As protests in Egypt continue and the uprising in North Africa spreads, football is playing a key role in the Arab world’s revolution. Making his debut for Just Football, James M. Dorsey explains how:
Soccer match cancellations have become a barometer of the mounting concern in governments across northern Africa that they may be the next target of the Arab world’s winter of discontent.
Algeria, Libya and Egypt have indefinitely cancelled matches in a bid to prevent the pitch from becoming a platform for protests. Algeria moreover annulled a friendly against Libya scheduled for February 5. The fate of a Libyan friendly against Morocco in Marrakech remains as of this writing unclear.
From Algeria to Sudan soccer has emerged as a key player in the popular revolts that have already toppled Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to refrain from running for re-election and threaten to drive the Egyptian leader unceremoniously out of office.
Soccer fans played a key role in the mass demonstrations that brought Mubarak to his knees. Mubarak demonstrated his recognition of the threat posed by soccer when he last week not only forced the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to cancel all matches, but also instructed the military to visit clubs to impose an immediate stop to all training.
Stoycho Mladenov, the Bulgarian coach of Egypt’s Premier League team, Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries Club (ENPPI), recounts military officers arriving at the club as the EFA announced the cancellation to order an immediate halt to all training. Mladenov and his players were instructed to go home until further notice.
The cancellations were not restricted to North African teams. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) on Monday after almost a week of dithering that reflected the Obama administration’s wishy-washy approach to the crisis in Egypt, finally annulled the US national soccer team’s friendly against Egypt that had been scheduled to be played in Cairo on February 9.
The USSF was forced to cancel after EFA officials privately made clear that a US proposal to hold the match in a third country was not a realistic alternative. The officials noted that neither the team nor they would be willing to leave Egypt while it is in turmoil. Team members, like many other Egyptians, have supported the protests while at the same time establishing neighborhood watch teams to protect their families and property from thugs and criminals.
Students in Sudan have called for mass demonstrations on the eve of the second African Cup of Nations for Home-Based Players (CHAN 2011), scheduled to kick off on February 4. The students have not linked their protests to the CHAN tournament, but it is likely that they see the competition as an opportunity to draw attention to their cause as well as embarrass the government.
The Libyan cancellation was prompted by fears that the widespread clandestine circulation of US diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks, detailing the corruption and decadent lifestyle of the family of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi, could fuel anti-government protests in provincial cities against corruption in public housing.
Arab government concern about the subversive power of soccer goes beyond the fear that matches may offer potential protesters a venue to rally. Across North Africa and the Middle East, soccer has often proven to be, alongside Islam, the only valve for the release of pent-up anger and frustration, the bricks of the popular explosion that is reshaping the region. Riots in Jordan late last year that left 250 people injured exposed a deepening rift between East Bankers of Bedouin origin and Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
In Egypt, the ultras of Cairo rivals Al Ahly Sports Club and Al Zamalek emerged as the only well-organized, street battle-hardened group among the demonstrators demanding radical change. “The ultras — the football fan associations — have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment,” said Egyptian blogger Alaa Abed Al Fattah on an Al Jazeera talk show.
That coupled with the yet to be determined outcome of Egypt’s popular revolt is likely to have an impact on the nature of Egypt’s national team. As Egyptian opposition forces jockey for position in Mubarak’s heyday, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s main opposition force, is certin to emerge as a key player.
The Brotherhood already has exerted its influence over the team. Players pray before games for God’s intervention and offer up prayers of thanks for goals and victories. To join the team, players must pass a religious litmus test; “pious behavior” alongside soccer skills is a primary criterion for making the team. “Without it, we will never select any player regardless of his potential,” says coach Hassan Sheheta, who dumped a talented player for visiting a nightclub rather than a mosque. “I always strive to make sure that those who wear the Egypt jersey are on good terms with God.”
James M. Dorsey is a new contributor to Just Football, specialising in football in the Middle East. He can be found over at his excellent blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
(photo by messay.com on Flickr)