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

Saturday, June 28, 2014

World Cup broadcasts: The Middle East’s opportunity to miss an opportunity

By James M. Dorsey

No matter how entrenched animosities in the Middle East may be, one principle is upheld by all: never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The controversy over access to broadcasts of World Cup matches makes that clear.

Pricing by Qatari entities holding World Cup rights for the Middle East and North Africa, including Al Jazeera’s belN Sports channel, puts broadcasts beyond the reach of many football fans in the region. Inevitably, that is a public issue in a soccer-crazy part of the world. Add into the mix Arab-Israeli animosity and hostility towards Qatar because of its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and the issue becomes politically explosive.

In Lebanon, high Qatari pricing for access to World Cup matches commanded the attention of a Cabinet preoccupied with shielding the ethnic and religious mosaic from further fallout of sectarian and jihadist violence in Syria and Iraq. In Egypt, where Qatar is loathed by opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Jazeera journalists were made scapegoats in a kangaroo court earlier this week, Qatari pricing policy is the equivalent of scoring an own goal. belN charges $140 for access to World Cup matches; Egypt’s average monthly income is $360 a month.

Qatari pricing closed down an opportunity to try to win back hearts and minds by ensuring that large numbers of people in the region would have affordable or free access to World Cup matches at a time that Al Jazeera is under fire for its alleged support for the banned Muslim Brotherhood and has lost regional market share.

Al Jazeera’s operations in Egypt have been shut down for much of the past year. Market research company Sigma Conseil reported last year that the network’s market share in Tunisia had dropped from 10.7 in 2011 to 4.8% in 2012 and that Al Jazeera prior to the crackdown was no longer among Egypt’s 10 most watched channels. Tunisia’s 3C Institute of Marketing, Media and Opinion Studies said that Al Jazeera Sports was the only brand of the network that ranked in January among the country’s five most watched channels.

The beneficiary of Qatar’s political faux pas, Israel, seems equally incapable of capitalizing on the fact that many in countries that border on the Jewish state tune into Amos, the Israeli satellite station that grants free access to World Cup matches.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s spokesman for Arab media, Ofir Gendelman, initially welcomed Arab viewers in remarks on social media. "I hear that many football fans in neighbouring countries are watching the World Cup live on Israeli channels. We welcome you," Mr. Gendelman said on Facebook and Twitter.

Access to a massive Arab audience constituted an opportunity for Israel to subtly attempt to forge links where peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have failed to build cultural and public diplomacy links. Instead, Mr. Gendelman provoked a torrent of abuse several days after his welcoming comment by publishing Hebrew soccer slogans written with the Arabic alphabet that he hoped would prove useful to Arab fans.

Responses by Egyptian fans on social media reflected conflicting feelings of on the one hand favouring a boycott of Israel because of the Jewish state’s occupation of Arab territory for almost half a century and its attitude towards the Palestinians and on the other the desire to take advantage of the free access Israel grants.

"We are taking what we want from you but after the World Cup, Goodbye Amos Satellite," said one Egyptian fan on Twitter. "Get us an Arabic commentator and I will pray for you that you die soon!" said another. A third asked: "How do you translate: a prayer in Al Quds?" using the Arabic name of Jerusalem to affirm Arab claims to the Israeli-occupied eastern half of the city.

Israel and Qatar’s lost opportunity was further evident in widely circulated conspiracy theories that sought to make sense of the predicament of average World Cup viewers in the region.

The Egyptian Sports Writers Association denounced what it said was an "Al Jazeera conspiracy to force Arab nations to watch Zionist channels." The association’s evidence: Al Jazeera, which is suing the Egyptian government for $150 million in damages for disrupting its business in Egypt since last year’s coup that toppled President Mohammed Morsi has failed to take Israeli channels to task in a bid to force a normalization of relations between Arabs and Israelis. "We demand all Arabs not to watch Zionist channels, even at the price of not watching the World Cup," the association said.

Former Al Masri player Ibrahim El-Masri in remarks to Egypt’s state-owned Al Ahram newspaper asserted that Israel was exploiting Egyptian poverty. ""Israel is ... targeting poor and badly-educated people," he said. El-Masri described free access to Israeli broadcasts as "obvious propaganda" that was "just the beginning" of a television strategy designed to "hook Arab viewers."

Indeed, a smarter Israeli approach may just have had that effect, an effect Qatar could have countered had it approached World Cup matches as a public diplomacy rather than a commercial opportunity.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title

Friday, June 27, 2014

Middle East Briefing for IDFC Securitues

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Middle East fights propaganda wars on World Cup side lines

By James M. Dorsey

This year’s World Cup is not just about soccer – at least not as far as the Middle East and North Africa is concerned. For Iran and Algeria, the region’s only two teams competing among the 32 finalists in Brazil, it is about projection on the global stage and equating soccer prowess with national strength. For others in the region, the World Cup is one more round in long-standing political battles and propaganda wars.

Israel, often the target of these wars, appears to be emerging rather unscathed from the Brazil round. Beyond successfully fending off, at least for now, Palestinian attempts to have its membership in world soccer body FIFA suspended, it has fared reasonably well in its efforts to equate opposition to Israeli policy with anti-Jewish sentiment and position itself as an island of rationality in a sea of insanity.

In doing so, it has benefitted from expressions of pro-Nazi and fascist sentiment by Eastern European fans, the at times inter-twining of legitimate anti-Israel sentiment with anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories, and jihadist advances in Syria and Iraq.

In some ways, Israel was kicking into an open goal with Croatian fans carrying neo-Nazi banners during their national team’s match against Russia and the showing of the coat of arms of Croatia’s World War Two-era fascist government that collaborated with the Nazi during its game against Brazil.

The right-wing, racist Croatian sentiment was not dissimilar to remarks made by a Sudanese cleric in a Friday sermon in a Khartoum mosque. The cleric asserted that the Jews were responsible for scandal-ridden FIFA’s ills. Citing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic 19th tract that alleges a Jewish conspiracy to achieve global domination, he described soccer balls as balls of deprivation that were designed to distract Muslim youth from their faith according his reading of

Ironically, the imam was reverting back to the notion that Israel was at the roots of the Middle East and North Africa’s multiple problems – a notion that has all but been discredited by popular Arab revolts in recent years sparked by the failure of Arab autocracy, including its inability to resolve the Palestinian problem.

The notion of an all-powerful Israel pulling the strings in the Middle East and North Africa is not restricted to the East European fringe or representatives of militant Islam. One journalist tweeted that “damning proof surfaces of the Zionist-Imperialist conspiracy behind Iran's loss” against Argentina in its second World Cup encounter in Brazil. The match was widely seen as one that Iran narrowly lost on the pitch but secured off-pitch by winning the hearts and minds of the spectators in Belo Horizonte’s Mineirao Stadium and across the globe.

The journalist’s evidence: a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu dressed in an Israel jersey standing alongside Argentine soccer star Leonard Messi. To be fair, it was not immediately clear whether the journalist’s target was Israel or Mr. Messi for whom he appeared to have little empathy. In another tweet, the journalist distributed a picture of the soccer star with a prominent Saudi under the headline: ‘Messi revealed with Wahabbi paymasters planning for Iran match,” a reference to the increasingly open anti-Iranian, anti-Muslim Brotherhood Israeli-Saudi alliance.

Meanwhile, while Israelis, Palestinians and other were trading barbs, residents of southern Lebanon were tuning into Israeli satellite television to watch World Cup matches because the Lebanese broadcast rights were held by a Qatari company that was charging $180 for access.

The company dropped the fee after the issue was debated in the Lebanese cabinet. The discussion highlighted the sectarian divide wracking the Middle East. Against the backdrop of civil war in Syria and Lebanon, Shiite militia Hezbollah refused to share its cracking of the Qatari television access code with its Sunni counterparts.

It also highlighted the importance of the World Cup as an opportunity for governments to distract public attention from unpopular policies. In Lebanon, the stakes are particularly high with the country being a prime candidate for escalating sectarian tension in the wake of the violence in Iraq and Syria.

Sunni-Shiite tensions have flared in the northern city of Tripoli since the eruption of civil war in Syria more than three years ago, forcing the Lebanese army to separate the two communities. Similarly, a string of bombings have rocked Lebanon, the last one allegedly targeting a Lebanese security chief earlier this week.

A report published during the World Cup by the Palestine Football Association (PFA) and Palestinian NGO Nonviolence International that documents systematic Israeli obstruction of the development of Palestinian soccer raised the polemics of the Israeli-Palestinian propaganda war to a more serious level.

The 45-page report authored by Mariabruna Jennings and edited by prominent Palestinian lawyer Jonathan Kutub and Susan Shalabi-Molano, a PFA and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) board member, details Israeli measures, including restrictions on movement of players and officials, violence against players, the prevention of stadium construction and pitch development, as well as military intervention to prevent youth tournaments and training schemes from taking place.

In a letter to FIFA earlier this month that helped persuade the soccer body to circumvent Palestinian calls for Israel’s suspension, Israeli Sports Minister Limor Livnat cited security concerns as the reason for restrictions on the movement of players and officials. Ms. Livnat asserted that Palestinian national team player Sameh Fares Mohammad had been detained since April because he intended to "harm the state of Israel and its citizens."

The minister charged that Mr. Mohammad while training in Qatar had met Talal Ibrahim Abd al-Rahman Sharim, a Hamas official whom Israel had freed in a prisoner swap in 2011. She said Mr. Sharim had given Mr. Mohammed money, a mobile phone and written messages to be handed to Hamas officials in the West Bank town of Qalqilya.

Mr. Mohammed "understood that these were clandestine meetings and even kept them secret from the team's other members and its management," Ms. Livnat wrote. He made "cynical use of his sports activities exit permit to promote Hamas's activities," she said. Israel refuses to deal with Hamas which it labels a terrorist organization.

PFA officials have denied the allegations, but Mr. Mohammed was not among the examples of Israeli obstruction and harassment cited in its report.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Only a game? Not in Egypt (JMD quoted in The National)

Fans of Cairo’s Al Ahly show their support at the African Super cup final against Tunisia’s Club Sportif Sfaxien in February. AFP
Fans of Cairo’s Al Ahly show their support at the African Super cup final against Tunisia’s Club Sportif Sfaxien in February. AFP
Fierce rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek clash in the annual Egyptian national football cup in Cairo. Amro Maraghi / AFP

Only a game? Not in Egypt

One-page article

The eyes of the world may be on Brazil and the World Cup but before Messi and Maradona, before even Pele, there was Al Ahly and there was Zamalek.
Football in the Arab world began with the founding of the two Cairo clubs more than a century ago. Egyptian club football has always reflected the country’s politics, from its anti-imperialist origins to the Arab Spring revolts.
In British-administered Egypt, Al Ahly represented the anti-imperialist working class and Zamalek the elite, the foreign administrators and the military. There were other famous Arab clubs but it was the Cairo rivals who captured the hearts of football fans across the Arab world, even as far away as Dubai.
“Soccer is a massive thing in Egypt,” Adel Abdel Ghafar, a doctoral student whose great-grandfather cofounded Al Ahly club, told the Middle East football scholar James Dorsey in 2012.
“It is like religion. In most countries you are born Jewish, Muslim or Christian. In Egypt you were born Ahly and Zamalek. People would not ask your religion, they would ask whether you were Ahly or Zamalek.”
The origins of one the most intense football rivalries had little to do with football. In early 20th century Egypt the game, imported by the British, spread from military camps to cities where it flourished as a symbol of imperial resistance.
In 1905, the Egyptian lawyer and activist Mustafa Kamil founded the Students Club for people excluded from social clubs for foreigners and the elite. Two years later, it officially became Al Ahly Sporting Club.
Al Ahly (Arabic for “the national”) adopted the red and white of the pre-colonial Egyptian flag and Saad Zaghloul, leader of the 1919 revolution, became the first president of the club’s House of Commons.
When Al Ahly won matches, protests flared against British rule.
Their great rival was founded in January 1911 by George Marzbach, a Belgian lawyer working in Cairo on the construction of a tramline.
The club was first called Qasr El Nil, after the location of its first clubhouse. Open to all economic and ethnic groups, the club moved sites and changed its name to El Mokhtalat (“the mixed”) in 1913.
Throughout the next decades the rivalry between Cairo’s biggest clubs continued, reflecting the divisive domestic debate on national identity. At the height of Egypt’s struggle for independence from British rule in 1925, Al Ahly’s general assembly banned foreigners from membership, while El Mokhtalat retained its reputation as a club for the elite, even changing its name to that of the Egyptian monarch, King Farouk.
Yet the new club name, like the king, would not endure. King Farouk, unpopular for his handling of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and his decadent lifestyle, was overthrown in the Free Officers Coup of 1952 led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser. The club’s name changed for the last time to its neighbourhood – Zamalek.
In 1956, Nasser became the national president and in the same year he was also named Al Ahly’s honorary president. His public work projects included the 100,000-capacity Cairo International Stadium, completed in 1960. But in 1967, Nasser decided to ban football, declaring it a distraction after the Six Day War. The embargo lasted until after his death in 1970. His successor, Anwar Sadat, restored the game as a way of raising the low national spirit.
Sadat, like his successor Hosni Mubarak, was an Al Ahly fan. Both attempted to use football to boost their own popularity and as a vehicle for strengthening national identity. And Egypt, nationally, prospered on the wider footballing stage. Between the reintroduction of football in the early 1970s and the downfall of Mr Mubarak in 2011, Egypt won the African Cup of Nations no fewer than five times, making them the most successful country on the continent.
At club level, the fierce rivalry between Al Ahly and Zamalek continued, but in the 2000s a new phenomenon emerged – the rise of the Ultras, football fans known for their fanatical support and willingness to stage large-scale demonstrations.
The Ultras might have been inspired by European football fans, but they did not adopt their right-wing ideology or nihilistic violence. Groups such as Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights and Al Ahly’s Ultras Ahlawy were anti-authoritarian and anti-commercial. They stood for collectivism and resistance.
“I made my first steps into politics in 2000,” Mohamed Gamal Besheer, godfather of the Egyptian ultra movement and author of Kitab Al Ultras (The Ultras Book), told Mr Dorsey in 2011.
“I was against corruption and the regime and for human rights. Radical anarchism was my creed. Ultras ignore the system. You do your own system because you already own the game. We see ourselves as organisers of anarchy. Our power was focused on organising our system.”
The fan clubs, formed in 2007, began as non-political, non-religious groups but became increasingly politicised in response to regular police confrontations. “This harassment was motivated by the fact that Ultras subverted state control over public spaces,” wrote Connor Jerzak, a scholar at Oberlin College in Ohio, in an article last year for Interface, an academic journal that studies social movements.
“The events of the 2011 Arab Spring further politicised the Ultras and transformed them into revolutionary actors.”
The Ultras faced arrest, harassment and strip searches. They worked independently, prohibited outside funding and followed strict rules on mandatory match attendance.
When the Arab Spring came, they knew how to mobilise. “I don’t want to say we were solely responsible for bringing down Mubarak,” said Assad, the leader of Al Ahlawy, in 2011. “Our role was to make people dream, letting them know if a cop hits you, you can hit them back, not just run away. This was a police state.
“Our role started earlier than the revolution. During the revolution there was the Muslim Brotherhood, the activists and the Ultras. That’s it.”
Two weeks after Tunisian Ultras and other protesters ousted their president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Cairo’s top two Ultra groups declared their non-political stance on Facebook. Members were free to protest as individuals.
In private, members were told the demonstrations were what the groups had prepared for in the four years since their founding.
Mohammed Hassan, a young computer programmer and leader of Zamalek’s ultra White Knights, led a march of 10,000 strong from Cairo’s Shubra neighbourhood on January 25. Throwing rocks and burning vehicles they stormed the headquarters of Mr Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and faced riders with machetes at the “Battle of the Camels” in Tahrir Square.
When the Egyptian football league restarted 61 days after Mr Mubarak’s removal, Cairo’s Military stadium was crowded with 7,000 Ahlawy fans who waved Tunisian, Libyan and Palestinian flags and chanted slogans against their former leader and Habib Al Adly, the former interior minister.
The sense of triumph, rather like the Egyptian revolution itself, did not last. On February 1, 2012, armed men entered the away stands at the end of a match between Al Ahly and Al Masry in Port Said, killing 74 fans and injuring more than 1,000. Many fans and outside observers believe the violence was premeditated and politically motivated.
In March last year, however, a court in Cairo sentenced 21 fans to death for allegedly causing the riots at the stadium and acquitted seven police officers. More than 60 protesters have died in clashes with police since the verdict.
“The Port Said case goes to the core of the need for reform of state institutions still rooted in the era of toppled president Hosni Mubarak,” writes Dorsey, an author and blogger and senior fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
To understand Egypt’s politics, look no further than the pitch.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

World Cup boosts Iran’s image and highlights political sports battles

By James M. Dorsey  

It didn't take long for it to emerge that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shared an understanding of soccer’s political utility with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who’s militant and conservative policies he hopes to reverse.

Like Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mr Rouhani, a cleric, is seeking to identify himself with the success of his country’s national team that is delivering one of its best performance in this month’s World Cup in Brazil. Mr. Rouhani, who is negotiating with the United States and its fellow permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany an end to the Iranian nuclear crisis and with Washington possible coordination of efforts to stymie the jihadist advance in Iraq, could however succeed where Mr. Ahmadinejad failed.

Hopes are riding high on Mr. Rouhani who this week posted a photograph of himself on Twitter relaxing at home in an Iranian team shirt and tracksuit bottoms. The photo, believed to be the first off-duty picture of an Iranian president, was published after Iran narrowly lost a match against favourite Argentina but emerged in the Estado Mineirao in Belo Horizonte as the spectator’s darling, a badly needed image boost for a nation long seen as one of the world’s pariahs.

By contrast, fans hold Mr. Ahmadinejad responsible for tightening the grip of the government and its Revolutionary Guards, who are believed to be fiercely loyal to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on soccer. The presence at matches of Mr. Ahmadinejad, a player and soccer enthusiast, was often seen as a bad omen, depriving the former president of the opportunity he sought to polish his tarnished image by identifying himself with the beautiful game.

Mr. Rouhani on the other hand is likely to benefit from the fact that Iran whom bookmakers gave the longest odds of any of 32 teams in the tournament is outperforming itself and winning hearts and minds in the process.

“We don’t have lots of great individual players but we have unity. We will fight together, we will battle together. We know the world will be watching. That gives us motivation. A good game is important, not whether we win or lose,” Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation president Ali Kafashian told The Daily Telegraph.

The Iranian team’s performance so far with its 0:0 draw against Nigeria in its first World Cup match in which it was not defeated in its first tournament game as well as the encounter with Argentina, has spared Mr. Rouhani and his government being blamed for another failure. "If we did not have good preparation games until the games start, there shouldn't be any expectations. Whatever happens, the authorities must be held responsible for the results,” the team’s captain, Javad Nekounam, said weeks before the World Cup kicked off in Brazil.

The Iranian president nevertheless faces a number of battles before soccer will truly be an effective tool in turning Iran’s battered image around. Breaking resistance by Revolutionary Guards who manage or control the country’s often financially troubled clubs that are owned by state entities is one major battle that Mr. Rouhani’s government is already waging.

Allowing women to attend matches in stadia is another. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Rouhani will succeed where Mr. Ahmadinejad failed. The former president’s politically opportunistic bid to get the ban on women lifted in 2006 was blocked by Ayatollah Khamenei and senior clerics in the holy city of Qom.

World soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter cautioned Iranian officials during a visit earlier this year to the Islamic republic that lifting the ban on women’s attendance was key to acceptance of Iran in the international soccer community. “I believe Iran now is looking into to this possibility,” said Dan Gaspar, the Iranian team’s American assistant manager, in an interview with

Mr. Gaspar’s optimism gained credibility with reports in state-run media that Vice President Shahindokht Molaverdi was "investigating" a recent ban on women attending volleyball matches. Dozens of Iranian women protested earlier this month in front of Tehran’s Azadi Stadium because they unlike Brazilian women were banned from attending a match of their national team against Brazil.

Similarly, the security forces barred cinemas from arranging live broadcasts of World Cup matches to mixed gender audiences. Restaurants and coffee shops were advised days later that they would not be allowed to have televisions on while tournament games were being broadcast. That ban has been flaunted by some owners without the government seeking to enforce it.

Iranwire reported that security guards at the Brazil volleyball game told women that the ban had recently been imposed because mail security personnel was not allowed to restrain female fans when they get to excited. The news service quoted a woman as responding: “We have been attacked by male security agents many times. We have experienced their fists and their kicks in the streets. If they don’t want to beat women in the stadium, then they should hire female security guards.”

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Targeting fans: Jihadists get World Cup fever

Source: The Long War Journal

By James M. Dorsey

It’s not just soccer fans whose football fever soars during a World Cup. So does that of militant Islamists and jihadists with deadly consequences. Scores of fans have been killed since this month’s kick-off of the Cup in attacks in Iraq, Kenya and Nigeria.

The attacks by the likes of the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Al Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram appear to have become a World Cup fixture with similar random slaughter having occurred during the 2010 tournament in South Africa.

They reflect the diversity of opinion among jihadists on the merits of soccer as well as a degree of opportunism among all jihadists, irrespective of their attitude towards the beautiful game, in exploiting its popularity whether by seeking to maximise publicity by targeting fans during the tournament or using it as a recruitment tool.

The attacks occurred against the backdrop of a series of statements and fatwas, religious opinions, by militant clerics, often Salafis who seek to emulate to the degree possible 7th century life at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors who are not jihadists, condemning soccer as an infidel game that is intended to divert the faithful from their religious obligations or create divisiveness.

What amounts to an anti-World Cup campaign remains however an uphill battle for anti-soccer jihadists and Salafis in the Middle East and Africa, a region that is as passionate about the game as it is about its adherence in whatever form to Islamic beliefs. The Saudi Gazette reported that Saudi families in the run-up to the holy month of Ramadan that starts next week were preoccupied with balancing their shopping needs with ensuring that they don’t miss a World Cup match.

In stark contrast to four years ago, when the Saudi clergy rolled out in front of cafes where men gathered to watch World Cup matches mobile mosques on the backs of trucks to ensure that fans performed their daily prayers at the obligatory time, malls in Jeddah and facilities associated with the Jeddah Ghair Festival have this year set up screens broadcasting games as they are played in Brazil.

Source: # ولاية صلاح الدين  (#Wilayat Salaheddin)

Pictures distributed by ISIL of Iraqi soldiers summarily executed in Tikrit last week show men who often unsuccessfully donned soccer jerseys, some with the images of German Turkish player Mesut Ozil or Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic who is of Bosnian extraction to escape the jihadist advance. In a morbid gesture, ISIS sent a video link of the beheading of an off-duty policeman to the Twitter hashtags #WorldCup and #Worldcup 2014 with the words: “This is our ball…it is made of skin.”

A café in the Kenyan coastal town of Mpeketoni where fans had gathered this week to watch a World Cup match was among the targets of Al Shabab gunmen who killed 49 people in attacks on several targets in the town. The attack was reminiscent of the bombing in 2010 of two sites in the Ugandan capital of Kampala where fans had come together to enjoy the Cup’s final.

Similarly, the group which at the time controlled substantial chunks of Somalia had threatened to execute anyone found watching World Cup matches on television. Somali players and sports journalists have been targeted by Al Shabab in the four years between the South Africa and Brazil World Cups. The Kampala bombings prompted the US embassy in the Ugandan capital to this month warn Americans to avoid soccer-viewing venues.

Nigerian police marked the opening of this month’s World Cup with a warning that owners of bars, video halls and mass open-air soccer-screening venues and fans should be vigilant against potential attacks by Boko Haram. Authorities in Adamawa and Plateau states and the Federal Capital Territory went a step further by banning screenings of World Cup matches in public venues. Like elsewhere in Africa, those venues are the only way for fans who can’t afford cable television subscriptions to see World Cup games and other major soccer matches live.

At least 21 fans were killed and 27 others injured barely a week after the security measures were announced when Boko Haram bombed a venue in Damaturu where fans had gathered to watch the match between Brazil and Mexico. A bombing a week before the announcement in Mubi in Adamawa state killed another 14 fans. Three people were killed last month in an attack on a soccer viewing venue in Jos, the capital of Plateau state and two people died in April when gunmen opened fire on a soccer-viewing venue in Yobe state.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title

Thursday, June 19, 2014

U.S. pays price for misguided Iraq policies (JMD on Dow Jones MarketPlace)

U.S. pays price for misguided Iraq policies

Insight: Iraq’s Middle East neighbors are key to ending crisis

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    By James M. Dorsey

    Iraqi Army volunteers in eastern Baghdad.

    SINGAPORE (MarketWatch) — Short-sighted policies of the United States and its Middle East allies are taking their toll with costly, dangerous results: a growing number of nations in the region on the brink of disintegration or becoming failed states.

    To be sure, national governments are responsible for their actions. The autocratic, sectarian policies of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have pitted their ethnic and religious communities against one another in civil wars that could foment militant Islamist, jihadist statelets.

    Unlikely allies aid militants in Iraq

    Radical Sunni fighters, who seized another northern Iraqi city on Monday, are being aided by local tribes who reject the Islamists' extreme ideology but sympathize with their goal to oust Baghdad's Shiite-led government. WSJ's Matt Bradley joins Michael Casey on the News Hub to discuss. Photo: Getty

    Poorly devised policies by the U.S. and its allies, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have helped shape an environment in which the likes of Assad and Maliki believe they can get away with murder or feel that their options have been cut off. It has also encouraged policies that often have more to do with settling scores than with rebuilding and reshaping nations.

    The U.S. failed to realize that the 2003 toppling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would pave the way for rule by a Shiite majority that had been suppressed for decades and whose return to power would rewrite the region’s geopolitical map.

    Hopes that Iraq’s post-Saddam Shiite rulers would reach out to their Sunni counterparts were quickly dashed. A misguided decision by Iraq’s post-Saddam American administrators to ban Baathists from serving in the military or public office put thousands out of work and sent the message that Sunnis were not truly welcome in the new Iraq. That message was reinforced when Turkey and deeply anti-Shiite Saudi Arabia refused to cooperate with the new government in Iraq.

    As a result, Iraq’s Sunnis as well as Kurds proved more interested in ensuring that Shiites were seen to be incapable of ruling the country than in attempting to forge a common future.

    Sunnis were smarting from the fact that after monopolizing power since the days of the Ottoman empire, they were cast in the role of a minority seeking to ensure their communal rights. Their resentment of Shiite majority rule was fuelled by a Saudi and Turkish refusal to reach out to Maliki, the politician whom the U.S. initially viewed as least likely to cozy up to Shiite-led Iran.

    The Saudis and the Turks wrongly feared that any Iraqi Shiite leader would tip the region’s geopolitical balance of power toward Iran. Yet stymied by significant domestic players as well as his neighbors, Maliki had no choice but to move closer to Iran even while trying to maintain distance.

    In concert with his Turkish backers, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masood Barzani consistently limited the scope of Shiite rule by laying the groundwork for future Kurdish independence and shielding Iraqi Kurdish areas from the bloody sectarian struggles engulfing the country. Barzani has been carving out an independent Kurdish state by expanding the autonomous zone that Kurds created for themselves in the early 1990s.

    U.S. national security as well as the security of the energy-rich Gulf states faces its most serious and imminent threat in more than a decade.

    Similarly, much to the frustration of Turkey and the Gulf states, the Obama administration shied away from enabling Syrian rebels to topple Assad. The U.S. cited seemingly logical reasons: the lack of unity among anti-Assad groups; fear that militant Islamist jihadist groups would fill the vacuum, and concern that conflict in Syria would destabilize the region.

    Three years later, the very things the U.S. was keen to avoid have become a nightmarish reality: jihadists are the backbone of the resistance in Syria, and are advancing in Iraq against a crumbling Iraqi army that was clearly unprepared or unwilling to take over from U.S. troops. Turkey and the Gulf states have abetted and enabled the militant Islamist and jihadist advances with financial and other aid, helping create a monster they are unable to control.

    And while the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is focused currently on Shiite rule in Iraq and the Alawite dominance in Syria, a continuously successful ISIS will turn its attention to rulers in the Gulf whom it views as feudal usurpers of power.

    The Iraq crisis has left U.S. national security as well as the security of the energy-rich Gulf states facing its most serious and imminent threat in more than a decade. A step towards a resolution would be for the Gulf states and Turkey to support U.S. pressure on Maliki by dropping their bigoted approach to Shiites and persuading Iraqi Sunnis to forge a consensus in which everybody feels they have an equitable place in a new Iraq.

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2014

    Politics, political interference, and mismanagement hamper Middle Eastern soccer

    By James M. Dorsey

    Millions across the Middle East and North Africa will cheer Algeria, the only Arab squad to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, when it meets Belgium this week in its first tournament match. That enthusiasm, certainly among fans who are aware of their power, is however likely to be tempered by the growing realization that politics, political interference, and whimsical micro-management by vain club owners has stymied performance by potential regional powerhouses.

    Fan power has been evident across the region since the first popular revolts erupted in the Middle East and North Africa more than three years ago even if many did not realize that they were continuing a tradition of soccer playing an important role in the region’s development for more than a century.

    Militant, highly politicized, well-organized and street battle-hardened fans helped topple in 2011 Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as well as Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Algerian stadia are hotbeds of opposition against the country’s military-dominated regime and have been for much of the past century. Fans in Saudi Arabia forced the first ever resignation in the Gulf as a result of popular pressure of a member of a ruling family. Soccer pitches in the kingdom, where women’s sports remains controversial and enjoys no government support, are also battlegrounds for the right of women to play soccer.

    Across the region, stadia are barometers of a country’s political temperature and venues where political and social taboos are first broken. The battle for greater political freedom often starts in stadia, one of only two public spaces alongside mosques that autocratic leaders find difficult to fully control and cannot simply shut down because of soccer’s immense popularity.

    “The fact is that sport cannot be separated from what goes on in a particular society and how this society’s institutions function. As such, there is no reason for a nation to perform well in football when it is suffering from an institutional failure in every other sector,” said Faisal J. Abbas, editor of the English-language website of the Saudi-owned Arabiya network, established to counter Qatar’s Al Jazeera.

    In a remarkably blunt editorial published in the Saudi Gazette, Mr. Abbas identified the Middle East and North Africa’s core problem: the lack of properly functioning institutions that are often little more than hollow shells or whose functioning is impeded by autocrats who fear anything and everything that they cannot fully control.

    As a result, the boards of soccer clubs and associations are populated by regime lackeys, corrupt officials and members of the ruling elite. Proper management is complicated by rulers’ efforts to identify themselves with the game to shore up their often tarnished images and whimsical micro-management by princely club owners.

    A cursory look at Middle Eastern soccer tells it all. Palestinians are pressing world soccer body FIFA to sanction Israel for preventing the proper functioning of their national squad by imposing travel restrictions and other restrictive measures. They are also campaigning against an Israeli bid to become one of 13 host cities of 2020 European Championship or Euro 2020.

    Israel competes in Europe after Middle Eastern soccer associations forced it out of the Asian Football Association (AFC) in the early 1990s. Palestine, a national team without a country, never made it out of the starting block in the walk-up to the World Cup four years ago because Israel prevented it from fielding the required 11 players for their first qualifying match against Singapore.

    Iran, the only other Middle Eastern squad competing in Brazil, was hampered in its preparations by lack of funds as a result of sanctions imposed because of the nuclear issue. Iranian media reported that the country’s soccer federation, was forced to purchase poor quality kits. It reportedly instructed players to wash their kits in cold water to avoid shrinkage and not to engage in Brazil in the traditional exchange of shirts with opponents because the federation could not afford to buy enough.

    Lebanese preoccupation amid a domestic political crisis and the potential fallout of sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq with the fact that a majority of the population is unable to watch World Cup matches on television because of the high cost of decoders says much about the importance of soccer.  Interior Minister Nohad al-Mashnouk raised this issue with Qatar, which owns regional broadcast rights after it was discussed in the Cabinet, according to Al-Monitor. Shite militia Hezbollah refused during the Cabinet meeting to share its cracking of the code needed to watch matches with its Sunni counterparts.

    Saudi soccer is hampered not only by politics but also by opposition by parts of its clergy which sees the sport as an infidel conspiracy. Saudi players find it tough to keep up with international standards because the government and the soccer association discourage the kingdom's players from joining foreign clubs. Fans of popular club al-Hilal are meanwhile in uproar because the wife of its Romanian coach gambles in Las Vegas and is a Playboy model.

    “It is the absence (in the World Cup) of the more stable Gulf countries, renowned for their feverish fondness for football, which raises several questions, particularly as most Gulf nations have a vast amount of resources and are able to provide the infrastructure and facilities for their players to enable them to compete at an international level. Actually, it is embarrassing that the national teams of countries, such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar did not qualify for Brazil 2014, while these countries, or representatives of them, own some of the biggest and most successful European football clubs,” Mr. Abbas said.

    In a country, in which editors are government-appointed, that views elections as an infidel institution, has responded to calls for change across the region by increasing both social spending and repression, and in which the results of premier league clubs associated with various members of the kingdom’s secretive royal family are seen as a barometer of their relative status, Mr. Abbas did not mince his words.

    “There are some positive signs that Gulf football might be headed in the right direction. In Saudi Arabia, where the responsibility for developing the sport is entrusted to the head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), an interesting development is that it has recently been decided that the president of SAFF will no longer be appointed, but is to be elected. This means that what was once an honorary position filled by a member of the Royal Family, who is not necessarily an athlete or a footballer himself, will now be up for grabs and will be filled by a suitable candidate who will be held accountable for the success or failure of the national team,” he said.

    Fan anger at the poor performance of the Saudi national team in recent years and some members of the ruling family who see clubs they own as their personal fiefdoms forced in 2012 the unprecedented resignation of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal as head of the SAFF. Unlike the prince, his successor, a commoner, storied former player Ahmed Eid Alharbi who is widely viewed as a reformer and proponent of women’s soccer, was elected. Prince Nawaf retains however ultimate power through his position as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and the government’s General Presidency of Youth Welfare that effectively controls the SAFF.

    Mr. Abbas did not limit his criticism to the kingdom. Referring to allegations of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, he said: “it is also additionally embarrassing that our capability – as Arabs – to dominate newspaper headlines is confined to accusations based on recently leaked documents and letters showing that Qatar paid large sums of money to secure the honour of hosting the World Cup in 2022. If proven, such accusations are not only going to turn what was perhaps the only Arab success into a scandal, but will also be damaging to the reputation of Qatar, and of Arabs in general, given that they reinforce a negative stereotype that we – as Arabs – can’t secure a victory unless we buy it.”

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title

    Sunday, June 15, 2014

    The World Cup: Nationalism vs Disillusion (JMD quoted in World Policy)

    The World Cup: Nationalism vs Disillusion

    By: Sarah Lipkis
    The sport of soccer (known as football in much of the world) has proved to be a double-edged sword. One the one hand, it allows for the formation of a national identity that centers on a shared adoration of each nation’s team. Fans dressed in team colors, waving flags, and shouting slogans, all contribute to a sense of belonging and nationalism. They are proud of their team, their home, and their country.
    Through massive construction projects, upgraded infrastructure, and a host of related projects, hosting countries have the opportunity to paint a picture to the world of tremendous growth, exciting opportunities in terms of economic development, tourism and simply a sense of deeply-held nationalism. Soccer, though played professionally by about 4 percent of the world’s population or some 280 million people, with at least 3 billion expected to tune in to the matches in Brazil this month, does not necessarily guarantee the formation of a positive sense of nationalism. It can cause massive unrest, of the type currently unfolding in Brazil. Instead of a symbol of patriotism, the World Cup games of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) have become symbols of public disillusionment as Brazilians take to the street in protest against government spending, lack of social welfare, and other injustices.   
    The World Cup  “offers a rare chance to actually see one's nation on the pitch. For a time the players really seem to embody the hopes of the country,” says Duke University professor Laurent Dubois, founder of the blog Soccer Politics/ The Politics of Football. “So their individual backgrounds, personalities, and trajectories can take on all kinds of larger political and symbolic meanings.”
    Slogans, chants, and paraphernalia are just some tools used to create a sense of pride during soccer matches. From the stands, fans are dressed head to toe in their teams colors waving flags and banners. Countries competing in the World Cup have created official slogans to represent their teams and their countries. Argentina believes its squad is “Not just a team, we are a country”, demonstrating a sense of unity. The team is a deeply woven part of the national fabric. Moreover, during the actual games, fans typically use chants to show their support for their home team or as a way of discouraging the other team. During the Germany-England game in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, English fans started chanting, “two world wars and one world cup.”
    If the national team wins there is a sense of jubilation, and countrywide celebration, as seen in Spain after the 2010 World Cup game. The win also created a temporary sense of unity between such regional identities as the Catalans, Basques, and Galicians. The opposite is also true. Losing a game can plunge an entire nation into mourning.
    James Dorsey, senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, says that while it is common to rally around the national team, whether to promote a sense of unity and collective identity, or as a distraction from everyday life, “rallying around nationalism is not automatic. It’s what’s happens in most places, but it’s not a given.” Citizens don’t always root for their national team, nor does hosting the World Cup necessarily translate into national pride. In Brazil and earlier in South Africa, hosting the World Cup seems to have produced the opposite effect—at least during the lead-up to the event. Instead of rallying around the flag, and the national team, hosting the game has led to protests against the national government and FIFA.
    The period before the opening of the 2010 games hosted by South Africa were marred by pervasive anger over the spending of public funds to build stadiums, the proposed construction of a mall (replacing the 100 year-old market in Durban), high unemployment, lack of infrastructure, the destruction of poor neighborhoods to make room for stadiums, the loss of local vendors’ revenue due to their exclusion from the stadium, and the presence of FIFA licensed goods, driving out local products. All these issues led to a range of protests during the lead up to the games. Still, the completion of stadiums, new transportation infrastructure, successful security arrangements, and overall enthusiasm for the games, led to the South African World Cup period to be considered, in retrospect, a success.
    As for Brazil, “there is a back-and-forth between soccer and national identity. For many decades the national team, its heroes, its triumphs and tragedies, its style of play, have all been held up as mirrors to the national soul,” says Dubois. Soccer has, in the past, united Brazil, and created a sense of nationalism. Soccer fans wear the national colors, paint flags on their body, and wrap themselves, and their fellow fans in Brazilian flags, all in solidarity with the team. These are moments of national fervor, where people come together, regardless of ideology, to support their home country.
    However, there is something different about the nationalism created by the 2014 games. “In some ways the fact that Brazilians so obviously love and own football as their national passion has perhaps also enabled them to protest FIFA and their own leadership in the handling of the Cup,” says Dubois.  Rather than spawning a rally around the flag effect, with the country uniting in celebration and excitement, preparation for the games have instead created discontent, with widespread condemnation of the Brazilian government as well as FIFA.
    Pew Research survey found that 61 percent of the population feels that hosting the World Cup is bad for Brazil. Instead of money going to education, healthcare, and other such services, money is being funneled into World Cup spending for stadiums. Rather than creating a sense of national pride and, unity, the World Cup has enraged large segments of the population due to the cost of hosting the game. Though a different form of nationalism, and unity, Brazilians have come together to protest what they view as rampant waste and corruption. As the Word Cup continues it will be interesting to see how the protests affects Brazil’s attitude towards the game, or whether patriotism and national feelings can reverse the sentiment as seems to have happened in South Africa.
    Sarah Lipkis is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. 
    [Photos courtesy of Flickr]

    Saturday, June 14, 2014

    World Cup sparks Islamist debate on rectitude of soccer

    Sheikh Abdel Rahman Al-Barrak issues an opinion soccer

    By James M. Dorsey

    Ultra-conservative clerics are condemning soccer as a Jewish and Christian tool to undermine Islamic culture as millions of Muslims across the globe tune in to watch the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

    The condemnations revive a long-standing debate among conservatives as well as militants about the rectitude of the world’s most popular sport. They constitute one side of a divide among jihadis and Salafis, arch conservatives who seek to emulate to the degree possible 7th century Muslim life at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors.

    On the other side of the divide are some of the world’s most prominent jihadist and militant Islamist leaders, including the late Osama Bin Laden, Hamas’ Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh and Hezbollah chief sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who are avid soccer fans. They recognize the sport’s bonding and recruitment qualities. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the jihadist group making advances in Iraq, earlier this year used soccer as a recruitment tool.

    In the latest salvo in the debate, Saudi Sheikh Abdel Rahman Al-Barrak warned in a fatwa, a religious opinion, that soccer “played according to (accepted international rules) has caused Muslims to adopt some of the customs of the enemies of Islam, who are (preoccupied with) games and frivolity.”

    Sheikh Al-Barrak is believed be close to the kingdom’s rulers despite having been praised by Mr. Bin Laden in 1994 for opposing then Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz bin Baz’s endorsement of peace with Israel.

    The cleric issued his fatwa in response to a query by a reader of his website on how the faithful should view fans who admire foreign players.

    He cautioned that soccer was responsible for multiple “abominable and corrupt acts,” including befriending and admiring infidels, fandom which sparks hostility between supporters of different teams, cursing, profiteering and insulting others when one’s team wins.

    “In light of all this, liking and glorifying soccer is tantamount to engaging in a public abomination and encouraging it. It distracts sectors of society – men and women, young and old – from important matters, both religious and non-religious, and busies them with trivial matters that do not benefit the nation but only lead to a waste of energy and time. This means that it is forbidden to praise or glorify infidel players,” Sheikh Al-Barrak ruled.

    The cleric had earlier described soccer as "the mother of all crimes" because it was a waste of money and sparked "unwarranted displays of joy."

    His views echo opinions of other militant clerics such as Sheikh Suleiman Al-Alwan, a Saudi cleric nicknamed Al Qaeda’s mufti who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for endorsing suicide attacks.

    "Soccer is a Masonic game meant to distance Muslims from their religion and faith, and most of those who follow (soccer matches) are loyal to the infidels… A man who watches a game, God forbid, is watching deviant criminals and sinful infidels, even if they are Muslims," Sheikh Al-Alwan argued in a fatwa two years ago. Moreover he warned that refereeing posed a serious problem because it implemented man-made rules rather than God’s law.

    While Sheikh Al-Alwan sees the game as a Masonic plot, Sheikh Al-Barrak and others, including Kuwaiti Sheikh Abdel Muhsin Al-Mutairi, argue that the beautiful game is a Jewish conspiracy aimed at distracting Muslims from their faith. Sheikh Al-Barrak last year condemned Muslim governments for investing in soccer and wanting to host mega events like the World Cup, a swipe at both his own government and Qatar, the host of the 2022 tournament.

    Sheikh Al-Mutairi warned late last year that the Jews had been “successful in preoccupying the Muslim youth... with the most inane matters” in accordance with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 19th century anti-Semitic plot detailing an alleged Jewish plot to control the world.

    He quoted the tract as saying: 'In order to keep the masses in the dark, oblivious to what is being planned for them, we will exert efforts to distract their attention, by creating means of entertainment and diversion, amusing games, and all kinds of sports, as well as things that feed one's desires. Then, we will make the newspapers promote artistic and sports competitions.'

    Sheikh Al-Alwan charged that “the Jews, the Christians, and their hypocritical, mercenary lackeys have invested great efforts in cutting the nation off from its glorious history. They want Muslim youths to fumble about in the darkness of Western culture, which is promoted by the sinful media."

    Jihadist and Salafi proponents of soccer recognize that soccer brings recruits into the fold, encourages camaraderie and reinforces militancy among those who have already joined.

    ISIS, the jihadist militants in Iraq in Syria, published a video earlier this year suggesting that an apparent Portuguese fighter in Syria was a former French international who had played for British premier league club Arsenal.

    The video exploited the physical likeness of a masked jihadist fighter believed to be Celso Rodrigues Da Costa, to that of French international Lassana Diarra. Voice analysis suggested however that the man in the video brandishing an AK-47 weapon was Mr. Da Costa, a Portuguese national who had lived in East London and may have attended youth coaching sessions at Arsenal. Mr. Diarra played for Arsenal before moving to Lokomotiv Moscow.

    A caption under the video posted on, a website associated with ISIS, read; “A former soccer player - Arsenal of London - who left everything for jihad.” Another caption said: "He... played for Arsenal in London and left soccer, money and the European way of life to follow the path of Allah.”

    Last October, Burak Karan, an up and coming German-Turkish soccer star, was killed during a Syrian military raid on anti-Bashar al Assad rebels near the Turkish border. Messrs. Karan and Da Costa were the latest examples of soccer players-turned-militants.

    Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel traced their roots a decade ago to a West Bank soccer team. The 2004 Madrid train bombers played the beautiful game together and several Saudi players joined the anti-American jihad in Iraq following a fatwa or religious ruling by conservative Muslim preachers denouncing football as a game of the infidels.

    In Russia, authorities three years ago arrested three men on charges of wanting to blow up the high speed Sapsan railway linking Moscow and St Petersburg. The three were childhood friends who traced their roots to the northern Caucasus, a hotbed of Islamist militancy, where they played soccer together.

    Messrs. Karan and Da Costa fall into a category of players who were either born in or migrated to Europe that also includes Yann Nsaku and Nizar ben Abdelaziz Trabelsi, people who radicalized individually unlike the Hamas or Madrid bombers or the Saudi players who turned militant as part of a group.

    Mr. Nsaku, a Congolese born convert to Islam and former Portsmouth FC youth centre back, was one of 11 converts arrested in France a year ago on suspicion of being violent jihadists and for "suspected Islamic terrorist plotting of anti-Semitic attacks," according to French police. Police said the group aimed to spark a “war across France" with the intention of imposing Islamic law.

    A 19-year old, 6ft 2ins player, Mr. Nsaku was signed in 1998 by Portsmouth from Cannes FC but never made it into the 2008 FA Cup winners' first team. His promising career ended in 2011 when he suffered a knee injury.

    Mr. Trabelsi, , a Tunisian who played for Germany’s Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Wuppertal, was arrested and convicted in Belgium a decade ago on charges of illegal arms possession and being a member of a private militia. Mr. Trabelsi was sentenced to ten years in prison.

    In all cases, soccer proved to be a fruitful grooming if not recruiting ground even if Messrs. Karan, Nsaku and Trabelsi were not recruited off the pitch but instead reached out to individuals or groups who could help them join a militant cause.

    James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title