The Middle East Channel

Unity through soccer? Not in the Middle East…

Hosni Mubarak isn’t a man usually accustomed to defeat. TheEgyptian president, after all, has been in charge for more than 30 years, outflanking regional and global rivals with consummate ease. Even Egypt’s electoral process offers him scant chance of coming second: He romped home during the 2005 elections with almost 90 percent of the vote. ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Hosni Mubarak isn’t a man usually accustomed to defeat. TheEgyptian president, after all, has been in charge for more than 30 years, outflanking regional and global rivals with consummate ease. Even Egypt’s electoral process offers him scant chance of coming second: He romped home during the 2005 elections with almost 90 percent of the vote.

Yet as Mubarak sat in his residence watching last November’s World Cup play-off between Egypt and Algeria–which was being played in neutral Sudan–that unusual sinking feeling would have come across him as Antar Yahia’s thunderbolt sent the Desert Foxes to their first finals since 1986 and the Pharaohs, the African champions no less, home empty-handed.

As pictures beamed back of wild Algerian celebrations, Egyptian TV was flooded with calls from Egyptian fans claiming to have been attacked by knife-wielding Algerians. "Damn the so-called Arab unity, we should no longer talk about it," an angry Ibrahim Hegazi said on his NileSport show. "We should review our situations. We can no longer bear such incidents."

The previous game in Cairo had been equally violent, with the Algerian team bus attacked by rock-throwing fans, and Algerian supporters themselves attacked before and after the match. That game, which, thanks to an Egyptian goal deep into injury time, meant the sudden death playoff in Sudan was needed to separate the two, had sparked rioting in Marseille, London, Riyadh and Cairo, not to mention a huge political fall out. Ambassadors were recalled. Colonel Gaddafi even had to intervene to keep the peace. It was the biggest political controversy since a World Cup qualifier sparked the Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969.

Mubarak watched the aftermath of Egypt’s failure to qualify for the World Cup on TV, his finger hovering over the red button, ready to send Egypt’s special forces to Sudan to protect his citizens. Thankfully, he took his finger off the trigger. "Egypt does not tolerate those who hurt the dignity of its sons," he later told a televised address to parliament. "We don’t want to be drawn into impulsive reactions. I am agitated too, but I restrain myself."

It should have been a moment for the Arab world to cherish. Yet when Algeria qualified at the expense of Egypt, the Desert Foxes’ passage to arguably the greatest sporting event on the planet was littered with broken glass, fire and political recriminations across three continents.

It was, in its own way, a fitting epitaph to the Middle East’s attempts to qualify for the World Cup, providing an uncanny analysis of the region. Algeria, you would have thought, would carry the hopes of the Arab world on its shoulders. But it is more complicated than that. Certainly no one in Cairo will be flying the green and white flag of their enemy. In short, Arab fraternity is in dangerously short supply, and the Middle East is as divided as it ever was.

Millions of Arabs, Jews, Persians and Kurds will watch Africa’s first World Cup, and all will be arguing in coffee shops and shisha houses from Sana’a to Jerusalem about who they will support given that every other team in the region failed to qualify.

But this failure provides an intriguing analysis of the Middle East. Soccer is one of the greatest, and most successful, acts of cultural imperialism the world has ever seen and provides the perfect mirror with which to view the region. It soaks up the tensions and flaws and currents that pull under the surface. To understand soccer is to understand the Middle East. It divides as much as it unites and nothing illustrates how divided the region is better than the events in Cairo and Sudan, nor the rest of World Cup qualification for teams in the region.  

The Palestinian national soccer team, a national team without a nation, was the first to fall, unable to fulfill a fixture against Singapore largely because Israeli movement restrictions made it impossible for the Palestiniansto put eleven players on the pitch.

Lebanon was next, a country where the domestic league is controlled by sectarian interests. Hezbollah runs one club, as do the Sunnis, the Druze and theMaronites. Every weekend was like a mini civil war, so much so that soccer in Lebanon has been played behind close doors, with the supporters banned from attending, because the government fears that crowd violence could spark yet another civil conflict. It’s no surprise that, in those circumstances, building a national team with a common purpose is all but impossible.

Iran, in recent years one of the region’s strongest performers, narrowly missed out when they lost to South Korea. But the backdrop to the game was the outbreak of the Green Revolution in the wake of the disputed Presidential elections. Several players took to the field wearing green wrist bands in solidarity, incensing the regime and the coach. The wrist bands were conspicuous by their absence in the second half. A late Korean goal sealed their fate. Government newspapers wrote chillingly about how certain players had been ‘retired’ in punishment for their insubordination.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Israel — who have to qualify through UEFA, the European confederation, because no Arab states will play it — all failed to make the grade too, a mixture of bad luck (Bahrain came within one goal of becoming the smallest country to ever qualify for the finals), ineptitude (Israel somehow lost to Latvia in what should have been an easy qualifying campaign) and falling standards (Saudi soccer is stagnating largely because of an isolationism that sees the government and the soccer authorities frown on their top players moving to Europe).

But it is the case of Iraq that is perhaps the most frustrating. When the Lions of Mesopotamia won the 2007 Asian Cup, it was one of sport’s greatest fairytales. With the country paralyzed by sectarian violence and on the verge of civil war, the national soccer team was a rare beacon of hope and unity. As their country burned, a team of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish players all came together to produce arguably the greatest upset soccer has ever seen.

It proved to a nation that Iraq was worth more than the sum of its parts. A case can even be made that, without the victory and the resulting "rally around the flag" effect, Iraq might not exist as an entity today.

But 12 months later the Iraq Football Association was suspended from FIFA because of a row between the Shia-controlled Youth and Sports Ministry and the head of the FA, a former player who had flourished under Saddam Hussein’s rule. On the pitch, Iraq was knocked out by Qatar in hugely controversial circumstances. It emerged afterwards that Qatar had fielded an ineligible player — which carries a mandatory disqualification — but FIFA refused to overturn the result. Why? Because the Iraqi FA had sent their paperwork in too late.

You’ll read a lot about the unifying effect of soccer over the next few weeks, about how the "Beautiful Game" can bring nations and peoples together. And sometimes, in rare cases, that’s true. But soccer, as we saw in Cairo, can also be a destructive force that entrenches prejudice. There will be some limited fraternity when Algeria takes on the "Great Satan" — Algeria will play the United States in the group stage. There might even be some pro-Gaza protests. But the region will largely be looking elsewhere, backing Brazil (Emiratis and Saudis), Germany or France (Syrians and Lebanese) or England (Egyptians, Jordanians and Israelis).

There is some hope. Qatar stands a good chance of winning the bid to host the 2022 World Cup bid, which would be a hugely significant move. And the UAE’s investment in the English Premier League encapsulates the new financial clout of the Gulf and the Middle East.

But for this World Cup, Algeria will cut a lonely figure thanks to the region’s self destructive forces. So much so that for one game and one game only every Egyptian, even President Mubarak himself, will cross their fingers and pray for Team USA.

James Montague is the author of When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone (Random House), a book about soccer and politics in the Middle East.

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