatever once belonged to the king,” said Zamalek board member Hassan Ibrahim last year, discussing his club’s feud with Al Ahly. 

“The federation and the government see Zamalek as the enemy. Zamalek represents the people who express their anger against the system. We view Ahly as the representative of corruption in Egypt.” 

Soccer Fans Emerge as Driver in Egyptian Protests

Egyptian soccer fans are emerging as one of the most significant forces in four days of protests that have already forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to dismiss his government and are gunning for his ouster.

Prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, speaking on Al Jazeera,  said the uprising’s most effective organizational strength comes, in the words of Paul Woodward of the War in Context blog, from a quarter that has been ignored by most of the media: soccer fans known as ultras.

“The ultras — the football fan associations — have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment,” Alaa said on Al Jazeera. “Maybe we should get the ultras to rule the country,” he joked.
The ultras are fans of Cairo’s storied Al Ahly (The National) Sports Club. They are a key part of the alliance of youth activists, Islamists, and workers rebelling against the Egyptian government because of its failure to alleviate poverty, eradicate corruption and provide jobs as well as its employment of repression and torture to stymie opposition.

Commenting on the role of the soccer fans, Woodward noted “that the political power now unleashed across Egypt will topple the Mubarak regime not in spite of being leaderless but because it is leaderless — because it has no ideological or social bias but truly represents the will of the people.”
A Facebook statement by Al Ahly’s feared ultras said earlier this week that the group was determined to remain non-political, but that its members were free as individuals to participate in the protests. “The group emphasizes that its members are free in their political choices,” the statement said.
Established in 2007, the ultras -- modelled on Italy’s autonomous, often violent fan clubs -- have proven their metal in confrontations with the Egyptian police, who charge that criminals and terrorists populate their ranks.
“There is no competition in politics, so competition moved to the soccer pitch. We do what we have to do against the rules and regulations when we think they are wrong,” an El Ahly ultra said last year after his group overran a police barricade trying to prevent it from bringing flares, fireworks and banners into the stadium. “You don’t change things in Egypt talking about politics. We’re not political, the government knows that and has to deal with us,” he adds.

The involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt’s anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government’s worst nightmare. Soccer, alongside Islam, offers a rare platform for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration in the Middle East, a part of the world populated by authoritarian regimes that until the recent wave of protests sweeping the region controlled all public spaces.

Algeria earlier this month cancelled all association soccer matches in a bid to seal off a rallying point for demonstrations protesting rising commodity prices. Egypt cancelled its matches on Thursday. Riots in Jordan late last year that left 250 people injured exposed a deepening rift between East Bankers of Bedouin origin and Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

“Soccer is bigger than politics. It's about escapism. The average Ahly fan is a guy who lives in a one bedroom flat with his wife, mother-in-law and five kids. He is paid minimum wage and his life sucks. The only good thing about his life is that for two hours on a Friday he goes to the stadium and watches Ahly,” said Assad, a leader of Ahly’s ultras. 

Morocco to Host 2015 African Cup

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has awarded Morocco the hosting of the 2015 African Cup of Nations.

Morocco defeated South Africa, its only rival in the bid, which was awarded the 2017 tournament.

CAF also awarded to Morocco the hosting of the 2013 Africa Under-17 Championship.

The CAF decision is Morocco’s consolation prize after it lost in 2004 to South Africa the competition for last year’s World Cup.

Morocco hosted the Africa Cup once before in 1988.

The North African nation won the tournament in 1976.

Morocco has recently built stadiums in Fes, Marrakech and Tangiers to complement its venues in Casablanca and Rabat.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Israeli Soccer Commentator Under Fire for Alleged Racist Remarks

A prominent Israeli soccer commentator is being investigated by the Israel Broadcasting Authority on charges of having made off-camera racist remarks.

Danny Neuman, a former player for Betar Jerusalem, which has close ties, to Israel’s right wing and counts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu and other senior Israeli officials among its supporters, is accused of advocating the expulsion of left-wing fans of Betar rival Hapoel Tel Aviv and Israel’s Palestinian population. Hapoel is associated with Israel’s labour movement.

Neuman, a commentator for Israel’s Channel One, made his comments just before he this week commented on a match between Hapoel and Kiryat Shmone FC, according to Maariv newspaper.

Segments of Israel’s right-wing, including members of Netanjahu’s cabinet, favour resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and preserving the Jewish nature of Israel, by expelling the country’s Palestinian population.

Neuman, according to Maariv, charged that Hapoel fans were leftists and that if he was in power he  would ‘transfer’ them – Israeli political parlance for expulsion – together with the Palestinian population.

“After all, Hapoel Tel Aviv is the team with the largest number of Arab fans,” Maariv quoted Neuman  as saying.

Neuman, who has never hidden his political views but in the past expressed them in more circumspect language, was reported to have made his blunt comment in the presence of colleagues.

Maariv said that Neuman recognized his faux pas by the end of the Hapoel Tel Aviv – Kiryat Shmone match and denied making the remarks.

He suggested that he had been deliberately misquoted by Hapoel supporters. “The Hapoel 
Tel Aviv fans hate me from the days when I used to play for Betar, so why shouldn’t I hate them?” Maariv quoted Neuman as saying.

The paper said Neuman also asserted that he had not advocated expulsion of Palestinians but had noted that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman favoured transfer and that in Israel all views should be respected.

Israeli peace activists are demanding that the Israel Broadcasting Authority fire Neuman.

Activists Use 2022 World Cup to Force Improvement of Qatari Labor Conditions

Human rights and labour activists have embraced Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup as a way to pressure the oil-rich Gulf state to improve the working conditions of its majority expatriate workforce.

With foreigners accounting for three quarters of Qatar’s population, foreign labor, primarily from Asia, will shoulder the burden of building the world class soccer, transportation and hospitality facilities Qatar has promised for the World Cup.

Street signs in the Qatari capital Doha read: “Don’t kill us, we are at work.”
The signs are as much an admonition to vehicle drivers to be cautious as they are an appeal to Qatar’s population, many of whom have double-edged feelings towards the workers.

The workers are a necessarily evil, but over time they are almost certain to change the nature of society and make their impact on national culture and identity – a notion that sends chills down Qatari spines.

Unskilled and low skilled labor work in conditions of “forced labor,” Human Rights Watch researcher Samer Muscati told Canadian magazine MacLeans. Muscati asserts that unskilled workers earn $2,200 a year, working 12 hours a day. He says their salary is often less than what they were promised because of fees they owe to loansharking recruiters.

Worker conditions in Qatar do not differ radically from those in other Gulf states. Workers are often housed in poorly equipped labour camps far from the urban centers and their passports are held as a form of control by their employers.

A recent number of cases of female domestic staff in Saudi Arabia suffering rape, abuse and torture by their employers has also focused attention on the issue.

As a result, the activists' focus on expatriate labor conditions is likely to affect not only Qatar as a whole but virtually all the Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain.

Some Gulf states like Bahrain and the UAE have started to review their labor laws and systems, at least for managers and entrepreneurs by looking at abolishing the requirement of a sponsor or local partner.

Activists hope that pressure on Qatar will garner support from soccer fans and force Qatar to improve the conditions of workers in a bid to avoid its image being tarnished. Some soccer fans have expressed concerns in advance of the 2022 World Cup about Qatari restrictions on alcohol consumption and its ban on homosexuality.

In anticipation of the criticism, Qatar has moved to improve facilities in housing complexes being built for workers who are constructing facilities for various foreign institutions, including Georgetown University and Virginia Commonwealth University. The two universities are among a number of prestigious Western educational institutions running programs in Qatar and building campuses.

Labor conditions are likely to figure high on the agenda of the Middle East Economic Digest’s MEED Qatar Projects 2011 conference scheduled for February 8 and 9 in Doha, the first such major gathering since Qatar won its bid for the World Cup.

Preparing for the World Cup will involve “an unprecedented wave of investment in Qatar's social and commercial infrastructure,” said David Manfredi, Qatar country manager for Mott MacDonald, a global management, engineering and development consultancy.

Algerian Attitudes Toward Egyptian Crisis Colored by Soccer Rivalry

As Algeria struggles to come to grips with anti-government protests on its own turf, soccer is the key to why Algerian leaders are watching with mixed feelings Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fight for the survival of his 30-year rule.

Proponents of a domino theory in the Middle East identify Algeria alongside Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Libya as next in line to see mass protests rewrite its domestic political landscape. Algeria has witnessed on and off demonstrations for the past month in protest of rising commodity prices and for greater individual and political freedom.

Protests in Tunisia earlier this month ended the 23-year rule of Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, who has since gone into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Concern about who may be next to be targeted has gripped leaders across most of the Arab world and is no doubt prevalent in Algeria too.

But soccer has troubled the waters of Algerian-Egyptian relations for the past 30 years and there is not much love lost between the Egyptian and Algerian leaders.

Relations between Egypt and Algeria have yet to rebound after hitting rock bottom as a result of football riots on three continents after Algeria in 2009 defeated Egypt in a match that decided which of the two would progress to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.

The violent clashes 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. Some 100 Egyptians resident in Algeria were repatriated because of fears for their safety.

Libyan leader Col. Moammer Gadaffi intervened to prevent the dispute from escalating. Mubarak was quick to fan the flames and ride the tide of emotion to bolster his already tarnished image.

The tension was again palpable when Cairo’s Al Ahly’s Sport Club met Algeria’s JS Kabylie in August of last year in the Algerian town of Tizi-Ouzou. Al-Ahly’s team bus was pelted with stones and the team had to wait in the dressing room for hours after the game until JS Kabylie fans had left the stadium.

In a further indication of strained relations, Algeria initially refused to invite Egypt to the October 2010 Algiers Book Fair, but then decided to allow it one small stand instead of the 70 stands operated by Egyptian publishers at past book fairs in the Algerian capital.

An Egyptian foreign ministry advisor, Mahmoud Afifi told, the US embassy in Cairo in February of last year that Egypt was “seeking to publicly downplay the recent diplomatic row” with Algeria, but “the Algerians continue to antagonize,” according to a US diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks.

Afifi pointed out to a US diplomat Algerian media reports that took issue with Egypt’s relations with Israel and ‘’attacked the political equilibrium and the future of power in Egypt" – a statement that takes on a new relevance in the hindsight of events now unfolding on the streets of Cairo.

Afifi blamed continued Algerian antagonism on Said Bouteflika, the Algerian president’s younger brother, rather than on the Algerian leader himself and said it was likely a function of the North African state’s domestic politics.

Afifi noted that Algeria had yet to respond to Egyptian demands for $60 million in compensation for damages to 14 Egyptian businesses in Algiers caused by the November 2009 soccer riots. The Egyptian official said Algeria was obstructing Egyptian attempts to file insurance claims.

With mass protests threatening to fundamentally change the established order in the Arab world including Algeria, Bouteflika is likely to set aside a sense of glee about Mubarak’s quandary and let soccer bygones be bygones rather than tacitly support radical change in Egypt that could to put his own future in further jeopardy.

After World Cup 2022, Qatar wins 2015 World Handball Championship

Barely two months after winning the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar solidified its emerging position as a global sports hub by snagging the hosting of the 2015 handball world championships.

In doing so, Qatar fared better at the International Handball Federation in Malmo, Sweden, winning the hosting of both the men’s and women’s tournament than it did in the current championship. Qatar failed to qualify for the semi finals.

Qatar beat out defending Olympic, European and world champs France as well as Norway and Poland. The Gulf region has never before hosted a handball world championship.

Although a smaller competition than the World Cup, the world's biggest sporting event, successful organization of the handball competition will enhance confidence in the tiny Gulf state's ability to host the World Cup.

Last month's awarding by FIFA of the World Cup to Qatar sparked criticism because of its scorching summer heat, its small fan base as a result of a small population and questions about the integrity of its campaign to win the bid.

Egypt Blocks Independent Media, Allows Soccer and Illegal File Sharing

The embattled Mubarak regime may have selectively shutdown various news and communication outlets, but soccer news sites and illegal sharing sites are not among them, according to Gaza comedian Hani Almadhoun.

“So you might not be able to express your opinion, but you can still download pirated copies of Black Swan,” Almadhou says.

US Still Set to Play in Egypt

It seems improbable that the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) will send it's men's national team for a friendly match against Egypt to Cairo, wracked by mass anti-government protests demanding the overthrow of 82-year old Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The Washington Post is reporting that the USSF at this point still plans to let the match scheduled for February 9 go ahead as planned. The US players are scheduled to arrive in Cairo on February 6.

"As of now, we are still planning to play the match," the Post quoted USSF spokesman Neil Buethe as saying. Buethe said the federdation was monitoring the situation.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians are clashing as of this writing in unprecedented protests that have swept several countries in the Middle East and already toppled Tunisian President Zine Abidine Ben Ali. Its hard to see how calm will return to Cairo any time soon.

The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) on Thursday cancelled this weekend’s premier league soccer matches in advance of today’s protests. The cancellation was a bid to prevent soccer matches from becoming a platform for further protests.

EFA officials said privately that one reason for the cancellation was that security forces would not be able to secure the matches because they were tied up as a result of the protests.

A Facebook statement by Cairo Al Ahly Sport Club’s feared ultras said earlier this week that the group was determined to remain non-political, but that its members were free as individuals to participate in the protests.

Soccer fans, including the ultras, constitute a well-organized and feared pillar of the marshalling grassroots coalition that shows no sign of backing down in its demand for radical change in Egypt.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Al Jazeera Set to Hire Controversial British Sports Presenters

Al Jazeera, in a bid to beef up its English-language soccer coverage, is reportedly set to hire two controversial Sky Sports presenters, who left the British broadcaster this week amid allegations of having made sexist comments.

The expected hiring of Richard Keys and Andy Gray, reported by The Evening Standard, comes days after Jazeera won the rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 World Cups across the Middle East and North Africa.

Keys and Gray, a former Everton striker, were forced to leave Sky after they were caught on tapes leaked on the Internet making sexist comments about a female assistant referee, Sian Massey.

The two presenters’ departure was first reported by The Guardian.  Prominent soccer media critic Richard Whittall, writing on his blog, A More Splendid Life, wryly pointed out “the hypocrisy” of traditional media breaking the story given the  “sexism within its own ranks…” 

Whittall noted that traditional soccer media have “largely been completely dismissive of women's soccer (to the detriment of the development of the sport in England, as well as an echo of the sad legacy of the FA's relationship with women's football).”

Al Jazeera, one of the world’s top global broadcasters, has populated the staff of its English-language service with prominent broadcasters from major US and British broadcast companies.

The controversial network, owned by the ruling of family of Qatar, which last month won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, is playing an important role with its reporting in the escalating mass protests across the Arab world that earlier this month toppled Tunisian President  Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

UEFA Awards Hosting of U-21 Competition to Israel

UEFA Thursday restored a modicum of balance in the competition between Middle Eastern states for the rights to host major international sports events by naming Israel as the host nation for the 2013 European Under-21 Championship.

The awarding of UEFA’s premier age competition comes six weeks after FIFA voted to give the hosting of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, the first Middle Eastern state to become the venue of the world’s biggest sporting event. Qatar is current hosting the Asian Cup.

Although geographically located in the Middle East, Israel competes since 1994 in the European league after Arab states rejected it from the Asian confederation.
Israel’s winning bid for the U-21 championship faced competition from England, Bulgaria, Wales and the Czech Republic.

Israel previously hosted the European Under-16 tournament in 2000 and staged UEFA's annual Congress in Tel Aviv last year.

In advance of the U-21 tournament, Israel is building new stadia in Haifa, Netanya and Petah Tikva and upgrading Tel Aviv’s 60-year old National Stadium.

The awarding of the competition comes for Israel at a politically convenient time. This week’s disclosure by Al Jazeera of a cache of documents about US-sponsored efforts in the last ten years to forge peace with the Palestinians has portrayed Israel as seemingly unwilling to respond to far-reaching Palestinian concessions. Israel has so far declined to comment on the documents.

The disclosure, however, diminishes chances for an Israeli return return to competing in the Asian Cup. Proponents of Israel’s return argue that Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel since the ousting of the Jewish state from Asia and that various Arab states, including Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauretania maintained official trade relations with Israel until Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2008.

Egyptian Anti-Government Protest Force Cancellation of League Matches

With Egypt bracing itself for a fourth day of mass anti-government protests, the Egyptian Football Association says it has cancelled Friday’s premier league soccer matches.

The EFA in an announcement on its website gave no reason for the cancellation, which most probably is at the request of the government in a bid to prevent soccer matches from becoming a platform for further protests.

“The EFA board has decided to postpone the first division games that were scheduled for 28 and 29 January. The fixtures will be determined later,” statement said

Four league matches were scheduled over the Egyptian weekend for Friday and three on Saturday. Cairo’s Zamalek’s was scheduled to play Haras El-Hodoud on Monday. The EFA said the games would be rescheduled at a later date.

Anti-government activists have called for mass protests after midday prayers on Friday. At least seven people have died so far in the protests aimed at forcing 82-year old Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from office.

EFA officials said privately that one reason for the cancellation was that security forces would not be able to secure the matches because they were tied up as a result of the protests.

A Facebook statement by Cairo Al Ahly Sport Club’s feared ultras said earlier this week that the group was determined to remain non-political, but that its members were free as individuals to participate in the protests.

Soccer fans, including the ultras, constitute a well-organized and feared pillar of the marshalling grassroots coalition determined to ensure that Mubarak suffers the same fate as Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was toppled earlier this month by similar mass demonstrations.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

European Clubs See Opportunity in Middle East’s Failure in Asia Cup

Mounting criticism of Middle Eastern nations' failure to nurture soccer talent at a young age in the wake of the region’s dismal performance in this year’s Asian Cup in Qatar has created a business opportunity for European clubs like FC Arsenal and FC Inter Milan.

Both clubs have in recent days announced that they were opening soccer schools in the Middle East and North Africa. The schools offer the clubs an opportunity to generate cash and scout for young talent.

They also allow ruling Arab elites, rattled by mass protests across the Middle East and North Africa, to project an image of tackling an issue that has sparked criticism from the media and soccer professionals alike as a result of all Middle Eastern nations being knocked out of the Asia tournament in Qatar by the quarter finals.

In the latest initiative, Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC) secretary general Mohammad Ebrahim Al Mahmoud this week announced the opening of an Inter Milan Academy for nine to 12 year olds in Zayed Sports City, funded by Mubadala Development Company, one of the oil-rich emirate’s sovereign wealth funds

"The school is a new product of the three-year strategic agreement between the ADSC and Internazionale Club in Italy which was signed in 2008. It will be the first of its kind in the Middle East and will cater for youngsters from nine to 12 years of age." Al Mahmoud said.

Earlier this month, Arsenal, which already operates schools in Bahrain, Dubai, Oman,  Morocco and Egypt said it would be opening this year at least six more schools in the Middle East and North Africa.

In a burst of optimism, Arsenal included Tunisia, which has been wracked by protest demonstrations for more than a month that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and inspired demonstrators to take to the streets across the Middle East in protest against rising commodity prices and lack of political freedom.

"The vision of Arsenal Soccer Schools is to promote a positive learning environment in which young players can both improve their understanding of the game, developing young player technical skills and gain confidence as individuals," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenge said announcing the planned openings.

Arsenal spokeswoman Katie Baldwin said in an email that the schools were primarily recreational rather than intended to groom players. The schools’ sessions provide a fun safe environment to play football and make friends, with the guidance of coaches that follow the Arsenal approach to the game in terms of playing style,” Baldwin wrote.

The Jeddah-based Arab News noted in an editorial that Saudi Arabia, a country that historically has put a greater premium on religious education than on learning the skills that advance careers, has yet to allocate resources to develop soccer at a young age or establish a training academy for talented players.

In a related development, OneWorld 2011 founder Bob Walsh argued in The Huffington Post that soccer was a tool to further understanding between youth in the United States and the Muslim World. One World is organizing a four day skills training in Seattle in September, the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.

Al Jazeera Wins World Cup Broadcast Rights

Al Jazeera, the Qatar-owned path-breaking but controversial television network, has won the right to broadcast the 2018 Russia and 2022 Qatar World Cups in the Middle East and North Africa, FIFA said in a statement.

Fifa said Al Jazeera had acquired the right to air the games via cable TV, satellite, terrestrial, mobile and broadband in 23 territories and countries in the first broadcast-rights deal to be struck since last month’s awarding of hosting of the tournaments to Russia and Qatar.

FIFA did not disclose what Al Jazeera paid for the broadcast rights.

Al Jazeera Sports in 2009 paid a reported US$1 billion for the rights for the sports content broadcast by Arab Radio and Television, which included the FIFA World Cup in 2010 in South Africa and the 2014 tournament to be played in Brazil.

“Al Jazeera Sport more than proved its commitment to delivering high-calibre coverage to football fans during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. FIFA’s aim is to make the World Cup as accessible to as many people around the world as possible – and for this we thankfully have an immensely strong partner in Al Jazeera Sport for the Middle East and North Africa,” the statement quoted FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke as saying..

Al Jazeera ran into problems during last summer’s South African World Cup when viewers across the Middle East and North Africa experienced interference during several games, including pixelated images, blank screens and commentaries in the wrong language. The disruptions were reportedly traced to Jordan where hackers were believed to have deliberately disrupted the broadcasts. Al Jazeera charged that the disruptions constituted "space terrorism".

Soccer Fans Play Key Role in Egyptian Protests

With Egypt entering its second day of unprecedented anti-government protests, soccer fans constitute a well-organized and feared pillar of the marshalling grassroots coalition determined to ensure that President Hosni Mubarak suffers the same fate as Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was toppled earlier this month by mass demonstrations.

The soccer fans, including the ultras of Cairo’s storied Al Ahly (The National) Sports Club, are part of an alliance of youth activists, Islamists, and workers protesting against the government’s failure to alleviate poverty, eradicate corruption and provide jobs as well as its employment of repression and torture to stymie opposition. 

Protestor’s demands range from increased political freedoms, to dismissal of the hated interior minister to an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule and guarantees that the 82-year old leader will not be succeeded by his son, Gamal.

“What we saw on the streets yesterday (Tuesday) are not just Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathizers but Egyptians at large; those are the Egyptians that you would see supporting the football national team – and their show of frustration was genuine and it had to be accommodated," a prominent parliament member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party told Egypt’s government-controlled Al Ahram newspaper.

A Facebook statement by Al Ahly’s feared ultras said earlier this week that the group was determined to remain non-political, but that its members were free as individuals to participate in the protests. “The group emphasizes that its members are free in their political choices,” the statement said.

Established in 2007, the ultras -- modelled on Italy’s autonomous, often violent fan clubs -- have proven their metal in confrontations with the Egyptian police, who charge that criminals and terrorists populate their ranks.

“There is no competition in politics, so competition moved to the soccer pitch. We do what we have to do against the rules and regulations when we think they are wrong,” said an El Ahly ultra last year after his group overran a police barricade trying to prevent it from bringin flares, fireworks and banners into the stadium. “You don’t change things in Egypt talking about politics. We’re not political, the government knows that and has to deal with us,” he adds.

The involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt’s anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government’s worst nightmare. Soccer, alongside Islam, offers a rare platform in the Middle East, a region populated by authoritarian regimes that control all public spaces, for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration. 

Algeria earlier this month cancelled a weekend of association soccer matches in a bid to seal off a rallying point for demonstrations protesting rising commodity prices. Riots in Jordan late last year that left 250 people injured exposed a deepening rift between East Bankers of Bedouin origin and Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

“Soccer is bigger than politics. It's about escapism. The average Ahly fan is a guy who lives in a one bedroom flat with his wife, mother-in-law and five kids. He is paid minimum wage and his life sucks. The only good thing about his life is that for two hours on a Friday he goes to the stadium and watches Ahly,” said Assad, a leader of Ahly’s ultras, “People suffer, but when Ahly wins they smile,” 

El Ahly board member Khaled Motagi, scion of the club’s first post-revolution chairman added in a BBC radio documentary, The Power and The Passion. Ahly has given its fans reason to smile, winning Egypt’s championship 34 and the African cup six times; rival Zamalek secured the Egyptian title 14 and the African one five times.

It’s no wonder that Al Ahly’s rivalry with fellow Cairo club Al Zamalek is the world’s most violent derby. Their vicious rivalry on and off the pitch has caused death, destruction and in at least one case in the early 70s, the entire league to be cancelled.

So deep-seated is their rivalry that the government insists that matches be played on neutral ground with foreign referees flown in to manage the game.  Hundreds of black-clad riot police, soldiers and plainclothes security personnel, worried about what the teams’ ultras may have in store, surround the stadium on game day. Routes to and from stadiums are strictly managed so that opposing fans don’t come into contact with one another before or after the match.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

FIFA Unlikely to Stand Up for Women’s Rights in Iran

FIFA President Sepp Blatter is one of the few men able to influence Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, but with a row brewing over women's rights in football in the country, it would still be a surprise to see the world's governing body act.

Read the rest of my article on Inside Futbol

Gulf States Look at Soccer to Tackle Demographic Problems

As the United Arab Emirates and other energy-rich Gulf states like Qatar investigate ways to redress their demographic imbalances, soccer constitutes both a litmus test of how far governments have yet to go in building equitable societies and an instrument to give their expatriate populations a feeling of having a stake in their newly-found homes.

A mere 13 percent of the UAE’s population has citizenship. In Qatar that figure jumps to 26 percent in Qatar while Kuwaitis account for 34 percent of Kuwait’s population. Those percentages are dropping as Gulf states import large numbers of expatriate labor to staff their countries’ rapid development. The decreasing number of their own nationals is forcing the Gulf states to explore ways of maintaining their identity and ensuring that their minority political and social control is sustainable.

With expatriates having virtually no rights to indefinite permanent residency, let alone citizenship, that is a tall order. The question is whether it is at all possible over the long-term or whether Gulf states will at some point have to embrace radical, for many frightening change.

The UAE’s Federal National Council warned in a report that long-term expatriates were likely to eventually demand “political rights”, the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, The National, reported. UAE Interior Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed told the Council that the government had almost finalized its strategy to tackle the demography issue.

While Gulf governments are cautiously seeking to come to grips with a situation in which over time they are likely to have to grant rights to at least some segments of their expatriate population such as natives of other Gulf states or, if casting a broader net, Arab immigrants, they have yet to take steps, that would immediately diminish a sense among a majority of foreigners of being at best tolerated guns for hire.

Western consultants advising Gulf institutions on various ways of tackling what could be the largest time bomb threatening Gulf states, point to soccer as an effective release valve that would give expatriates some sense of stake in the society they live in and encourage a virtually absent degree of bonding between expatriates and locals.

“The region’s soccer culture fails to bring population groups together. The infrastructure is geared exclusively to nationals, not to the populations as a whole. Resident expats are not allowed to play in local clubs. The result is empty stadia. Governments lack cultural enterprise when it comes to soccer. They are starting to develop a vision but nothing happens overnight,” says one consultant who has advised governments and soccer clubs across the region.

The focus on local nationals rather than the whole population is one reason Qatar has had problems filling its stadia during the Asia Cup and explains the overall low spectator rate at soccer games in many of the smaller Gulf states.  

Complicating efforts to develop soccer as an integrative tool are the Gulf’s deeply ingrained tribal relationships that mitigate against opening soccer to the region’s population as a whole rather than only to its nationals. Many of the region’s clubs have tribal roots.

FIFA suspended Kuwait twice in 2007 and 2008 because of alleged government interference in the country’s soccer association. At issue was the fact that FIFA objected to the board of the Kuwaiti federation having too many members. Tribal politics rendered streamlining of the board impossible, all the more so given the royal family’s close association with the federation. Joining a soccer board is a platform for launching a political career, says Jon Nordenson in an analysis on the Gulf Research Unit’s Blog. Kuwait’s twelve main tribes account for half of the country’s voters.

Tribal relations carry relatively more weight in a region in which citizenship and national identity are fluid concepts. Raymond Barret recalls in The Guardian applying what he describes as the Norman Tebbit sporting loyalty test during the half time of the 2007 Asian Cup final when he queried an Emirati in a coffee shop in Dubai, one of seven emirates or states that constitute the federal UAE. “This young Emirati citizen confessed that, given the choice, he'd rather play up front for a Dubai "national" team than the UAE, his supposed homeland,” Barrett reported.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Gloves Are Off: Bin Hammam Calls For End to Blatter’s FIFA Rule

The gloves are off in Qatar’s escalating feud with FIFA President Sepp Blatter. 

Asian Football Confederation chief Mohamed bin Hammam, a Qatari national unlikely to act without at least tacit government backing, lashed out on Monday, charging that Blatter had served too long as head of soccer’s world governing body and needs to be replaced.

Bin Hammam’s remarks are the latest sign that he may be preparing to challenge Blatter in May when the 74-year old FIFA president is up for re-election if no other credible challenger emerges. “I did not make up my mind yet,” Bin Hammam told the Associated Press. “I would rather wait and see.”

Bin Hamman has suggested in the past that his ambition was to become FIFA president, but has always left unclear whether he feels that the May election is the right time to do so.

“I’m actually seeking to see competition within FIFA for the post. I would prefer to see two candidates proposing themselves, or maybe more than two proposing themselves to the congress of FIFA,” Bin Hammam said. “Competition is good for the organization, whether president or any other posts. Competition is the best way to make the organization vibrant and alive.”

FIFA and Qatar have been at loggerheads since the world body last month awarded Qatar the hosting of the 2022 World Cup. Blatter supported by UEFA President Michel Platini has been pressuring Qatar to move the 2022 tournament from June/July to January because of the oil-rich emirate’s extreme summer temperatures and to allow other Gulf states to co-host the world’s biggest sporting event.  

Bin Hammam has rejected the suggestions of both Blatter and Platini, but hinted in the Associated Press interview that he and Qatar were reserving final judgement until after the May election of a new FIFA president.

“We in FIFA should stop acting on behalf of people who are going to be in power in the future,” he said. “There will be a different executive committee in FIFA which will be in power that day. Let them decide what is best for 2022,” Bin Hammam said. “Why are we rushing? Why are you in hurry to decide something for 2022?”

Qatari rejection of Blatter’s pressure forced FIFA last week to issue a statement quashing talk of holding the Qatar World Cup in the winter rather than the summer because of the Gulf state’s scorching summer heats. The statement acknowledged that such a proposal could only come from Qatar itself and that no such suggestion had been put forward.

The FIFA statement was in part prompted by fears that a change in the terms of Qatar’s successful bid  in which it beat Australia, the United States, Japan and South Korea, could force it to cancel Qatar’s victory and hold a new bid for the hosting of the 2022 World Cup.

The dispute over whether the tournament should be held in Qatar’s average temperatures of above 40 degrees Celsius has divided European club soccer. England Football Association General Secretary Alex Horne sided with Bin Hammam, warning that switching the Qatar tournament from June/July to January as a 'logistical nightmare' because it would require a winter break in the Premier League.

On the other hand, Philipp Lahm, who captained Germany at last year's World Cup, said it would be "madness" to stage a summer World Cup in the Middle East and FIFA's inspection team said conditions were a potential health hazard to players and supporters.

Qatar has insisted that the fierce summer heat will not be a problem as all its stadiums will be air-conditioned.

In the Associated Press  interview, Bin Hammam charged that Blatter, who has been in office since 1998, had contributed to perceptions of FIFA as corrupt and non-transparent. 

The awarding of the bid to Qatar has been tarnished by unproven allegations of illicit deals to enhance Qatar’s chances of winning as well as the Gulf state’s almost unprecedented spending spree for its campaign that while legal has raised questions about loopholes in the FIFA rules governing the bidding process.

“Everybody is going to accuse us today as corrupted people because maybe people see Mr. Blatter has stayed a long time in FIFA. Thirty-five years in one organization is quite long time. No matter how clean you are, honest or how correct you are, still people will attack you. You are going to be defenseless. That is why I believe change is the best thing for the organization,” the Associated Press quoted Bin Hammam as saying.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Jordanian Performance in Asia Cup Boosts Business and Women’s Soccer

Jordan may have been knocked out of the Asia Cup by Uzbekistan in the quarterfinals, but the team’s performance has boosted the country’s women’s soccer, an often controversial issue across the Middle East, as well as its soccer business.

At the very moment that Iran was banning women from watching soccer matches in public, Jordanian women were joining their male families to watch their team play in Qatar on television and welcome their national squad’s festive return to Amman, The Jordan Times reports.

Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of King Abdullah, who earlier this month was elected to the FIFA executive committee, campaigned on a platform that called for increased support for women’s soccer. Jordan’s women’s national team last year won the gold medal in the Women’s Football Cup Arabia 2010.

Women interviewed by the Jordan Times attributed the boost in female interest in the beautiful game to the performance of the Jordanian squad in Qatar. Some of those interviewed said it had shifted their interest away from European teams. Those interviewed said however they preferred to watch games at home rather than in coffeehouses.

Businesses in the Jordanian capital reported a similar boost in the wake of the Asia Cup, according to the newspaper. Businesses said they were witnessing increased purchases of Jordanian flags, T-shirts, jerseys of shopper’s favourite players, music CDs celebrating the Jordanian team and shmaghs, the red and white male Jordanian headgear.

“Before the start of the Cup, only tourists came to buy T-shirts to have something to remind them of Jordan. Now, all Jordanians are coming to buy team T-shirts," the newspaper quoted sports shop owner Ahmed Mahassir, as saying.

One key question yet to be answered is whether the boost in interest in soccer will position the game as a unifying or divisive force in Jordan at a time that the country is experiencing mass demonstrations in the wake of the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Protestors are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai and improved economic conditions.

Soccer has factored in recent protests in Jordan in ways it didn’t in protests elsewhere in the Arab world. Riots erupted last month after a match between Amman arch rivals Al-Wahdat and Al-Faisali and left 250 people, including 30 police officers, injured.
Al Faisali is widely seen as an East Bank team while Al Wahdat symbolizes both urbanized Palestinians as well as some 1. 8 million Palestinians that live as refugees in the kingdom, often in camps like Al Wahdat to which the soccer club traces its origins. Al Wahdat President and well-known businessman Tareq Khouri was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison barely two weeks after the riots for insulting a police officer during at Al Wahdat-Al Faisali match in March of last year.

Paradoxically, Jordanians cheered their national team in Qatar while at the same time hitting the streets of Jordanian cities to protest their government’s policies and demand the very kind of reforms in terms of transparency and good governance that Prince Ali wants to see introduced to FIFA.

So far, the protests have cut across the dividing line between East Bank Jordanians of Bedouin stock and urbanized, more affluent Jordanians of Palestinian origin. It remains to be seen whether the enhanced status of the Jordanian team will reinforce that trend or whether widespread discontent in Jordan will exasperate other cleavages in Jordanian society, including a widespread sense of discrimination among Jordanians of Palestinian descent when it comes to employment in the public sector employment and the military as well as an electoral system for the lower house of parliament that allegedly favours East Bank representation.

Government Interference Undermines Middle Eastern Soccer’s Prospects

If there is a lesson in all eight Middle Eastern teams being knocked out of the Asia Cup, it is that they need to stop judging their coaches on the principle of ‘you are as good as your team’s last victory.’

Frenchman Bruno Metsu has led Qatar’s national team to its best performance ever in an international tournament, proving that the tiny Gulf state can hold its own on the pitch. Contrary to expectations, Qatar made it to the quarterfinals, narrowly being knocked out of the tournament by a 3:2 defeat by Japan.

"We wanted to show Asia and the world that we have a good team and we succeeded in that. "I am happy with the performance of the entire team and the coach. They gave their best," said Qatar Football Association (QFA) President Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed al Thani after Qatar’s loss.

Yet, Metsu’s job is on the line the line when the QFA meets this week to evaluate Qatar’s performance in the Asia Cup. Al Thani’s comments notwithstanding, Qatari newspapers are quoting QFA officials as saying that Metsu, who with his appointment in 2008 has lasted longer than many coaches in the Middle East, may find it difficult to hold on to his job.

Qatar “failed in two GCC Cups, World Cup qualifiers and the Asian Cup,” the Qatar Tribune quoted another QFA official as saying.

To be fair, the QFA prides itself on distinguishing itself on being deliberate and cautious in its personnel decisions. “The QFA is unlike a federation that has hired and fired 28 coaches in the last 20 years,” a QFA executive said in a swipe against Saudi Arabia, which axed two coaches during this month’s Asian Cup alone.

Politics rather than patience is often at the core of the Middle East’s high turnover of national soccer coaches. In a soccer-crazy world of authoritarian regimes, football offers one of society’s few release valves. With soccer associations largely controlled by those regimes, soccer often serves as a barometer for the stock of regimes who as events in Tunisia show already have low credibility. Government control aims to prevent soccer from providing an alternative space for anti-government protest.

“If the gulf between the East and the West, the North and South in Asia has to be bridged, it is important for federations here to disband their hire and fire policies and adopt a more patient approach, one that looks into the future and considers the long-term goals of each nation,” says soccer writer Duane Fonseca in a commentary in Sport 360.

The Arab world’s short term results-oriented approach to soccer undermines the ability of national teams to develop a successful style of their own that works and produces a degree of pressure and uncertainty among coaches and players that is bound to result in failure. 

That trend is likely to be reconfirmed in the coming months as loosing Asia Cup Arab teams decide the fate of their coaches. The Slovenian coach Srecko Katanec of the national team of the UAE, which was a disappointment in Doha, is likely to be back on the job market by June when his contract is up for renewal.

“Football is a progression, you reap what you sow and sometimes patience is key,” Fonseca says. “When the (Asia Cup) final is played out on January 29, the side that lifts the trophy will demonstrate just that!”

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Should FIFA ban Iran?

Some have responded on various soccer fora to my blog post, Iran Bans Women From Watching Asian Cup in Movie Theaters, saying FIFA should ban or sanction Iran. Its an interesting proposition. Sanctions haven't swayed Iran on the nuclear issue but soccer is a much more emotive, passionate matter in Iran. And as mentioned in my post, Iran Coach Calls For Politics-free Soccer, the Iranian regime is extremely sensitive to soccer-sparked anti-government protests.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Iran Bans Women from Watching Asian Cup in Movie Theaters

Women in Iran could be banned in advance of Iran’s crucial Asian Cup game against South Korea from watching soccer matches in public movie theatres, according to government-affiliated Iranian media organizations. The ban would amount to a virtual prohibition on women watching soccer in public given that they are also barred from stadia when men play.

The proposed ban, reported by the semi-official ILNA news agency and Khabar Online, came in response to a statement by an unidentified police agency warning that "the presence of women and families at movie theatres increases security risks and inappropriate behaviour."

It was not immediately clear whether the Iranian ministry of culture and guidance has confirmed the proposed ban. Iranian movie industry executives said they were waiting to hear a decision from the ministry.

Khabar Online, however, reported that the ban had become effective prior to this week’s match between Iran and the UAE, which was shown in three theatres in Tehran. Khabar Online said women would not be allowed to see the upcoming Iranian match against South Korea.

Iranians have flocked to movie theatres to watch their national team play in Qatar, hoping that its advance to the quarterfinals in the Asian Cup games will position it to win this year’s tournament.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2006 reversed a decision by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to allow women to attend soccer games in stadia. Khamenei and other hard-line government officials and clerics argue that the presence of women at men's sporting events violates Islamic law.

Qatar’s Winning of 2022 World Cup Produces First Peace Dividend

Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup appears to be producing its first peace dividend. As part of its need to put infrastructure for the tournament in place, Qatar has revived plans to build a bridge to the Gulf island state of Bahrain. That may not sound like a big deal but relations between the two states have been troubled by disputes over territory and fishing rights.

Dubbed the ‘Friendship Bridge,’ Qatar and Bahrain first discussed plans to build the 40 kilometer-long bridge more than a decade ago. A 2001 International Court of Justice decision in the two Gulf states’ dispute over the Hawar Islands in favour of Bahrain did little to smooth feathers and put the bridge project back on track.

Qatar’s need to fill its stadia during the World Cup has however suddenly elevated its interest in building the $4 billion bridge to Bahrain, that is not only more populously, but is also linked to Saudi Arabia, the region’s powerhouse, by a causeway. The bridge will enable road traffic from the kingdom’s oil-rich eastern province to Qatar. Annually some 5 million Saudis use the causeway to visit Bahrain, a 45 minute drive from cities like Khobar or Dhahran.

"It is a must for both countries, even without the World Cup," said Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said.

The bridge would enhance Bahrain’s access to Qatar, the world’s third largest natural gas producer, and strengthen its position as a regional transport hub.