How Soccer Explains the Middle East

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A soccer game was held yesterday in the West Bank. That may not be quite out of the ordinary in this soccer-mad part of the world, but the teams competing were: on one side,  you had Thailand, and the other, Palestine. A qualifying tournament for the 2012 Olympics, this was the first ever internationally-sanctioned game in the Occupied Territories. In recent years, the International Olympic Committee paved the way for Palestine’s international recognition — at least in the sporting world — with four Palestinian athletes having participated in the 2008 Games in Beijing. Yesterday, Palestine lost in the end to a penalty shootout, but it didn’t seem to matter as proud fans braved the elements, waved flags and chanted “Palestine!” from the stands. Says Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad: “In a way, we won the game before it started. It’s the first home game for our team and soon we will have the first ever home game in the Palestinian state.”

Of course, Fayyad and his unpopular government would be eager to champion whatever morale-boosting moment they can as they push desperately for elections they claim will lead to the emergence of an independent Palestinian state, but which few are putting much faith in without the participation of Fayyad and his political camp’s bitter rivals, the Islamist group Hamas. The world’s most popular sport, as some sour commentators note, is very much the 20th century’s opiate of the masses: governments in Nazi Germany and Argentina under the military junta tried to transform World Cups hosted on their soil into spectacles aimed at burnishing their dubious politics. Two days ago, in an attempt to boost his own controversial credentials, Chechnyan President Ramzan Kadyrov hosted a team of aging Brazilian All-Stars in a match in Grozny’s main stadium, and even pulled on a jersey and lined up with a Chechnyan team.

(In a more positive light, united Germany’s hosting of the World Cup in 2006 proved a cathartic, joyous nationalist moment for Germans after decades of guilt and shame. When the Ivory Coast qualified for the 2006 tournament, the country’s first, that feat almost single-handedly led to the end of a civil war in the West African nation.)

But soccer harbors a profound and pronounced subversive streak, dating back to the early days of the global game when soccer clubs sprung up around factories and work units. Those bonds of solidarity — what the Italian Marxist intellectual (and soccer fan) Antonio Gramsci described as that “open-air kingdom of human loyalty” — have been very much on display throughout the Arab world during the recent weeks of upheaval. Governments in North Africa that like to share in and capitalize on the successes of their soccer teams grew afraid of the sport and its fans. As Tunisia rocked with protests, its neighbor in Algeria suspended its soccer league, the most obvious arena where fans congregated on mass could transform into a political mob. When anti-Hosni Mubarak protesters occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and repulsed the attacks both of the police and pro-Mubarak thugs, it’s alleged that members of the ultras of Al Ahly, Egypt — and probably Africa’s — most fanatically supported team, marshaled the defense of the square. Their experience with crowd organization (and possible familiarity with a bit of, well, the ultra violence) must have been key in thwarting the repressive forces of the government. And in Libya, where the Gaddafi clan has always latched onto soccer, rebels recently renamed the Hugo Chavez stadium in Benghazi — a gesture of Gaddafi’s fondness for the Venezuelan demagogue — after anti-Gaddafi “martyrs” slain this February.

So let this be something of a lesson for Fayyad and other politicians who like to bask in football’s glow — for the millions of fans who flock to stadiums around the world, their affections are only for the game and for the fellow travelers who stand with them every weekend.