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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Iranian Azeri soccer protests raise spectre of Turkish-Iranian-Syrian proxy war

Nationalist fans demand unification with post-Soviet Azerbaijan

By James M. Dorsey

Nationalist and environmental soccer protests in recent months in the Bagh Shomal and Yadegar-e-Emam stadiums in Tabriz, the capital of the Iranian province of Eastern Azerbaijan, have raised the spectre of ethnic strife in the Islamic republic and a Turkish-Syrian-Iranian war using ethnic proxies.

The sporadic protests come as regional tension is mounting over the crisis in Syria as a result of President Bashar al-Assad’s eight month-old brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters.

With increasing pressure on Turkey to intervene in Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutuoglu on Tuesday appeared for the first time to leave the door open for possible Turkish military intervention, Mr. Davutuoglu warned at a news conference that Turkey was "ready for all possible scenarios" but had as yet not considered military intervention and didn’t want to.

Mr. Davutuoglu appeared in statements at his news conference and interviews with Turkish media to be deliberately creating confusion about Turkish intentions. The foreign minister told private Turkish television channel Kanal 24 that Turkey may create a military buffer zone inside Syria should tens of thousands of Syrian seek refuge in Turkey. At his news conference, Mr. Davutuoglu said that a buffer zone was "not on the agenda."

The prospect of greater Turkish involvement in the Syrian crisis coupled with Turkey’s decision this weekend to impose economic sanctions on Syria alongside the Arab League raises the spectre of a tit-for-tat proxy war that would involve not only Syria and Turkey but also Syria’s main backer, Iran. Turkish officials are concerned that Syria and Iran, both of which have effectively halted their security cooperation with Turkey, will step up support for Turkish Kurdish guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that in recent months has increased its attacks on Turkish targets.

Fears of a war using proxies are fuelled by Turkey’s tacit support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) formed by Syrian military defectors who have been seeking to protect Syrian protesters and have attacked Syrian military targets. Some 1,500 of the 8,000 Syrian refugees in eastern Turkey are members of the FSA. Turkey has denied supporting the defectors but has facilitated media interviews with FSA commanders whose troops have their own camp on the Turkish side of the border.

The soccer protests in Tabriz signalling a rise in Azeri nationalist sentiment suggest that in an escalating war by ethnic proxies Turkey could support secessionist sentiments among its Turkic brethren in predominantly Azeri Eastern Azerbaijan that borders on the former Soviet Turkic republic of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

In the latest soccer incident in Tabriz, fans of Tabriz soccer club Traktor Sazi FC, a flashpoint of Iranian Azerbaijan’s identity politics that is owned by state-run Iran Tractor Manufacturing Co. (ITMCO), wore shirts with the Turkish and Azerbaijan flags and raised the Azerbaijani flag during last week’s league match against Fajr-e Sepasi of Shiraz, according to Iranian Azeri nationalists and various Iranian blogs.

The “Iranian regime will … charge them with separatism and even arrest them. The main (Iranian concern) is that the idea of Turkism is strengthening in South Azerbaijan,” News.Az quoted Saftar Rahimli, a member of the board of the World Azerbaijani’s Congress, as saying. Mr. Rahimli was referring to Eastern Azerbaijan by its nationalist Azeri name.

A conservative, pro-Iranian website, Raja News, confirmed the incident, charging that the soccer fans had employed “separatist symbols” and shouted separatist slogans during the match, according to The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. Raja News accused the fans of promoting “pan-Turkish” and “deviant objectives”. It urged authorities to ban nationalists fans from entering soccer stadiums.

The protests during the match against the Shirazi club follow similar protests in September and October sparked by a refusal by the Iranian parliament to fund efforts to save the environmentally endangered Lake Orumiyeh as well as anti-government protests in Tehran Azadi Stadium during last month’s 2014 World Cup qualifier against Bahrain and at a ceremony in May after the death of Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed Iranian defender and outspoken critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last week’s protests in Tabriz were the sixth time this year that anti-government sentiment spilled onto the soccer pitch, one of the few places that strength of numbers and moments of intense passion encourage expressions of dissent. The Azeri protests are fuelled by an Azeri sense of being discriminated against.

A decision by security forces in early October to bar fans entry into the stadium during a match against Tehran’s Esteghlal sent thousands into the streets of Tabriz shouting “Azerbaijan is united" and ““Long live united Azerbaijan with its capital in Tabriz.” Scores were injured as security forces tried to break up the protest. Cars honking their horns choked traffic.

“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” said a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.

Iranian soccer pitches are battlefields for Mr. Ahmadinejad, a soccer fan who sees the game as a way to polish his tarnished image, and fans who view it as a venue to express dissent.

A 2009 cable from the US embassy in Tehran disclosed by Wikileaks describes how Mr. Ahmadinejad has sought with limited success to associate himself with Iran’s national team in a bid to curry popular favor.

The Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) postponed in February league matches in Tehran in a bid to prevent celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution from turning into anti-government protests inspired by the anti-government protests in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled presidents Zine el Abedine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Australian soccer boss says Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup is likely to be challenged

Challenging Qatar;s bid: Australia's Frank Lowy (Source:

By James M. Dorsey

Australian soccer federation president Frank Lowy, speaking days after world soccer body FIFA head Sepp Blatter opened the door to an investigation of Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup, believes that the Gulf state could be deprived of the right to host the tournament.

Speaking immediately after his re-election as Australia’s soccer czar, Mr. Lowy said that the "last word hasn't been heard yet'' on FIFA’s controversial vote last December in favour of the Qatari bid.

Mr. Lowy’s remarks followed statements by Mr. Blatter suggesting for the first time that FIFA could investigate the Qatari bid as well as demands for an investigation by the British parliament’s media and culture committee as well as German soccer federation boss Theo Zwanziger.

Australia, alongside the United States, South Korea and Japan was one of the bidders that lost out to Qatar.

Mr. Lowy declined in an interview with Australian Associated Press to explain on what grounds and with what procedure Qatar could be deprived of its right to host the World Cup, but said was it related to "the state of the FIFA executive committee.''

He went on to say that "I don't know whether you recall when I came back from that fateful day (after losing the bid) and I said 'this is not the last word about awarding the World Cup.’ Well, it wasn't the last word. Don't ask me to elaborate because I don't have a crystal ball ... but the media all over the world is talking about that, the awarding particularly of '22, the state of the FIFA executive committee - all that stuff. It's not over. I don't exactly know where it will bounce. The only thing I know is it's not over yet.''

In a series of interviews with media including Fox Soccer and Germany’s Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, Mr. Blatter said over the weekend that FIFA’s newly created Good Governance Committee would have the authority to review the bid process that resulted last December in the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. 

Qatar’s bid has been mired in controversy prompted by questions about its well-funded bid campaign as well as potential problems because of its searing summer temperature, sour grapes on the part of its competitors and allegations made by a disgruntled employee of its bid committee.

FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke asserted in an email leaked this summer that Qatar had "bought the World Cup.'' Allegations aired by the BBC that Qatar had bribed two members of the FIFA executive committee were deflated when a disgruntled Qatar bid committee employee came forward to say that she had fabricated evidence.

Nonetheless, the banning in July by FIFA of Asian Football Confederation president Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, on charges of bribery in his failed FIFA presidential campaign cast a further shadow over the Gulf state’s bid campaign. The banning of Mr. Bin Hammam, who denies all wrongdoing and is appealing the ban, is part of the worst corruption scandal in FIFA’s 107-year history.

Reports that French President Nicolas Sarkozy engineered UEFA head Michel Platini’s vote in favour of the Qatar at a meeting in November of last year with Qatari Crown Prince Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani in which he also persuaded that Qatari to acquire financially trouble team Paris Saint-Germain have contributed to revived questions about the Gulf state’s hosting of the World Cup. Qatar had in 2006 walked away from a possible acquisition of the underachieving club that was haemorrhaging money and was renowned for its hooligan element.

An investigation of the Qatari bid constitutes a double-edged sword for FIFA. With allegations of corruption having so far failed to stick, the unexplored issue of Qatar’s legal investment in soccer facilities and other soccer-related activities in the home countries of members of the soccer body’s executive committee looms large, raising issues about loopholes in FIFA’s bid rules rather than about the conduct of the Gulf state’s bid campaign.

A Qatar confident of the integrity of its bid has much to win from an investigation that would finally put the controversy to bed. If indeed it contributes to a tightening of FIFA’s bid rules, an investigation could prove to be a win-win exercise for both Qatar, which would put it at the cradle of improved FIFA good governance, and Mr. Blatter who could claim this as part of his fight against corruption.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Monday, November 28, 2011

FIFA opens door to investigation of Qatar’s World Cup bid

FIFA President Sepp Blatter

By James M. Dorsey

In a worrying development for Qatar, world soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter has for the first time opened the door to a possible investigation of the Gulf state’s successful but controversial bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

In a series of interviews with media including Fox Soccer and Germany’s Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, Mr. Blatter said the soccer body’s newly created Good Governance Committee would have the authority to review the bid process that resulted last December in the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar.  

Qatar’s bid has been mired in controversy prompted by questions about its well-funded bid campaign as well as potential problems because of its searing summer temperature, sour grapes on the part of its competitors and allegations made by a disgruntled employee of its bid committee.

The banning in July by FIFA of Asian Football Confederation president Mohammed Bin Hammam, Qatari national, on charges of bribery in his failed FIFA presidential campaign cast a further shadow over the Gulf state’s bid campaign. The banning of Mr. Bin Hammam, who denies all wrongdoing and is appealing the ban, is part of the worst corruption scandal in FIFA’s 107-year history.

Reports that French President Nicolas Sarkozy engineered UEFA head Michel Platini’s vote in favour of the Qatari bid at a meeting in November of last year with Qatari Crown Prince Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani in which he also persuaded that Qatari to acquire financially trouble team Paris Saint-Germain have also revived questions about the Gulf state’s hosting of the World Cup. Qatar had in 2006 walked away from a possible acquisition the underachieving club that was haemorrhaging money and was renowned for its hooligan element.

French magazine So Foot reported that Mr. Platini, a former French national soccer team captain, had been dead set against Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid before being urged to change his mind at the meeting with Mr. Sarkozy. “He told me the Qataris were good people,” So Foot quotes Mr. Platini as saying.

The initial discrediting of the allegations against Qatar failed to stop the British parliament’s media and culture committee from demanding an investigation of the awarding of the 2022 tournament to Qatar. German soccer federation boss Theo Zwanziger has also repeatedly demanded an investigation.

In an article in The Huffington Post, Damien Collins, a member of the parliamentary committee noted that “six months ago, Sepp Blatter promised reform at FIFA, yet in reality little has changed. There has yet to be a truly independent investigation into allegations of corruption made against FIFA executives during the bidding process to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. In the last year, 11 of the 24 leading members of FIFA, who make up its executive committee, have faced serious allegations of corruption.”

Mr. Blatter told Fox Soccer when asked if there is a process in place to rescind a World Cup bid that "if somewhere, something appears … this committee has to have a look [at] that and report it. And then we will see what will happen."

Mr. Blatter went on to say that asking how the World Cups had been awarded "is not only a difficult question, it's a good question."

FIFA announced last week that the Good Governance Committee would be headed by Dr. Mark Pieth, a Basel professor serving as part of a United Nation's team investigating alleged corruption in the Iraqi oil-for-food aid program.

Under FIFA rules, the world body’s ethics committee would adjudicate charges stemming from irregularities uncovered by the Good Governance Committee.

Speaking in London last month, Hassan al Thawadi, the Qatar bid committee's secretary general said that the ''perception (of corruption) will always be a sense of frustration until we overcome how people view us.”

Mr. Al Thawadi insisted that the bid was conducted to the ''highest ethical and moral standards" and portrayed Qatar as the victim of a campaign in which ''baseless accusations were made against our bid. We were presumed guilty before innocent without a shred of evidence being provided.''

He said that “amid all the celebrations and joy, we knew that the work was only just beginning. What we did not know or expect was the avalanche of accusations and allegations that we would face in the immediate aftermath of what was a historic day for sport in our country and for the wider region.”

That avalanche could gain substantial momentum with Mr. Blatter shifting his position away from absolute rejection of any investigation into the Qatar bid.

At the same time, any investigation will also have to include a review of FIFA’s bid rules in an effort to tighten the process and eliminate the ability of bidders to influence the vote by for example funding soccer infrastructure in the home countries of members of the soccer body’s executive committee.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Former national goalkeeper leads chants on Tahrir Square

Former Egyptian national soccer team goalkeeper Nader el-Sayyed leads protesters on Cairo's Tahrir Square

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Play the Game – Developments in Sports in the Middle East

Play the Game – Developments in Sports in the Middle East

A less sinister issue: Iran and Turkey with different ideas about proper uniforms

In the past, issues related to sports in the Middle East have often tended to focus on the impact of religion and culture on the opportunities for athletes. In particular, the impediment for aspiring women athletes have been the subject of discussion, from outright prohibitions to the complications caused between the mismatch between traditional garb and the prescribed uniforms in different sports.
There have also been reasons to discuss political aspects, including strife or tensions between different Muslim countries or in their relations with Israel or with East Asia, the latter given the importance of continental Asian competitions. But over the past year, I have had reason to write articles about the impact on sports during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, both of which are prominent handball countries, and about the outright persecution against athletes during the political protests in Bahrain.
It was therefore with great interest that I looked forward to the theme of Sports in the Middle East on the agenda of the ‘Play the Game’ conference. To some extent it was a letdown, as some key speakers cancelled, but this was made up for by the presence of an engaging and knowledge speaker in the person of James M. Dorsey, a Singapore-based scholar who also has a great blog. I can really recommend the blog (, where James combines his intimate knowledge of the region with a great passion for soccer and other sports. My search efforts on the web have been greatly facilitated by the discovery of his site, and some of the tidbits below have been provided by him.
Apropos Bahrain, James has followed through on the sad situation where, among others, a major soccer star by the name of Alaa Hubail remains jailed (and apparently tortured) for no clear reason, after his brother and other friends have been released. It is also intriguing that Bahrain was drawn against Iran in the preliminary rounds of the qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in soccer. After all, one of the stated fears on the part of the Bahraini government is of course the potential Iranian influence over the Shiite population in Bahrain. (Iran easily won the home game, and the game in Bahrain resulted in a tie; Iran is through to the next round, while most likely Bahrain will be eliminated).
In countries where the population is suppressed, one of the few types of groups that could emerge as strong, determined and well-organized are the fanatic supporters of the top soccer teams. This has been particularly obvious in Egypt, where these groups played a strong role in the initial uprising and now again when in recent days Tahrir square again has become the scene of massive protests and violence. This connection has repeatedly caused the military to undertake crackdowns against the fan clubs and to cancel matches that could be suspected to fuel the flames.
Qatar has of course been in focus after the FIFA decision to award the 2022 soccer World Cup to this country with an almost surreal plans to construct a huge number of air-conditioned stadiums to deal with the +50 C (122 F) temperatures. These plans now seem to have been dismissed as unsustainable by the architect charged with designing them. At the same time, major protests from large global trade unions, such as ITUC, have become a new concern. It is well-known that 90% of the work force in Qatar consists of imported workers who live and work under extremely difficult conditions. The charge from the ITUC uses labels such as ‘modern-day slavery’.
The current uprising in Syria also has elements of politics mixing with sports. It seems that successes in soccer is such a propaganda tool, that the cynical Syrians are now accused by their Lebanese neighbors of blatant cheating in international games at the junior level. In a desperate effort to have better results, apparently the Syrians did not hesitate to insert a large number of ineligible over-age players in their line-up. A somewhat more sinister story involves the family of their young national team goalkeeper, from the town of Homs, which has been a focal point for the uprising. The goalkeeper has emerged as protest leader, after his brother and several friends were killed by government troops.
Finally, Israel has often been found in the center of conflicts in sports, when its teams and athletes have received a less than friendly reception in other countries, or when certain Arab countries have forfeited games rather than having to play against Israel. But now it seems that internal politics is having an impact. A small number of soccer teams in Israel consist primarily of non-Jewish Israeli citizens, typically of Palestinian origin. Some of the players are good enough to make it to Israeli national teams at different levels. But now there has been legislation introduced in the parliament, under which this would not be allowed, unless these non-Jewish players declare allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state, and furthermore sing along in the Israeli national anthem which talks about a Jewish state and about ‘free people in the land of Zion’.
Yes, sports can indeed be (mis)used as an effective weapon in politics!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Other face of Tahrir

James M. Dorsey
Egyptian demonstrators determined to unseat the country’s military rulers 
have found a battle-ready ally, ultras from the country’s biggest football 
Egyptian army soldiers stand guard atop a concrete block barricade while protesters chant slogans near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which is bracing for a ‘last chance’ rally today. AP photo

Egyptian army soldiers stand guard atop a concrete block barricade while protesters chant slogans near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which is bracing for a ‘last chance’ rally today. AP photo

It was mid-afternoon on Saturday, the 
second day of mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand 
an end to military rule, when a cry went out for help from the 
ultras, Egypt’s militant, violence-prone, highly politicized football 
fans. Under attack by security forces, protesters, unwilling to back
down, were looking at what amounts to the Egyptian revolt’s 
shock troops for protection.

“We initially stayed away when the families of the people killed 
during the uprising went back out to Tahrir. The police violence 
changed our minds. We experienced it first-hand before. We have 
zero tolerance for it,” said Abu Ala, a member of Ultras Ahlawy, 
fans of one of two of Cairo’s biggest clubs, Al Ahly SC.

Abu Ala and members of his arch enemy, Ultras White Knights
(UWK), supporters of Al Ahly’s historic rival, Al Zamalek SC, 
reached Tahrir by late afternoon. It was the second time in the
more than a century-old history of the two clubs that their 
supporters joined forces rather than faced off in violent street 
brawls to face a common enemy: first the autocratic regime of 
President Hosni Mubarak whom they helped topple early this year 
and this week to push for an end to military rule.

“The Central Security Forces had run the protesters out of Tahrir 
Square,” recalls Hassan Sharif, a protester who has been in Tahrir since 
the protests erupted a week ago. “Security forces had occupied the 
roundabout. The Ultras White Knights charged from the museum, 
yelling the chant about how they’ll f*ck the CSF up.”

Within an hour, the security forces had pulled back, only to return on 
Sunday backed by military police who briefly retook the Square. The 
battle has been raging since.

Led by ultras – angry young men with no political affiliations and 
warrior-like zeal – armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails, they have 
been battling security forces for almost a week now in the streets around 
Tahrir as they fight amid the wail of ambulances and the roar of armored 
vehicles, so far unsuccessfully, to make their way to the Interior Ministry, 
home to the hated security forces. “A red line has been crossed, there is no 
turning back. It doesn’t matter what price we pay in lives. We are not 
giving in,” vowed one ultra while speaking on a mobile phone, the sound 
of a street battle punctuating his words

Unlike other groups in Tahrir, the ultras are respected and celebrated 
by the protesters and feared by the security forces. Modeled on groups
 in Italy and Serbia, the ultras – self-defined anarchists whose militant 
support for their clubs is expressed with chanting, jumping up and 
down, fireworks, flares and smoke guns – the ultras were early this year
(and now again) the only group in Tahrir with years of street-battle 
experience garnered in weekly battles in the stadiums with security 
forces and the supporters of their rivals.

Their fearlessness, willingness to put their lives on the line and battle 
tactics gave protesters a sense of power and the courage to stand their 
man alongside the ultras.

Beyond the more than 30 people already killed in the last week and 
the more than 1,500 wounded, football may be another victim of 
the battle for Egypt’s future. Like in January when Egypt’s premier 
league was suspended for three months to prevent the pitch from 
becoming an opposition rallying point, the Egyptian Football 
Association (EFA) is considering cancelling the kick-off of 
next month’s season. “What is happening now in Egypt is 
spoiling our football,” said EFA President Samir Zaher, a 
Mubarak-era appointee whose resignation the ultras have been 
demanding for months.

That is a price the ultras were willing to pay early this year and are 
happy to pay again. “The blood of the martyrs won’t be for free,” 
chanted Nader el-Sayed, a former Egypt goalkeeper, the only player
 to have joined protesters early this year. He is now back in Tahrir Square.


Al Ahly and Zamalek are two sides of Egypt’s most heated football 
rivalry, one of the fiercest in the world.

The teams are the most successful in Egypt, with the clubs having won 
47 of the 55 seasons in the Premier League. Al Ahly is dominant with 
36 titles as opposed to Zamalek’s 11.

Fan violence is a regular part of that rivalry, while matches between 
the two sides can be so controversial that the Egyptian Football 
Federation usually hires a foreign referee to officiate the game.

Like many football rivalries, the divide between the opposing sides has 
its roots in social life. Zamalek are seen as aristocrats of the domestic 
gameand a team of “foreigners,” while Al Ahly, which translates as 
“The National,” is usually seen as the team of the common Egyptian.

Randale für die Revolution (JMD in German)

DIE WELTAutor: Tobias Heimbach|06:33

Randale für die Revolution

Vom Stadion zum Tahrir-Platz: Wie radikale Fußballfans die Umwälzungen in Ägypten beeinflussen
"Die Ultras haben eine wichtigere Rolle gespielt als alle politischen Parteien"
Wenn Fußballfans singen, möchten sie meist ihre Mannschaft unterstützen. Doch die ägyptischen Ultras, die derzeit auf Kairos Straßen grölen, haben weder Tore noch Pokale im Sinn, sondern Politik. Sie gehörten zu den wichtigsten Protestgruppen auf dem Tahrir-Platz und hatten entscheidenden Anteil daran, dass Präsident Hosni Mubarak am 11. Februar zurücktrat. "Die Ultras haben eine wichtigere Rolle gespielt als alle politischen Parteien", sagte Alaa Abdel Fattah, der prominente ägyptische Blogger, dem Fernsehsender Al Dschasira.
Dennoch stehen die Fußballanhänger selten im Fokus der Berichterstattung, viele politische Beobachter konzentrieren sich auf die islamistische Muslim-Bruderschaft. Dabei gibt es Gemeinsamkeiten zwischen Fundamentalisten und Fußballfans. "Vor dem Arabischen Frühling gab es in autokratischen Staaten im Nahen Osten nur zwei Ventile für Frustration und Wut", sagt James Dorsey, ein deutsch-stämmiger Experte für Fußball im Orient, "das eine war die Moschee, das andere war das Fußballfeld."
Inzwischen hat die Macht der Fans Ausmaße erlangt, die manchen fragen lassen, ob sie sich dauerhaft als politische Gruppe etablieren können. Längst schon sind viele Fangruppen stark politisiert, und auch die Geschichte zeigt, dass Politik im ägyptischen Fußball schon immer eine Rolle gespielt hat. Al-Ahly, der beliebteste Verein des Landes, wurde 1907 von Studenten gegründet, die den britischen Kolonialherren kritisch gegenüberstanden. Der Kairoer Lokalrivale Zamalek SC profilierte sich später als Klub der ägyptischen Monarchie. Anhänger beider Vereine beteiligten sich mit großer Leidenschaft an den aktuellen Protesten. Obwohl sie für gewöhnlich verfeindet sind, zogen sie gemeinsam auf die Straße.
Paradoxerweise scheinen sie durch ihre Feindschaft jetzt einen entscheidenden Vorteil zu haben. "In den vergangenen fünf Jahren gab es immer wieder Zusammenstöße zwischen den Fans der Vereine oder mit der Polizei", sagt Dorsey. Dadurch seien sie "im Straßenkampf erfahren und sehr gut organisiert".
Das war bei den Kämpfen um den Tahrir-Platz zu beobachten. "Es gab zugewiesene Steinewerfer, Spezialisten für das Anzünden von Fahrzeugen und Versorgungscrews, die Projektile lieferten", erklärt der englische Fußballblogger David Lane. Sonderkommandos suchten gezielt nach Tränengaskanistern und warfen sie auf die Polizisten. Auf 20 000 schätzt Dorsey die Zahl der Ultras in Kairo, aber präzise Angaben gibt es nicht. Obwohl sie somit eine relativ kleine Gruppe darstellen, sind sie durch ihre Krawallerfahrung und Organisation eine der wichtigsten Stützen der Proteste.
Als den wohl wichtigsten Beitrag der Ultras bei den Protesten bezeichnet Dorsey das "Brechen der Angstbarriere". Die Fans von Al-Ahly und Zamalek nahmen als erste furchtlos den Kampf mit den Sicherheitskräften auf. Als die Proteste am 25. Januar, dem "Tag des Zorns", ihren Anfang nahmen, organisierten die Anhänger beider Vereine laut Dorsey Märsche in den ärmeren Vierteln Kairos. Auf dem Weg zum Tahrir-Platz durchbrachen sie Absperrungen der Polizei und waren als erste vor Ort.
Nach der erneuten Besetzung am Samstag beschreibt Dorsey die Situation so: "Um sechs standen die Ultras auf dem Tahrir-Platz, und um sieben musste sich die Polizei zurückziehen."
Ihren Einsatz bezahlen die Fans mitunter mit dem Leben. Am Mittwoch veröffentlichten die "Ultras White Knights", Fangruppe von Zamalek, das Foto eines jungen Mannes auf ihrer Facebook-Seite, der offenbar bei den Protesten gestorben war. "Wie bitten Gott um Erbarmen für ihn, der mit seinem Leben bezahlt hat für die Freiheit und die Würde seines Landes", ist dort zu lesen - verbunden mit einem Aufruf für weitere Proteste nach dem Morgengebet am Donnerstag.
Obwohl die Ultras die Proteste mittragen, sind sie im Gegensatz zu anderen politischen Gruppen schwer zu fassen, denn sie rekrutieren sich aus allen sozialen Schichten. "Von den beiden führenden Persönlichkeiten bei den Al-Ahly-Ultras ist einer Journalist und Experte für Neue Medien, der andere arbeitslos", sagt James Dorsey. Auch die Fankultur unterscheidet sich von der in Europa. "Die Ultras gehören in Ägypten zum Mainstream", so Dorsey.
Die Motive für die Teilnahme an Protesten sind ebenfalls nicht eindeutig zu identifizieren. Al-Ahlys Ultras erklärten, "dass sie keine politische Meinung vertreten, die Mitglieder aber gern an politischen Demonstrationen beteiligen können". Der Kern der Al-Ahly-Ultras soll politisch extrem sein. "Sie definieren sich selbst als Anarchisten", so Dorsey.
Die Ultras lassen sich außerdem schwer einordnen, weil sie es bisher vermieden, politische Allianzen zu schließen. Bekannt ist allerdings, dass viele Ultra-Gruppen nach dem Rücktritt Mubaraks den ägyptischen Fußball von Mitgliedern des alten Regimes säubern wollten. Bald übertrugen sie diese Forderung aber auf die gesamte Gesellschaft. Ob sie deswegen als politische Hoffnung taugen? Blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah glaubt daran, scherzhaft sagt er: "Vielleicht sollten die Ultras das Land regieren."
Allerdings ist Fußball auch ein Grund für die Proteste. Seit September gibt es eine verschärfte Fehde zwischen den Ultras von Al-Ahly und den Sicherheitskräften. "Bei einem Spiel griff die Polizei hart gegen die Fans durch und nahm viele von ihnen fest", sagt Dr. Florian Kohstall, Leiter des Kairoer Büros der Freien Universität Berlin. "Die Ultras protestieren auch für deren Freilassung."
Weder Kohstall noch Dorsey glauben, dass sich die Ultras als eine einheitliche Strömung oder gar als Partei konstituieren werden. "Daran haben sie gar kein Interesse", sagt Dorsey. Eher würden sie sich der Jugendbewegung anschließen.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

AFC mandates push for compromise on FIFA ban of hijab

Iranian women play soccer

By James M. Dorsey

The Asian Football Confederation's women's committee has mandated world soccer body FIFA vice president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, to seek FIFA endorsement request to allow observant Muslim players to wear a headdress in line with their religious or cultural beliefs.

Endorsement by FIFA would allow Prince Ali to present the request the secretive International Football Association Board (IFAB), the game's lawmakers, to rule in favour of a headdress that meets the board's health and safety standards as well the demands of observant female Muslim players.

The AFC's women's committee, headed by AFC vice president Moya Dodd, requested Prince Ali to seek the "favourable reconsideration of the issue by the IFAB at the earliest opportunity."

Prince Ali is expected to raise the issue at FIFA's next executive committee meeting in Japan on December 6. If backed by the world soccer body, Prince Ali, could take the issue to IFAB - whose members are Britain, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and FIFA - next spring.

"I am very pleased that the AFC executive committee has endorsed the case for reviewing the Laws of the Game in favour of allowing a safe headscarf. This is a crucial step forward. "Our goal at the end of the day is to ensure that all women are able to play football at all levels without any barriers. I would particularly like to thank AFC vice-president Moya Dodd, who chairs the women's committee, for her valuable work on the issue," Prince Ali said in a statement.

The dispute over observant Muslim women player's headdress led in June to the disqualification of the Iranian women’s national team after they appeared on the pitch in the Jordanian capital Amman for a 2012 London Olympics qualifier against Jordan wearing the hijab. Three Jordanian players who wear the hijab were also barred.
FIFA bans the wearing of all religious and political symbols on the pitch.

The Iranian team’s insistence on wearing the hijab contradicted an agreement reached last year in Singapore between FIFA and the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) under which the Iranians agreed to the wearing of a cap that covered hair but not the neck.

The AFC women's committee mandate follows a gathering in Amman last month at which prominent soccer executives, women players, coaches agreed at a brainstorm in Amman that the hijab is a cultural rather than a religious symbol. The meeting was convened by Prince Ali, a half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah, who was elected to the FIFA executive committee late last year on a platform that called for great women's rights.

“The hijab issue has taken centre stage in football circles in recent years due to the increasing popularity of women’s football worldwide. It is a cultural issue that not only affects the game, but also impacts society and sports in general. It is not limited to Asia, but extends to other continents as well,” the executives and players said in a statement issued at the end of their brainstorm.

By defining the hijab as a cultural symbol, the group, meeting under the auspices of the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP), an NGO founded by Prince Ali to advance grassroots, youth and women’s soccer, hoped to lay the groundwork for a compromise that acknowledges the cultural requirements of observant Muslim women and meets FIFA’s health and safety standards.

In doing so, the group, which included FIFA Executive Committee member and head of the body’s medical committee Michel D’Hooghe, Moya Dodd, members of FIFA’s women committee as well as representatives of the soccer bodies of Jordan, Bahrain, Iran and the United Kingdom, hope to work around FIFA’s ban on the wearing of religious or political symbols on the pitch.

Soccer executives said privately that the issue of the hijab had been complicated by the fact that the ban of the hijab on the pitch is based on a ruling by the IFAB that is open to interpretation by referees which has led to differing rulings on the pitch. It was the referee’s decision in June that led to Iran’s disqualification.

“The rules have to be adapted to the evolution of the game and the society or interpreted accordingly,” the group said, noting that “FIFA is committed to the basic principles of non-discrimination and allows on this basis the use of the head covering.”

The group said “safety must remain the most important consideration for the use of hijab.” It said that FIFA would coordinate accelerated research to ensure that the hijab or headdress worn by women on the pitch ensured safety in the game. It called on FIFA to consider “innovative designs ….  with full consideration of medical aspects, particularly safety, aesthetic arguments, type of material.”

The group said that FIFA should weigh lower safety risks against the greater health benefit of women playing soccer and asserted that allowing the hijab would persuade more women to become players and empower them across cultures.

Farideh Khanom Shojaei, a member of the Iranian soccer body’s women’s committee, and Houshang Moghaddas, the international relations adviser to IFF President Ali Kafashian, have praised the effort to seek a compromise.

They suggested however that final agreement on a compromise could still prove difficult. 
“The neck is very important,” Ms. Shojaei said, suggesting that Iran would insist on a design that covered not only the hair but also neck.

Ms. Shojaei and Mr. Moghaddas acknowledged that the fact that the hijab is compulsory for Iranian women players and that Iran imposes the wearing of the hijab on foreign teams playing in the Islamic republic was likely to remain an issue even if FIFA and IFAB adopt the group’s principles. Iran is the only country that has made the hijab compulsory for its players as well as for visiting foreign teams.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

Stepping up Sanctions: Arab and Turkish Pressures on Syria

RSIS presents the following commentary Stepping up Sanctions: Arab and Turkish Pressures on Syria by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at

No. 175/2011 dated 24 November 2011

Stepping up Sanctions:
Arab and Turkish Pressures on Syria

By James M. Dorsey


Pressure is mounting on Turkey to lead a potential military intervention to stop the bloodletting in Syria. However, sanctions by Arab states and Turkey on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad could become an effective policy tool.


The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is looking to Turkey rather than the United States and Europe to intervene militarily to stop the Assad regime’s violent suppression of a nine-month-old rebellion.  In meetings with Turkish officials, the leader of the MB, Mohammad Riad Shakfa, and representatives of the Syrian National Council have urged Turkey to enforce a no-fly zone above Syria and, if military intervention becomes unavoidable, they want Turkey to take the lead.

Turkey is already providing tacit support to the rebel Syrian Free Army, which has a camp on the Turkish side of the border and in recent days has staged more deadly attacks on Syrian military targets. Turkey has also allowed the political opposition to use Istanbul as a base.

Turkish Dilemma

Nonetheless, despite Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly emotional denunciations of the Assad regime, Ankara is finding it difficult to step up the pressure on Syria without risking Turkish interests in the short term. Turkey’s  reluctance so far to impose sanctions of its own when  the Arab League  is about to step up to the plate, risks its losing  the moral high ground  it achieved in part by taking the lead  in condemning the Syrian crackdown and demanding that Israel lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Erdogan has so far been long on rhetoric and short on actions, partly because of differences between the government and the military. While Erdogan describes Syria’s crisis as Turkey’s “internal problem”, army chief of staff General Necdet Ozel recently insisted that it was “primarily the internal problem of that country”. As a result, Erdogan, in addition to holding back on sanctions and dropping plans to create a humanitarian buffer zone on the Turkish-Syrian border, has yet to fulfill his promise to visit camps for Syrian refugees in eastern Turkey.

Turkish officials fear that imposing sanctions, let alone overt military intervention, could open Pandora’s Box with Syria and its ally Iran; Tehran could be pushed to increase its support for the Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) that has already stepped up its attacks on military targets in southeastern Turkey. In return, Turkey would have to step up its retaliation against PKK bases in northern Iraq and support unrest in some of Iran’s more restive provinces such as Eastern Azerbaijan whose majority Turkic population resents Persian rule. All in all, the crisis in Syria would risk becoming a regional conflagration.

The Arab League’s new assertiveness in Syria offers Turkey a way out of its dilemma and could help increase the pain level of sanctions to a degree that may bring Assad to the negotiating table. The Syrian leader has so far rejected Arab calls for a halt to the violence and has shown disdain for the League’s plan to impose sanctions of its own and  taking Syria to the United Nations Security Council.

Worsening economy

Nonetheless, Arab and Turkish sanctions would boost  those already enforced by the US and Europe  on Syria’s banking and oil sector; halt imports of non-oil products from Syria, which constitute the bulk of the country's exports; shut down one of Syria’s last links to the international banking network; and prevent its government and businesses from opening letters of credit.

Oil production is dropping as Syria finds it increasingly difficult to find buyers for its 140,000 barrels of crude oil per day and has been unable to pay oil majors Shell and Total for their production. As a result, petroleum products such as diesel for heating are becoming scarce and Syria increasingly cannot foot its bill for imports. Syria’s state-owned oil company Sytrol last week cancelled a tender for the sale of 50,000 tonnes of fuel because of a lack of buyers. Swiss refiner Petroplus announced that it had replaced Syrian oil with Iraqi product. Government and private investment moreover has come to a halt, tourism has evaporated, industrial production is down, agriculture is impeded by military operations and unemployment has jumped to 25 per cent.

China has already expressed support for the Arab League’s pressure on Syria. Arab and Turkish sanctions would make it more difficult for Russia and India in particular as well as Western companies that supply and maintain Internet surveillance systems in Syria to spoil the game. The sanctions may not be enough for the regime to crumble, but they would be sufficient to force it to look for a political rather than a military solution that could drag the region into a war.

More than symbolic act

To be sure, making Turkish and, even more so, Arab sanctions stick could be easier said than done. Banks in Lebanon, the pillars of the Lebanese economy, are likely to be reluctant to apply the sanctions, arguing that they would have to violate the country’s stringent privacy laws. The government is unlikely to want to rock either its economic boat or relations with its big brother neighbour.

Nevertheless, the chances of Syria becoming a rare case where sanctions work are enhanced by the fact that the planned sanctions enjoy the support of significant parts of the population. They have, however, so far failed to create a sense of unity against a common enemy that is responsible for people’s misery. In fact, it is Syrians opposed to the Assad regime that are demanding tougher sanctions and tougher actions. For once, tough sanctions applied by a majority of the international community could constitute more than a symbolic act and avert the risk of a military conflict that escalates into regional war.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.  He has been a journalist covering the Middle East for over 30 years.

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