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Football in the sands:
a force for change?

In the Middle East, a messianic reverence for the beautiful game has brought warring factions together, wrenched others apart, and permitted fans to vocalise dissent.

Budapest, September 2013

Football and politics in Middle East - kids play soccer in manama, bahrain sands

Kids playing soccer in Manama, Bahrain. - Photo: James Montague

THE shisha café in the quiet, overlooked suburb of Hor Al Anz in Dubai was the only sign of life on the street. It was late, past midnight, and the sticky humidity that always followed a searing Gulf summer’s day coated everyone, and everything, in a thin layer of perspiration. My bed was enticing me home, but I still felt the pull of unfinished business. The lone yellow light along the concrete row of shops and shwarma stands threw itself onto the pavement in front. A distant clatter of porcelain cups and raised male voices in a foreign tongue wafted across. It was an alien sound, and an alien surrounding, but also immediately recognisable. I instinctively moved towards the light.

Inside, the harsh glow from the strip lighting mixed with the fog-thick fug of sweet apple tobacco and strong, dark cigarettes. It stung the eyes momentarily until a few moments of blinking acclimatised you to the toxic atmosphere. It was standing room only. Every available seat was taken, the space tightly packed together by white- robed Emiratis wearing the traditional dish-dasha. More stood in any available place they could find. I inched along the back wall and, to my surprise, found a solitary seat overlooked by the crush. A young Pakistani boy worked the cracks in the crowd, emptying ashtrays and refilling tiny thimbles full of thick Turkish coffee as his Egyptian colleague darted around the chairs with his metal ladle of hot coals, replacing the dying embers from atop each customer’s billowing water pipe. The crowd was oblivious to their services.

James Montague

James Montague

It was the start of a journey that would take me to terraces and football pitches as far south as Sana’a, to Tehran in the east, to Cairo in the west and to Damascus in the north. In all these places I discovered the same thing: a deep and passionate love for the beautiful game and a window of wider understanding

Tactics had to be discussed and players rated. All eyes were glued to the television in the corner of the room for the big match. The appearance of white uniformity from the back of the room was a myth. Two tribes had emerged from Dubai’s darkness to watch their respective teams do battle. An invisible line had been drawn in the sand, the room divided – to the right, the supporters of France, to the left, Brazil. The only way to differentiate the two was the hastily hung flags in each corner. It was the 2006 World Cup quarter final and neither side could contemplate going home saddled with defeat. Arguments started to break out between the sets of fans over who was truly the greatest player in the world: Ronaldinho or Zidane. One Emirati supporting France had to be pulled back by his friends, so incensed was he that the great Zidane had been defamed. And the match hadn’t even started yet.

Fights, devotion and obsession over faraway players and footballing nations was something I had quickly got used to when I accidentally stumbled into Dubai nearly some years previously. I hadn’t even known for sure where Dubai was on the map when the e-mail arrived advertising a job on the city’s Time Out magazine. Two weeks later I was stepping out of an air-conditioned arrivals lounge into a brick wall of humidity. It was August and a thick, moist air had emptied my lungs the moment I stepped out of the controlled environment of the airport.

Dubai was noisy, brash and hellishly hot. I had seen many new arrivals to Dubai react in different ways upon arriving in such an alien environment. Some flew back home in a matter of days. Some were driven slowly mad by the heat. Relationships crumbled, vices fed. Most stayed, but stuck to their own in expat communities, replicating the life they had enjoyed back home oblivious to their surroundings and refusing to mix with the locals to acclimatise. I had put my faith in football. In the beginning, to appease my longing for home, I would walk to my local shisha café late at night to watch English Premier League matches. More often than not the Egyptian manager would show only Tottenham games, no matter who else was on, given that the Egyptian international Mido was turning out for them at the time.

But soon I started to pick up the little threads of local football stories: a 2006 World Cup qualifier where the United Arab Emirates took on the mysterious North Korean national team; the struggles of the Palestinian national football team as they tried, but ultimately failed, to qualify for the 2006 World Cup; riots in the Lebanese league between supporters representing competing sectarian interests; footballers in Yemen struggling to kick the habit of their national drug qat. I devoured each and every story I could find. They were reported matter-of-factly, as if this kind of thing was perfectly normal in the Middle East. In a way, it was. But each story held something of wider significance. At its root football seemed to embody something about the country’s psyche, its national character, its place in the world and where it was heading. I wanted to find out more about the Middle East, its mysteries and its contradictions.

Football was the perfect prism. My catalyst was the news that French World Cup winner Marcel Desailly had signed to play in the Qatari league. Qatar was a barren, inoffensive country whose recent discoveries of gas had given it phenomenal wealth. A lot of this money was being pumped into sport, especially football, in an attempt to raise its international profile. Without thinking or having any particular plan I booked a flight to Doha. It seemed an absurd place with absurd ambitions to rule the world. How little I knew back then.

I then booked another flight to Egypt. And then another to Iran. It was the start of a journey that would take me to terraces and football pitches as far south as Sana’a, to Tehran in the east, to Cairo in the west and to Damascus in the north. In all these places I discovered the same thing: a deep and passionate love for the beautiful game and a window of wider understanding. Talk of the globalisation of football isn’t anything new. Neither is it particularly illuminating that passion is something the Middle East has in abundance, though there is a messianic reverence for the game that matches anything in Europe or South America. Yet, in theory, it shouldn’t be like this. The Middle East isn’t a place pre-disposed to successful Western interventions. Tragedy has stalked every corner of the region and when I first arrived the West’s standing couldn’t have been lower. Decades of nefarious interference in Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq to name a few, had created a toxic mix of corrupt regimes, Islamic fundamentalism, poverty, anger and disillusionment. The duplicity and betrayal reached its nadir after the disastrous second Gulf War and the dismantling of Iraq. As the veteran war correspondent Robert Fisk wrote: “From the borders of Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean, we – we Westerners that is – are creating… a hell disaster.”

The chaos and the confusion had been a boon for Islamic fundamentalists seeking to paint the world in black and white, in us versus them rhetoric. It seemed that the diverse range of people who called the Middle East their home were rejecting the ideals that had once been heralded as the force of modernity. As a Westerner, an outsider trying to make sense of it all, taking the pulse of a region would be nigh on impossible normally. Yet despite all this, one Western cultural export had achieved something that no amount of military intervention, aggressive foreign policy or attempted subjugation could. Football had won hearts and minds in the Middle East. Every country in the region was obsessed with the beautiful game.

A weekend of English Premier League or Serie A or La Liga football had the power to momentarily disable the most unforgiving jihadist. On the surface the apocryphal story of how Osama Bin Laden would stand on the Highbury terraces of his beloved Arsenal in the 1990s sounded ridiculous. But it was a testament to the game’s power and reach that it was almost believable. Almost. How had the game conquered the land that one might expect to reject it the most? After all, the document that brought the game to life, one of the only documents that has universal and unwavering approval across the region and across sectarian lines, was set down in a smoke-filled room by English public school masters in the nineteenth century. In his Twelve Books That Changed the World, which included the Rule Book of Association Football amongst the dozen, Melvyn Bragg wrote that football “has caused at least one war and many battles, often tragic, off the pitch. It has always triggered outbursts of local and national joy, pride and unity . . . and it all flowed from the meeting of a few Victorian Oxbridge graduates in a pub in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London 1863. Before the afternoon was out they had called themselves ‘the football association’ and the Rule Book was on its way.

It was perhaps the greatest imperialist document ever written, allowing the British Empire to successfully spread the footballing gospel. When the British forces that helped colonise the game from land, sea and air retreated, momentum did the rest. Now, whether I was in Amman or Irbil, the first question I was asked in cafés and on street corners wasn’t about George Bush or Tony Blair, or the war or Israel. I wasn’t spat at in the street or harangued for my country’s complicity in very bad things. Rather, it was: ‘Manchester United or Chelsea?’ with the more sophisticated barracking me for supporting such a bunch of underachievers as West Ham United. One Lebanese international footballer in his late twenties even went as far as conceding that the 3-3 FA Cup final against Liverpool in 2006 was interesting to watch, but that West Ham were a shadow of the 1966 team, with Moore and Peters.

In Egypt the ultras I had met by accident during a match in 2007 became the ‘protectors of the revolution’. In Libya, the fledgling new transitional government realised that the national team’s qualification for the African Cup Nations was worth more than a thousand show trials of Gaddafi apparatchiks

I watched avowed Hezbollah members profess their undying love for Steven Gerrard, and spoke to Syrians who were livid – angrier than me, certainly – with Steve McClaren for not steering England to the finals of Euro 2008. Simply put, football is the Middle East’s great unifying thread. More so, you could argue, than Islam, divided as it is, sometimes violently, between Shia and Sunni, and certainly more than the failed forces of Arab nationalism. Even language fails the test when you throw the Farsi speaking Iranians and the Hebrew speaking Israelis into the mix.

Initially I believed that football couldn't change things by itself. A two-state solution won’t be kick-started by the Palestinian national team playing Israel. Currently neither team would even dream of playing the other. And that still holds true. Football – thanks to its ubiquity and its closeness to the street, the beating heart of its society – is a mirror that reflects the zeitgeist; a sponge that soaks up the tensions, the flaws, the frustrations and the hopes of society. For those involved it is one of the few forms of catharsis. Which might give another explanation as to why, every Friday from Aden to Aleppo, millions of fans leave the mosque and head straight for their local football club. In the absence of true democracy and a genuine public space, the terraces provide a forum for dissent.

In Jordan, the songs for a free Palestine sung by the fans of the football team from Wihdat refugee camp wouldn’t be accepted by the police on the street. In Iran the frustrations of the women’s rights movement are vented, not outside the Majlis, but outside the Azadi national football stadium before every home international. And in Egypt it was the terraces that provided a space for young football fans to air grievances with Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. In the Middle East there was the mosque and the terrace, and little in between. The power and the thought that the mosque has engendered has been well documented. But the terraces and stands of the football grounds of the region had been neglected for similar treatment, often because of a misguided idea that sport and politics are separate entities. Football is politics in the same way music is politics, or art, or film. It is an expression of the soul with a tribal beat.

But yet football played its role – in some countries a vital role – in the greatest political upheaval to affect the region since the end of colonial rule. When Mohamed Bouazizi a poor, young Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller – blazing with injustice and frustration after having his meagre fruit cart impounded – set fire to himself in Tunisia in December 2010 it sparked a wave of uprisings and revolutions that are still only in their infancy. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen; all saw their people rise up to depose leaders that slowly constricted the life out of them. In the time before the Arab Spring, in the dark before the dawn, the atmosphere was hopeless and suffocating.

Nowhere was this more true than in Egypt where Mubarak the elder had crushed his opposition so completely that in the paralysis of the jaded he almost, almost, succeeded in passing the mantle on to his son to continue his immorality. But in Egypt the people fought back. Not on the streets, but first in the stadiums. Then outside the stadiums. And then on the streets. For three years the ultras groups of Egypt’s biggest clubs grew more anti-regime with every beating and every arrest. Yet they couldn’t be controlled. When the damn burst on 25 January 2011, the ultras were on the front line. It was now more than simply using the game to hold a mirror to something that I wanted to understand better. The game itself had become part of the narrative.

In Egypt the ultras I had met by accident during a match in 2007 became the ‘protectors of the revolution’. In Libya, the fledgling new transitional government realised that the national team’s qualification for the African Cup Nations was worth more than a thousand show trials of Gaddafi apparatchiks. In Bahrain, the royal family realised the power of football too, but for the opposite effect. It was those involved in the game – national heroes – who were punished for their role in asking for greater freedoms. Their fame and their talent had been reversed, turned on them, bastardised to send a message to those that dared to question the status quo. Football didn’t cause the Arab Spring. The neglect, humiliation and abuse of the poor and the young did. But in the game many found a voice that would not be heard by any other means, for good and sometimes for bad. All the while, at its core, the fundamentals of the game and the passion it engenders remains the same: Indivisible, unchanging, sometimes ugly, always beautiful.

It is why now, in tandem with the chaos of the Arab Spring, the new oil wealth of the Gulf is being channelled into football, through Manchester City, through PSG and, of course, through the 2022 World Cup which will be held in Qatar. That first trip to Qatar to meet Marcel Desailly and that evening in Dubai, during the World Cup quarter final, seem like a world away. But they still uphold the central tenant of what makes the game so fundamental to so many people in the Middle East and beyond: its universality.

In that cafe in Hor al Anz, Dubai, back in 2006 I watched France famously dispense with Brazil 1–0 thanks to a Thierry Henry goal. The French contingent of Emiratis celebrated as if the United Arab Emirates had themselves put the Brazilians out. They ran into the street and mounted a fleet of expensive, powerful 4x4s before driving them out onto a patch of sandy waste ground, spinning doughnuts and blaring their horns whilst hanging a French flag out of a blacked-out window. The Brazilian fans quickly walked away, heads down, in silence – the defeat tasting every bit as bitter as it did in Rio.

James Montague is a journalist who writes for the New York Times, CNN, World Soccer and the BBC World Service. His first book When Friday Comes: Football War and Revolution in the Middle East (deCoubertin) won him Best New Writer at the British Sports Book of the Year Awards. His second Thirty One Nil: World Cup Qualification, An Underdog's Story will be released by Bloomsbury in May 2014.

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C. Aroon (29 September, 2013) – Thailand
Not just football, but all sports, are forces of change. A very interesting article. So on the pitch fans are allowed to express negative views of government?

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