Archive for the 'Middle East' Category

Oct 07 2013

Profile Image of Caitlin Moyles

Zahir Belounis: A Virtual Captive in Qatar

A week ago, The Independent published an update about Zahir Belounis, a French Algerian footballer who is being held in Qatar in “virtual captivity” due to the same kafala system of visa sponsorship blamed for the mistreatment of Nepali immigrant workers. Belounis played for the El Jaish club in Quatar and will not be allowed to leave the country until he drops his case against the club over what he claims to be two years’ worth of unpaid wages.

The kafala system ties employees to specific employers and is easily abused by those in power. Laborers, who hail primarily from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, have their passports confiscated, are charged exorbitant agent fees illegally, and are prevented from accessing courts for redress, according to this CNN article.

According to The Independent, Belounis’ case had gained such a high profile that French President François Hollande tried to intervene on Belounis’ behalf on a state visit to Qatar in June. The intervention, however, was to no avail.

Belounis was scheduled to meet with a high-ranking administrator in the Qatar this past week, The Independent reported. The newspaper had not published any updates about Belounis’ case as of the evening of Sunday, October 6.

Any press that Belounis receives could raise awareness about systematic abuse of the kafala system, particularly when news about Belounis overlaps with coverage of the deaths of dozens of Nepalese immigrants coerced to work in conditions that have been compared to modern-day slavery. Belounis’ case becomes especially current in light of the criticism FIFA and Quatar are receiving as the country prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.

Belounis’ case has been in the press on and off throughout the year. The aforementioned CNN article is dated May 1.

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Sep 28 2013

Profile Image of Matthew Schorr

L’Afghanistan : L’Importance de l’émergence de foot

Depuis 2001, la grande majorité de discours au sujet de l’Afghanistan qui se passe aux Etats-Unis s’oriente autour du terrorisme et de la guerre. Ainsi, c’est parfois trop facile de penser que l’Afghanistan est un terrain vague, une zone de combat sous l’influence des barbares. Cette perception de l’Afghanistan est malheureusement incorrecte ; la moindre des choses, c’est une description incomplète. Rod Nordland et Sharifullah Sahak cherchent à dépeindre un image plus profond et peu connu d’Afghanistan dans leur article « Raucous Scene Grips Afghan Capital: Soccer Euphoria », qui a récemment paru dans le New York Times. Nordland et Sahak considèrent les fêtes qui se sont passé en Afghanistan après la victoire de l’équipe nationale d’Afghanistan sur celle d’Inde, la première fois que l’équipe afghane a gagné un championnat international de foot. Les supporters ont reçu l’équipe dès son retour en Afghanistan. L’image des fêtes de masse, qui ont compris des dizaines de milliers de Afghans, nous donne de perspicacité quant à la culture afghane.

Les fêtes qui ont suivi la victoire de l'équipe nationale d'Afghanistan.

Les fêtes qui ont suivi la victoire de l’équipe nationale d’Afghanistan.

La victoire sur l’Inde et les fêtes qui a pris la suite sont une affirmation forte que l’Afghanistan est plus que seulement un terrain vague ; il a une culture riche et active. Malgré la toile de fond de la guerre et de la pauvreté, l’Afghanistan a une culture vive et une bonne appréciation de sport. En plus, le foot promeut de nationalisme et il créé de fierté d’une société qui est souvent critiqué par l’ouest. Il donne aux afghans une raison pour battre les drapeaux afghans—les mêmes drapeaux qui sont devenus populaires dès la chute du Taliban.

Les fêtes en Afghanistan représentent la transformation de la société afghane depuis la chute du Taliban en 2001. Nordland et Sahak spécifie que l’Afghanistan n’avait pas une équipe nationale pour 15 ans, à cause de la répression du Taliban. Le Taliban a interdit le foot parce qu’il avait peur que le sport détourne l’attention du peuple de la religion et de la prière. La participation dans les championnats internationaux et les fêtes joyeuses contrastent nettement avec l’idéologie conservatrice du Taliban. Malgré la revendication du Taliban, le foot ne détourne pas l’attention du peuple de la religion ; il est plutôt une manière de fuir la réalité dure de la vie, la guerre, et la pauvreté. Le foot devient un genre de foi dans le sens où il donne aux afghans quelque chose en quoi croire.

Les fêtes symbolisent aussi la nature universelle du foot ; le foot fait partie des cultures de l’ouest et aussi de la culture afghane. Malgré toutes les différences qui existent entre nos sociétés, des similarités aussi existent. Il est important pour tout le monde de reconnaître qu’il existe des ressemblances culturelles qui nous unifient, un fait qui est souvent remarquablement absente du reportage de la guerre. Peut-être l’universalité de foot contribuera à une reconnaissance de l’unité de l’humanité et, par conséquent, encourager une paix durable en Afghanistan. Malheureusement, il me semble improbable que le foot relâchera des tensions actuelles qui existent en Afghanistan, car le Taliban rejette les mérites de sport. Aussi malheureux est le fait que la création d’une paix durable en Afghanistan n’implique pas la fin du terrorisme. Même si le foot n’est pas une panacée qui peut créer une paix immédiate, il nous donne de l’espoir que l’avenir sera mieux que le présent.

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Aug 26 2013

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Qatari Foundations

(This piece was originally published in the April 2013 issue of the Chimurenga Chronic)

A spectre is haunting European football – the spectre of Qatar. No holy alliance has emerged to respond to this rising power; indeed, it has been embraced by both established luminaries (Barcelona, Zidane) and by (hopeful) rising stars, such as the Paris Saint-Germain football club and now, in Belgium, Eupen. Qatar is already acknowledged by European football powers to be itself a power in their midst.

How did this come to pass? And what are the Qataris up to, anyway?

In some ways, the story all starts in Belgium, but then again, doesn’t it always? What is transpiring today in Europe was triggered by a professional footballer you would never have heard of were it not for a legal complaint he brought to the European Court in the 1990s. His name was Jean-Marc Bosman, and he played for RFG Liège. When, in 1990, they refused to transfer him to another club, he brought a complaint to the European Court of Trade, arguing that Fifa and professional club policies about player transfers constituted restraint of trade and went against EC policies. He won the case in 1995.

In the wake of the case, the regulations regarding player transfers were dismantled. But, perhaps more significantly, the case also struck down the right of European countries to maintain limits on the number of foreign players in clubs. Up until this time, professional teams throughout Europe had to include mostly players from within a given country, with quotas placed on the number of foreigners. Bosman changed that, helping to bring in a new era of mobility, coupled with vertiginous increases in salaries for European players.

One of the more far-reaching consequences of the Bosman ruling, however, was unintended: it created new openings for players from outside Europe to make their way into the professional system. Though the ruling applied only to European players, it essentially Europeanised the system of professional football, striking down any barriers that existed between national federations when it came to player transfers. That meant that if a player from Africa or Latin America came to play anywhere in Europe and was naturalised, they could then move freely to any other club.

In effect, Bosman did for professional football what the formation of the European Union did more broadly for immigration: it created new patterns of movement based on the fact that almost any door into Europe could potentially lead to any other country on the continent. As the scholar Rafaelle Poli has examined in a series of brilliant articles, European football involved a process through which certain professional gateways gave access to a broader set of options. Clubs in places like Switzerland and Belgium, with smaller budgets and much less professional prominence, would recruit promising players from academies in Africa and Latin America. If those players succeeded, the clubs could help them apply for naturalisation, at which point they became highly marketable commodities. If the club could, every once in a while, then transfer a particularly promising player to another club, say in the English Premier League, they could make a windfall that would support their operations. The advent of European integration in professional football helped to open the way for more and more players from outside Europe.

These changes, of course, were part of a larger set of structural shifts that reconfigured how global football worked. The rise of cable television and the privatisation of media in western Europe created massive new revenue flows for clubs. The increasing visibility of European professional football in global media, coupled with the similar presence of players from throughout the world in clubs on the continent, made the clubs powerful brands that attracted new investors.

This entire landscape has now become so naturalised that it is easy to forget that it is also relatively recent; that there was a time, not so long ago, when many clubs in western Europe were owned and governed by public-private partnerships and when player salaries were relatively contained. Today, many global investors with capital to spend cannot resist the siren song of professional football. Though in many ways investing in the famously fickle realm of sports teams is economically irrational (it’s probably better to invest in technology stocks, or even hedge funds, if you are intent on making money), it offers a mix of status and symbolic capital that is seemingly  irresistible.

Qatari investment in European football is only one part of a global process that has drawn capital from the US and Russia, and has helped to encourage local investment in Chinese football, signing the likes of Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka to lucrative contracts. One of the more high-profile and remarked-upon investments has been the acquisition of Manchester City by Mansour Bin Zayed, a member of the ruling family in the United Arab Emirates, and its stunningly rapid transformation to the top of the Premier League. Yes, it turns out you can buy that prize by spending nearly £500 million on players.

Zayed’s was a shrewd investment partly because it tapped a loyal local fan base and an increasingly global loathing of rivals, Manchester United, thus managing  to produce simultaneously and rapidly a glorious spectacle of capital and footballing triumph. The US media has now capitalised on this as well, making the Manchester derby into a highly promoted television spectacle packaged for a growing audience in North America.

In the summer of 2012, Qatari investors followed suit, buying a stake in another club with untapped potential, Paris Saint-Germain. Long dogged by the reputation of violent, often far-right fans, the club and its new investors are now going to make a play for French dominance and European prominence. They might never get the majority of Parisians to care, but if they can cultivate a new global brand, and offer a fresh narrative in an increasingly saturated market of European clubs, it might not matter.

Middle Eastern investment in European football has, at times, incited open or thinly veiled xenophobic commentary. But there’s no particular reason to conclude that this form of investment is any more or less worrisome than the capital coming from other quarters. What is striking, however, is the interesting ways in which the Qataris in particular have combined multiple forms of investment, capitalising on philanthropy, government action and private investment in a visible and effective bid to shape the contours of professional football in Europe.

Qatari investors have been gaining a stake in European football slowly, over some time. For many, their presence popped into consciousness when one of their country’s institutions showed up on the jerseys of Barcelona FC. The team has long prided itself on keeping sponsors names off their jerseys. In 2005, they began carrying the Unicef logo on their shirts, but paid for the privilege. Then, in 2010, they broke with tradition and made a deal: in exchange for branding their jerseys with the name of the Qatar Foundation, the club received a cool $125 million.

‘What’s the Qatar Foundation?’ you might ask. It is, according to its website, ‘an independent, private, non-profit, chartered organization founded in 1995 by decree of His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Amir of the State of Qatar, to support centres of excellence that develop people’s abilities through investments in human capital, innovative technology, state of the art facilities and partnerships with elite organisations, thus raising the competency of people and the quality of life.’ The shorter version is captured in the slogan: ‘Unlocking human potential.’ And what better standard bearer for that than Lionel Messi?

This investment in European professional football laid the ground-work for the government of Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, the first to take place in the Middle East. They hired Zidane as one of the spokesmen for the bid and he produced an endorsement video in which he speaks, from the Marseille banlieu in which he grew up, about his childhood and ends by declaring ‘Football belongs to everyone.’

We can look forward now to a decade of ongoing grousing about whose petro-dollars won the World Cup, how hot it will be and, more seriously, debates about how Qatari laws on homosexuality and women’s rights will shape the experience of the cup for foreign fans. But whatever its merits, the decision clearly highlights the shifting power relations within global football, as does Fifa’s recent overturning of the ban on the hijab in women’s football as a result of pressure from Jordan and Iran.

Another significant investment on the part of Qatar, however, has largely gone under the radar: the purchasing of second division Belgian Eupen in June 2012 as an extension of the Aspire Academy. The latter institution, based in Qatar and part of the Aspire Zone Foundation, offers scholarships to promising young footballers from Africa, Latin America and Asia. The idea, until now, has been to help them find their way into European clubs. With the purchase of Eupen, however, the goal is to cut out the middle man. The club will serve as an extension of the Aspire Academy, a place where its trainees will be placed on the field as professionals, ideally as the first step in their careers. The combination of philanthropy and investment is a brilliant one, for it positions the Aspire Academy at the centre of the happy discourse of global football as global opportunity, while also providing an opportunity for major profits from subsequent transfer fees for players.

For Belgian club football, this is an important and probably positive development. The leagues in the country have long laboured in the shadows of those much more prominent in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Though the Belgian national team has, for such a small country, a rather illustrious record of qualifying and at times performing reasonably well in World Cups, in recent years they have fallen behind, failing to get to the 2006 and 2010 tournaments. Now a new crop of players who came up in the Belgian club system, including Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany, have emerged as some of the more exciting talents in world football. They may well lead the Belgian team – one that boasts a much greater diversity of players than the national teams of a bygone era – to new victories in the coming years.

An infusion of talent recruited through Qatar into Belgium’s clubs can only help improve the country’s leagues. The combination of foreign capital and foreign players has stirred up, and will undoubtedly continue to do so, grousing about the end of European civilisation among members of the far-right in Belgium. But it is a fair bet that such sniping will be overtaken by the economic interests of both foreign and local investors. In the longer-term, all of this is likely to benefit Belgium’s international competitiveness as well.

An alliance between Belgium and Qatar, in pursuit of a place on the world’s greatest stage? That is where we are in today’s global football: a land of beautiful, stunning, contradiction.

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Aug 03 2012

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

The Hijab on the Pitch

Members of the Iranian National Women’s Football team (Source: FIFPro)


On Friday, July 6, the French Football Federation announced that it would ban the wearing of hijab during all organized competitions held in France. The Federation declared that in doing so it was fulfilling its “duty to respect the constitutional and legislative principles of secularism that prevails in our country and features in its statutes.”

The decision came one day after the International Football Association Board — the body within FIFA that governs the laws of the game — unanimously declared that it would, for a “trial period,” allow players to wear the hijab during international competitions. France, then, is seeking to carve out an exception to an international ruling, one that links its football regulations to a broad set of laws that ban veils in public schools and public administration, as well as banning the burqa in all public spaces.

(The hijab covers the hair and neck; generally the term “veils” is used to describe coverings that also cover part of the face, though the usage varies quite a bit; and a burqacovers the entire face).

Scholars including Joan Scott and John Bowen have analyzed the history of these broader debates in rich detail, tying them both to longer colonial histories and contemporary battles over secularism, Islam, and immigration in France. The banning of the hijab from the football pitch was initially a relatively minor subplot in these broader battles over veils, hijab, and burqas in Europe and Canada. But the involvement of FIFA, the Iranian government, a Jordanian Prince, and the United Nations have helped to transform the terrain of football into an increasingly important battleground over the hijab.

The recent controversies are part of a longer, complex story of the presence of Muslim women in football, a topic nicely examined by Risa Isard on the Soccer Politics blog.  But their more immediate background goes back to 2007. In that year, in Quebec, a referee at Under-12 girls’ soccer tournament ordered an 11-year-old player named Asmahan Mansour (pictured below) to remove the hijab she was wearing during play. She refused, and was told she would have to leave the field. As Mansour later explained: “I think it’s pathetic, really, ’cause it’s [the head scarf] tucked in my shirt.”

Asmahan Mansour (Source: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

In a powerful — but since little-reported — show of solidarity, her entire team along with four others playing in the tournament protested, refusing to continue playing unless Mansour was allowed to play. Their instant reaction to the decision speaks volumes. To them, it seems, Mansour’s hijab was a normal and unproblematic part of their daily lives as players, and the insistence that she remove it seemed an intolerable intervention — one they were so insulted by that they preferred to forfeit than to accept it.

Part of the reason for the strong reaction the girls had to the referee’s intervention is that Quebec’s position was at odds with that of other regions of Canada. In Ontario, for instance — and in Ottawa, where Mansour was from — officials and referees had allowed girls to wear the hijab as long as it was properly tucked into clothing so as not to present a hazard on the field. But the intervention on the football pitch was part of a broader pattern in Quebec, which like France has banned the burqa in all public spaces.

Mansour’s case was referred to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) in March 2007. They agreed with the decision of the referee, saying that Law 4 of the Rules of the Game listed the articles players could wear, and did not include headscarves. “If you play football there’s a set of laws and rules, and law four outlines the basic equipment,” said one IFAB member. “It’s absolutely right to be sensitive to people’s thoughts and philosophies, but equally there has to be a set of laws that are adhered to, and we favour law four being adhered to.”

The IFAB decision was, perhaps intentionally, vague: no mention was made of safety, the banning of religious or political symbols, or other reasons to prevent women from wearing a hijab. The conclusion was just that the current laws didn’t allow them to do so. In an interview, legal scholar Linda Sheryl Greene explores the potential implications of the decision. What became clear over time was that it was a precedent-setting decision in the world of football. Though national federations still had leeway about how they dealt with the issue in local competitions, the FIFA decision had a necessary trickle-down effect: federations couldn’t place players who insisted on wearing the hijab in teams in international competition.

As importantly, FIFA became the first global international organization to officially take up the issue of the hijab as a human rights issue. (The European Union Court had, on previous occasions, upheld the banning of hijab in both France and Turkey, rebuffing legal activists who claimed they were violations of human rights; but these decisions are territorially limited.) As a result, FIFA’s decision took on a kind of symbolic importance that the members of the organization had perhaps not, at first, expected it would.

The 2007 decision didn’t provide much guidance for subsequent attempts to justify the decision. After all, IFAB can change the Laws of the Game, as they have done on frequent occasions: so why not change them to allow hijab? In response to questions and pressure about the decision, however, FIFA and national federations offered a variety of justifications for the ban. One of the most frequent has been to insist that hijabs pose a safety hazard — that they could get caught during play, for instance, and perhaps strangle a player. This particular argument has always seemed like it would collapse under the weight of its own absurdity. After all, long hair is more likely to get pulled or tangled in play. And one could ask: if wearing something that covers your head poses a danger to players, why are goal-keepers allowed to do so according to Law 4, as Petr Cech famously does to protect his skull in the wake of an injury received on the pitch? The safety argument was probably deployed because it seemed the least controversial, a way to skirt the obvious cultural and religious struggles at work in this debate. The problem for those who wanted to use it to stop the approval of the hijab is that it was also relatively easy to confront: all that was needed was to develop a hijab that was relatively tight and attached with velcro (the way Cech’s headgear is) to avoid the danger of it being stuck around a player’s neck.

Another problem for FIFA is that there has, at least to my knowledge, never been any concern expressed by players themselves about the hijab. Indeed, like the girls in Quebec who walked off the field in 2007, many players have supported the rights of teammates to play while wearing one. The global player’s organization FIFPro came out in support of lifting the ban on veils, for instance. The organization Right2Wear has been advocating at the grassroots for women’s right to wear headscarves while playing football.

Such organizations on their own, however, probably would not have had the clout to reverse FIFA’s decision. Unlike France, Quebec, or Europe more broadly — where the bans on veils and burqas have been contested but never successfully overturned—FIFA has to deal with powerful internal constituencies who opposed their ruling on the hijab. For football federations from North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia seeking to develop the women’s game, the ban on the hijab represented a serious obstacle. Given the increasingly important role played by the region within FIFA, the association began as an ideal site for international political pressure against the ban.

The process of reversing the ban began in 2011, when FIFA officials stopped the Iranian national women’s team from playing in an Olympic qualifying game because their players were wearing hijab. The team was literally minutes from entering the field when they were told they could not play, though FIFA later claimed that the Iranian federation had been warned in advance they would not be allowed to play. Interestingly, during that incident FIFA justified the ban on hijab on the basis of regulations that outlaw the presence of “politics or religion” on uniforms, not based on the safety dangers cited in 2007. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attacked FIFA, referring to them as “dictators” and “colonialists,” while the Iranian ambassador to Jordan referred to the leaders of the international footballing organization as “extremists.”

As FIFA cynics pointed out at the time, the organization was perhaps the only one in the world capable of making Ahmadinejad sympathetic to a broader global consituency — especially on the issue of women’s rights. If Iran had been on its own in confronting FIFA, they might not have made much headway. But others also began mobilizing to criticize the ban. Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein took up the cause, and in March 2012 insisted that FIFA should overturn the ban. He argued that this decision was vital “to ensure that all women are able to play football at all levels without any barriers or discrimination.” (Jordan’s national women’s team had been forced not to select certain players for international competition because they wished to wear the hijab when they were playing.) And a United Nations sports advisor wrote to FIFA also urging them to lift the ban, arguing that “FIFA has the responsibility to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to participate in football.”

In March of this past year, FIFA voted to end the ban and allow players on the pitch in new, specially-designed, velcro-fastened hijab. Besides spurring on the creation of a whole new branch of athletic wear — one can imagining smiling Nike and Adidas executives reading the news — this was a significant reversal.

(Source: The Muslim Times)

It was, however, still tentative, for the issue of the safety of the hijab was still to be taken up by medical specialists at FIFA. Finally, on July 5, a full — if still temporary — approval of the hijab in international women’s play was passed by FIFA, prompting much celebration in some quarters, and the immediate refusal of the principle by the French Football Federation.

There will, undoubtedly, be more twists and turns to this issue. Globally, the hijab has become a crossroads for political and religious conflict, and it should come as no surprise that this is true in football, too. Yet there is something fascinating about this struggle over the right to play football in a hijab because of the nub of contradictions at work. Though they often used the pretext of player safety, what underlies the decisions of authorities who have banned the hijab is the idea that they were simultaneously protecting women from the veil and protecting the turf from expressions of worn Islamic religious identification. Those who have insisted that women and girls be allowed to play wearing the hijab have argued that to deny them this right is an attack against their freedom and equality. For the moment, the latter argument has — at least tentatively — won the day. This means that girls and women will no longer be asked to make a choice between the hijab and playing the game they love.

In the long-running debates over the banning of veils from French public schools, a minority of critics have persistently insisted on the fundamentally contradictory nature of such regulations. If the goal is to encourage the emancipation of women from patriarchal structures, how is excluding them from school the answer? And sociologists who interviewed the girls who were wearing veils to school in the 1980s and early 1990s found that their motivations, as well as their religious convictions, were extremely diverse and more often expressions of cultural or community pride — or a mechanism to avoid unwanted attention from boys — than the result of pressure from families.

Wearing a hijab onto the football pitch is an inherently complicated act. It is difficult to argue that, in doing so, girls and women are demonstrating deep submission to patriarchal gender constructions, for in the very act of participating in an intense, competitive, and highly public athletic contest they are pushing the boundaries of such constructions. From the beginning, the worry about the implications of wearing a hijab on the pitch has come from referees, national federations, and FIFA authorities, rather than from players. Many of them — like 11-year-old Mansour in 2007 — seem to feel none of the conflict or contradictions that those supervising their play feel about the garment.

Shireen Ahmen has recently written about the experience of playing in a hijab, describing with a mix of humor and irritation the constant questions she gets about doing so. Her piece asks readers to simply understand that wearing a hijab is “how I play. How I CHOOSE to play.” To those who ask her questions on the pitch — “Isn’t it hot?” — she offers: “I am not averse to answering questions. Just not in the middle of a match. Ask me after. I am happy to provide my number, a dinner invitation and a Tariq Ramadan website.” And though she imagines “scoring 3 goals and performing in some Messi-like manner whereby achieving a great victory for all oppressed Muslim women and earning the respect and acceptance of these nimrods,” in fact — just like any player — the reality is more banal. “Some games I play well. Some games I get called for illegal slide-tackles.” Ahmen’s piece offers precisely what we need more of now: an understanding of the lives of “hijabi footballers” as she calls them, that gets us back to reality on the pitch of play — and the play of individuality and community that is ultimately what football is about.

The official debate about the hijab in football is clearly far from over. Authorities in Quebec seem committed to pushing back against FIFA’s new rules, and have curiously brought the story full circle: just days after the ruling, they banned Rayane Benatti, a 9-year-old girl, from playing in a youth match in a hijab. They explained that they would wait until the International Football Association Board determined precisely what type of hijab could be worn (a decision they will take in October) before allowing any girls to play wearing them. But France and Quebec will likely be increasingly isolated in this stance; indeed, the Montreal Gazette itself published a strong editorial attacking the regional football association’s action.

Now that the hijab has been allowed back on the pitch by FIFA, perhaps football can help to confront and unwind the simplistic debates that have surrounded the issue for too long. After all, the day may not be too long off when a player in a hijab scores the winning goal for a country — maybe even England or Germany — in the Olympics or the World Cup, producing an image of triumph and belonging that can serve to trouble the other images of women veiled that govern and shape much debate in Europe on this topic. To allow the hijab on the pitch is to allow football to do the work that it can, at its best, do so well: confusing certainties, upending easy affiliations, and reminding us that no one has a monopoly on the future.

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Feb 02 2012

Profile Image of Sophia Azeb

Why SCAF Is To Blame

Since its founding in 1907, Al Ahly S.C. has been known as ‘the people’s club,’ representing resistance against the many forms of colonialism that have long plagued the African continent. Initially the first sporting club to allow Egyptians to join, Al Ahly remains the most popular of Egyptian teams, wearing to this day the red kits that honour the pre-colonial Egyptian flag.

It is no great surprise, then, that Al Ahly Ultras – officially founded by Mahmoud Ghandour in 2007 (who is reported to have died in Wednesday’s violent attacks) – were on the front lines of both the initial “#Jan25” uprising and the continuing movement intended to topple the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Egyptians inspired by Tunisia and over 30 years of corrupt governance have utilized every resistance tactic at their disposal, including the well-organized and nearly fearless ultras.

Ahlawy are not the only ultras to make up the first line of defense against police and the military – fans of the comparatively upper-class Cairene neighborhood Zamalek’s team, Al Ahly’s longtime rivals, have also defended the ongoing revolution with zeal. It is, in fact, the truce called by Zamalek after years of bitter rivalry with Ahly in the aftermath of the devastating Port Said riots this Wednesday that symbolizes much of the complexity surrounding what the international media has largely misidentified as a “football riot.”

What happened is still unclear, though this much is known: On Wednesday, after Al Masry beat Al Ahly 3-1, attackers armed with knives and clubs stormed the pitch. Whether the armed crowds were only Al Masry Ultras or not is still being debated – after all, why attack the spectators and team members of the losing squad? Several players – Egypt’s beloved philanthropist and supporter of the revolution Mohamed Aboutrika included – were injured as they rushed into their dressing rooms (Aboutrika, shaken by theattack, has since announced his retirement from football).

At least 73 people were killed (martyred, as many observers and mourners on Twitter, Facebook and the Egyptian blogosphere have noted), and many more injured. As those under attack – mostly Ahlawy, though this type of violence rarely leaves anyone untouched – attempted to leave, it was discovered that most of the exits were locked, and the stadium lights were shut off in the midst of the chaos.

The videos coming out of the Port Said stadium are horrendous. Such violence is not unheard of in the aftermath of football matches in Egypt (or anywhere in the world, for that matter), but it took even seasoned football announcers by complete surprise.

The Ultras in Egypt do not share the sometimes-fascist roots of their counterparts in Europe. Although politics also play an incredible role in the breakdown between fans of the various teams throughout Egypt, football had been frequently utilized by Mubarak’s regime as an attempt to distract citizens from their daily oppression, as well as stoke tensions between neighborhoods, cities, and nations. But this has not always been successful.

One of the many Ahly chants routinely heard at football matches is “Down, Down With the Junta Rule!” Last year I cited Dave Zirin in a short piece discussing Al Ahly’s political history on the media blog Africa Is A Country. Zirin’s observation that Egyptian football clubs and anti-government organizations “walked together in comfort” remains a reminder of why many Egyptians – myself, a product of four generations of Ahlawy included – do not for one moment believe this is “just” football fanaticism.

The video above displays clearly the riot-gear clad security forces doing nothing while Al Ahly’s players sprint to the relative safety of their dressing rooms. This is not the first time in the last year Egyptians have seen this happen. Recall that on 28 January of last year, many were paid and armed to attack protestors in Meydan Tahrir and other gathering areas.

Mubarak and his supporters not only used this as ‘proof’ that they were in the right, but also to allege that Egyptians were ‘not ready’ to lead themselves. This moment is clear in the minds of many at a moment when SCAF has echoed these same arguments in an attempt to retain power and maintain the Emergency Law that has been in place since 1980. SCAF now promises another ‘crackdown,’ though, as usual, it does not specify what particular entity will be targeted.

Al Ahly Ultras asserted in a public statement: “[SCAF] want to punish us and execute us for our participation in the revolution against suppression. Given this and the broader public rage directed at the military for protecting and serving only itself, we must expect that SCAF will be cracking down on the very people mourning the loss of life and continued absence of their liberty in Egypt. Indeed, the protests throughout the nation that immediately followed the riot turned into all-out battles between military police and ultras. As one interviewee warned The New York Times, “They turned the biggest fan base in the country against them.”


For more details and perspectives, please read James M. Dorsey’s articles on the Foreign Policy and Time websites, here and here, as well as Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani’s thoughts on the LRB blog.


Crossposted from Africa Is A Country.

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Feb 01 2011

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

From the Stadium to the Streets in Egypt

There were several interesting reports this week about the fact that some of the best organized and most effective groups involved in the protests in Egypt came from what some saw as a surprising place: football fan groups. As a report on Gawker noted: “When asked about the role of political groups in organizing protests, prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa abd El-Fatah told Al Jazeera . . . : “The ultras – the football fan associations – have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment.” The article particularly highlights the supporters of the Al Ahly (“The National”), which was founded in 1907 and served as a site for resistance to British colonial rule.

The Football Scholars Forum has links to several good articles and a radio piece by David Goldblatt.

And David Zirin penned a very good comment about this at Sports Illustrated.

In fact for those who know the history of the region, the connection should come as no surprise: football has long sustained political resistance in the region: not only in Egypt but in Algeria, where it played a vital role in the nationalist movements that led to independence. What perhaps makes this connection somewhat invisible, or illegible, is the broader notion — one sustained both by many forms of sport media as well as by those who critique sport — that fandom is somehow apolitical, or even the antithesis of politics. These reports, however, should be a reminder that football associations have long been, and continue to be, significant civic institutions with the capacity, on occasion, to participate in political change.

The official institutions governing football, meanwhile, now face the question of whether the U.S.-Egypt match scheduled for February 9th should in fact be played. So far it has not been cancelled, and one blogger has argued that the failure to cancel the match is a reflection of the broader “muddled” U.S. policy. This too, raises an interesting question: who do these teams represent? Does the Egyptian team stand for the crumbling Egyptian government, or for those in the streets demanding the departure of Mubarak? And who does the U.S. team stand for, in the midst of our (remarkably limp) engagement with one of the most dramatic democratic movements in recent years? 

This all is a reminder of the central role that football can play in constituting the political imagination, as well as shaping political action. Dictatorships succeed by investing an entire national space with their power and their symbols. They insist that they constitute the nation, standing as it’s only true representative. They seek to eliminate any alternative to their regime by rendering such alternatives unimaginable. But football also channels hopes and ideas of particular communities and nations, one that because of it’s theatrical and symbolic power — as well as the fact that it can seem to be simply apolitical, an escape rather than a challenge — is remarkably resilient in such contexts. The Egyptian football team stands for the nation just as Mubarak does, but without the police state. It’s heroes seem like they might be you and me. And when a crowd forms around them, it becomes a kind of alternative national community that, at least during some fleeting moments, can imagine something new into existence.

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Apr 14 2010

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Burying War Through Football in Lebanon

A student posted a link on my “Global France” blog about a fascinating football tournament organized in Lebanon recently as a way of commemorating, but also burying, the wars that tore about the country starting in the 1970s. You can read her post here, and the full story here. Interestingly, while the match was intended to create a context for peaceful encounters between political groups that were once at war, it was considered to delicate an event to allow for spectators, though the event was broadcast on TV.

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Jan 08 2010

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Iranian Football Protest

Thanks to my friend Negar Mottehedeh, and via a post from Enduring America, here are two videos from a January 6th game between Iran and Singapore, during which Iranian fans chanted anti-government slogans — “Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein,” in support of opposition leader Mousavi in the 1st video, and “Marg Bar Dictator,” (“Down with the Dictator,”) in the second.

Since last summer, when the Iranian national team wore green armbands in protest of the June election results — something you can read about in detail here at one of our “Soccer Politics” pages – football has become a forum for protest, to the point that in September a game was actually broadcast in black-and-white on Iranian state television so that viewers would not be able to see fans wearing the color green, the symbol of the “Green Revolution” in Iran. Apparently, on January 6th, Iranian television broadcast the games without sound so that the chants could not be heard. I also remember reading, in one of the excellent “Green Briefs” from late this summer, that one of the first games in the Iranian premier league was actually held without any fans in the stadium, as the authorities feared the match would become a forum for protest.

Iran defeated Singapore 3-1 to secure a berth in the 2011 Asian Cup competition, as you can see in the third video below. For the fans chanting in the stadium, meanwhile, support for the Iranian team was a way of supporting a different future for the Iranian nation.

This game took place in Singapore. In March, however, Iran plays Thailand in Tehran. What will the stadium sound like then?

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Dec 03 2009

Profile Image of Danny Mammo

Wacky Idea for a Complex Problem: The Limits of Football as a Tool for Engagement?

I have posted links before in which people have expressed interest in some sort of a football game to engage Israelis and Palestinians. I came across this article recently which mentions the Brazilian President trying to set up a game in which Israelis/Palestinians would join to play the Brazilian national team. I don’t know how keen two sides that are in conflict would be to join in what would surely be a rout, but the fact that football has been increasingly thought of as a space in which Israelis/Palestinians can engage in dialogue is interesting.  I say interesting and hesitate to say encouraging because while I believe in the power of football to engage different communities that are unfamiliar with each other, I am skeptical about any effect it could have on Israeli/Palestinian relations. I’m curious as to hear others thoughts? What are the “limits” to football’s use as a tool of mediation and/or engagement? In what cases could such a match be successful?

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Oct 06 2009

Profile Image of Danny Mammo

UEFA President: Football the key to Middle East peace?

The UEFA president visited Jerusalem Tuesday and apparently talked about “how football can bridge communities around the world.” The articles I’ve seen do not go into detail but it would be interesting to know what he had to say. Football has clearly united lots of communities and served as a key to past conflict resolution; nonetheless, if football can unite the Middle East then it surely must be looked at as a major diplomatic tool.

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