Aftab Ahmed: The World Cup, Arab football and social dissent
As Qatar hosts the World Cup amidst much controversy, recognizing the historical links between Arab football and civic resilience is important in evaluating what this means for the Middle East.
By: Aftab Ahmed
Qatar is making history for the Arab world by hosting the FIFA World Cup. Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani and his associates have leveraged football’s marquee event to advertise a pro-business, modern, technologically-advanced and economically vibrant perception of Qatar, the Gulf states, and broadly speaking, the Middle East. At the same time, Qatar has come under much deserved criticism over its human rights record, especially after an official recently conceded that as many as 500 migrant workers were killed building the facilities.
But beyond these competing storylines of the glitz and glamour on one side, and the dire state of human rights on the other, there is an equally important narrative of civic dissent etched in Arab football which ought to be highlighted, as the Middle East unites in celebrating a notable moment in their complicated history.
Football has acted as a policy lever in shaping national identities and regional geopolitics for decades. Increasingly, the sport is being banked on as a commercial device to promote the Gulf’s soft-power agendas, foreign policy aims and investment objectives. While the World Cup establishes the supremacy of Gulf States as global investors and dominant political forces seeking to diversify their oil-rich economies, it also provides an exclusive opportunity to Arabs to commemorate a rich history of a sport mobilized by grassroots during revolutions, rebellions, and upheavals against autocrats and despots.
In a major act of protest which demonstrates the power of football as a tool of dissent, the Iranian men’s team refused to sing their national anthem during their World Cup opener against England at a jam-packed Khalifa International Stadium in Doha. Captain Ehsan Hajsafi did not mince words in stating his team’s unequivocal support for the ongoing protests in Iran and for Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by Iran’s morality police and died in custody in September this year. While it is expected that they will face some form of reprimand from state authorities, the actions by Hajsafi and his teammates amidst the global scrutiny of a censorial Iranian regime are a reminder that the people of the Middle East are indisputably frustrated by the egregious violations of human rights committed against them.
Looking back, perhaps the story of the FLN team, also known as “the eleven of the independence,” can be seen as an inflection point in the Arab history of social dissent. As anti-colonial sentiments and a wave of decolonization spread across the world at the end of the Second World War, Algerians playing in French football leagues left the comfort of their professional teams and joined the Algerian independence movement led by the National Liberation Front (FLN). The FLN linked the growth, development and success of African and Arab football, to a wider socio-political resistance against colonial forces — in this particular case, using the sport as an expression of national identity.
The FLN team was founded during the height of Algeria’s independence struggles in 1958. The French government pushed FIFA to delegitimize these footballing activists, and the sport’s governing body did exactly that. Yet, backed by the Liberation Front, Algeria’s first national team, a revolutionary group of frontline sporting dissenters, organized and toured the world for four years, promoting the emancipation of their country and voicing civic rebellion against France. In 1962, Algeria received its independence. As history would have it, Zinedine Zidane, the child of Algerian immigrants who settled in Marseille, would become a French icon, lifting the FIFA World Cup trophy in 1998, as France won its first ever championship. In the process, Zidane set a precedent for first and second-generation immigrant footballers from former Arab and African colonies.
Algeria represents one tale of a much more complex story. The invasion of Iraq by the United States brought down a tyrant in Saddam Hussein, but left the country perilously divided and economically shattered. Contrary to the predictions of many, the Iraqi national team surprised the world and defeated Saudi Arabia in the 2007 Asia Cup final. This was momentous for a couple of reasons. For one, Iraq had no ambitions in excelling internationally in sports within a climate where sectarian violence was desecrating an already war-torn nation. Leading up to the Asia Cup, the Iraqi team was forced to undertake their training in neighbouring Jordan.
As fate would have it, Iraq’s physiotherapist was killed by a car bomb in Baghdad prior to their opening game in the tournament. As the Iraqis beat South Korea to reach the final, they were informed of a series of bombings and terrorist attacks which killed 50 Iraqi fans who were celebrating a rare victory. With a sombre appeal for unity, Iraq lifted the Asia Cup, dedicating their victory to hope and peace, and praying for the survival of their nation.
The story goes on. During the Arab Spring protests, football supporters groups, such as the Cairo-based Ultras Ahlawly, played a pivotal role during the mass uprising against the draconian regime of Hosni Mubarak — organizing opposition to Egyptian law enforcement agencies and expressing collective resilience against coercive state power. Time and time again, football in the Arab world has shown to be inextricably linked to the historical, social and political experiences of the region, and the destinies of its people.
Evaluating the 2022 World Cup solely through the lens of the tournament being an institutional device for sports-washing, ignores the difficult, distinctive and radical history of football in the Middle East. In recent years, with cash-rich Qatari and Saudi investments in the sport, the focus of analysis has been on the commodification of football as a soft-power tool to serve the interests of Arab kings and princes. The fiscal linkages between the Saudi Royal family and prestigious footballing entities such as Paris Saint Germain FC and Newcastle FC, and Emirati investments in Manchester City FC, showcases the importance attached to football in elevating the reputation of the Middle-East to Europeans. Other sporting events which garner international attention, such as Formula One races and Cricket World Cups, have also been commercially supported and hosted by Arab nations with much pomp and pageantry.
The tiny proportion of Arab society who wield unmatched political power seek to use sport as a vehicle to export the Gulf’s economic vision to the West — and Qatar is a categorical realization of this particular aspiration. Questioning Arab leadership regarding their record on human-rights and labour conditions is important. Criticizing and holding FIFA accountable for the corrupt environment in which Russia and Qatar were awarded hosting rights for the World Cup is equally crucial. But in critiquing Qatar, we should also remember to celebrate the people of the Arab world and what this World Cup means for them.
This World Cup is a win for the Iranians, Algerians, Egyptians, Iraqis and more, who have tapped into the beautiful game as a means of advocating for their respective political rights. This should have been framed as a tribute to thousands of migrant workers who have made it possible to host the grandest sporting event in the world in a location where doing so seemed unlikely. This World Cup cannot be an avenue for the West to exhibit moral superiority towards a region that they do not fully understand — and should definitely not be one where the absence of booze in Qatari stadiums forms the primary basis of public discourse.
Aftab Ahmed is a Master’s of Public Policy candidate at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, where he is the Editor in Chief of the policy newsletter The Bell. He is a regular columnist for two major Bangladeshi media platforms and his interests lie in global affairs, international development and political trends in the Asia-Pacific.
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