Football in the Middle EastFreedom vs. oppression
Since Qatar was announced as FIFA World Cup host back in 2010, the country has experienced an unexpected image boost. Yet the attention has not been exclusively positive. In Rebel Game, Jan Busse and Rene Wildangel shed light on how a small nation, one that had never before participated in a football world cup, was granted the responsibility of hosting such a major event.
The anthology’s various authors paint a picture of football in the Middle East, reaching far beyond the impending championships and situating the sport within the wider history of the Middle East. As well as the politics behind the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, they also discuss the role of FIFA, football’s political clout, and numerous protest movements. It becomes amply clear that, in the Middle East, football is much more than just a sport – and highly political, at that.
The Qatar World Cup: a political move
In the first section, Busse and Wildangel address in detail the forthcoming tournament and the decision to make Qatar the host venue. The authors describe how, in recent decades, the Gulf States have hit upon sport – football in particular – as an instrument of soft power, and have worked to expand the sector. These dedicated and overtly political attempts are in stark contrast to the current mantra of FIFA and sports officials, that “sport has nothing to do with politics”.
In their contributions to the volume, Marlon Saadi and Guido Steinberg make it clear that it is not enough to simply home in on Qatar as the host country for the 2022 World Cup; neighbouring states in the Gulf are also exploiting sport and football, specifically for political ends.
Cinzia Bianco and Sebastian Sons discuss the fact that all of the Gulf States have found themselves in a process of “fundamental transformation”, prompted at the very latest by the Arab Spring in 2011. And it is not just the Qatari government that views football as an opportunity for fostering national and international influence: “With the help of football, the Gulf States are pursuing a strategy of power projection and consolidation by exploiting and politicising the game on a national, regional and international scale”. The conflict between the Gulf States continues to grow as they work to develop new identities.
Tiny emirate "too big to fail"
From 2017-2021, regional power struggles led to the Qatar diplomatic crisis. Qatar managed to extricate itself successfully thanks to effective international networking during the course of the World Cup preparations and, within this context, is often described as “too big to fail”. The authors demonstrate clearly how the upcoming World Cup is being strategically exploited in the Gulf for political ends.
Yet the power-political side to football is not always negative. “Football diplomacy could play a role in a re-engagement with the Gulf”, and all of the Gulf States could ultimately benefit from the 2022 World Cup. As such, the interconnectedness of the 2022 World Cup and the Qatari power strategy is just one example of the regional interweaving of sport and politics.
Against this backdrop of power politics, Rebel Game also discusses the role of FIFA and the appalling ongoing conditions facing migrant workers in Qatar. Regina Spoettl traces the difficulties affecting migrant workers in Qatar as it prepares for the World Cup. Reforms to Qatari labour laws have been widely deemed inadequate and the circumstances surrounding the deaths of many workers remain unclear.
The author ends her chapter with a definitive call to implement better labour laws after the World Cup, maintaining the pressure on both Qatar and its neighbours in the Gulf.
From colonial rulers to authoritarian leaders
The second part of the anthology gives a larger historical and regional perspective. The authors examine the chequered career of football in the Middle East down the decades, and the political meddling to which the game has always been subject.
The editors describe the “contrast between the mobilising force of football and its rigorous restriction” as “characteristic of the history of football in the Middle East and North Africa”. The histories of how nations in the Middle East emerged are often bound up with football in various ways and, to this day, the sport is used by heads-of-state to consolidate their power.
Yet it was the colonial powers who first exploited football for political ends. Many of the first football clubs consciously turned against these powers, hoping to shape the political course of their home nations. As a result of various independence movements, many of the new rulers used the sport to consolidate their national power.
The trend continues to this day. Ronny Blaschke provides an impressive account of how the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has promoted football in recent years in order to regain respect both nationally and internationally.
Football: society’s mouthpiece
And thanks to a portrait written by Moritz Baumsteiger, focussing on the ex-GDR coach Bernd Stanger who served as coach for the Syrian national team from 2018-2019, the question of political attitudes to football is a recurring theme. The pieces that follow it, looking at football in the history of Israel, Palestine and Iran, underline the fact that the sport is much more than just 90 minutes on the pitch and is by no means unpolitical. The authors demonstrate the conflict that exists among the different actors embroiled in the game.
And it is not just the ruling powers in the Middle East who politicise the game. Football became a platform for political protests, particularly during the so-called Arab Spring.
Christoph Becker offers a poignant description of Iranian women’s fight for equal rights in football, which begins with the struggle to gain entry to the stadiums, but also goes further, spreading to other sports and outside of the world of sport altogether.
The other nations in the Middle East are all far from achieving equal rights for women in football – on as well as off the pitch.
According to Anna Reuss, one reason for this is the fact that women are still viewed as “a screen onto which society projects its traditions and its identity”, something it is impossible to reconcile with sporting activity and competition.
In recent years, however, small positive steps have been taken in various countries across the region.
In 2021 for instance, Saudi Arabia hired Monika Staab, a former footballer for Germany, as coach and tasked her with building a Saudi women’s team.
In addition to the fight for equal rights, the political struggles of rowdy football fans in Egypt and the musical protests in Algeria have also been considerable forms of expression for social protest during football games in the Middle East.
The power of football to bring together and mobilise people from different social classes goes far beyond what happens in the stadiums, as these two chapters demonstrate.
The anthology presents the spirit of rebellion in the Middle East, both on and off the field, in all its facets, both light and dark.
The question of to whom football belongs remains open. The upcoming World Cup in Qatar, an instrument of power for the emir, a supposedly non-political sporting event for FIFA and the first local World Cup tournament for people living in the Middle East, carries within it the complexity of the history of football locally.
Yet the authors of this anthology repeatedly make clear that football is the most popular sport in the Middle East and, as such, its story has come to be woven through the history of the region for more than a century.
© Qantara.de 2022
Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu