Monday, August 05, 2013
In his ground-breaking book, "How Soccer (Football) Explains the World," Franklin Foer argues that soccer demonstrates "the failure of globalization to erode ancient hatreds in the game’s great rivalries." Soccer exemplifies the difficulties of creating world-wide peace in the political arena. As he puts it, the tribal nature of soccer competition mirrors the tribal nature of partisan social policies and government divisions. He points to the "hooliganism" of soccer team loyalties leading to both racism and violence. On the other hand, he also argues that the very nationalism that soccer promotes through the World Cup and various events such as the Gold Cup and the UEFA Champions’ League helps foster larger bands of allegiance that cross over the boundaries of international divisions and the larger distrust among members of disparate races, religions and political stances by bonding these groups together in support of their nation’s team or their club team with international members. There have been many critics of his conclusions and many followers who find his arguments persuasive and illuminating. When I read the book, I was impressed by the intelligence of his reasoning. Having watched soccer since 1967 when I moved to Germany to study, I have seen firsthand the power of national pride and the agony of losing to a country that is not respected on the world stage for its political positions. I have witnessed through news reports the scores of soccer riots that erupt from the passions that soccer ignites and even worse the isolated personal attacks by rabid fans resulting in serious injury on or even death to opposing fans.
Recently, soccer has had a huge impact on the political upheavals in Egypt. Therefore, as the changes in Egypt have played out during the past two years, I can’t help but reflect on Foer’s book. While Egypt is just one country, it does present a powerful anecdotal case for Foer’s argument. Egypt’s most avid fans are called "ultras," an ominous and expressive term. These ultras led the beginning of the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the entrenched ruler of Egypt for 30 years. The strongest ultras are aligned with the Ahly and Zamalek clubs out of Cairo. Because of their hooligan status, these ultras have been in constant turmoil with police and even military authority. Often, ultras are arrested before a big match and released the next day so as to avoid trouble. Ultras have been around since the 1990s, but their major rise in Northern Africa occurred after 2005 with contingents in Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt, and their rise helped fuel the Arab Spring in those countries. Specifically in Egypt, the ultras used social media to encourage Mubarak protesters to rise up, declaring that they would provide protection for the protesters because they knew how to deal with police aggression. While generally taunting opposing ultras at matches and even engaging in violence during matches, these divergent ultras groups banded together to protect neighborhoods in Cairo as the revolution against Mubarak increased.
Then came the infamous clash following a match in Port Said between its Al-Masry club and the visiting Al-Ahly on February 1, 2012, suspiciously occurring on the one year anniversary of pro- and anti-Mubarak supporters storming Tahrir Square, a clash which led to Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, 2012. When Al-Masry surprisingly won the match, 3-1, the Masry fans stormed the pitch, chased down the outnumbered visiting Ahly fans and the result was 79 deaths, although the Al-Ahly ultras only acknowledge 74 deaths. Worse, those who witnessed the event and later authorities who reviewed tapes of the riot all agreed that the security forces did nothing to stop the attacks and refused to unlock the gates at the Ahly end of the field so the fans could run out and escape. Adding to the bizarre nature of this event, the goals scored in the game were all by foreign players and the coach of the Ahly team, Manuel Jose, is Portuguese, making the motivation for the attacks murkier. The teams themselves managed to flee to safety in the locker rooms. This event sparked further political problems in Egypt for the newly elected leader Mohammed Morsi and eventually gave the military popular support as the nation looked for more stabilization. After the trials of those held responsible for the stadium riot, several police were acquitted leading to further riots in Port Said against the government. By January 26, 2013 the Morsi government-supported forces lost complete control of the city. In Cairo, the Al-Ahly club ultras, known as Al-Ahlawy feeling empowered by the weakening government, brazenly entered and burned the headquarters of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), leading the head of the EFA, Sarwat Swelam, to declare, "the history of Egyptian football is lost and cannot be recovered." Veering suddenly from supporting Egyptians in their political cause for democracy, the Al-Ahlawy ultras now embraced their secular team loyalty and practiced mob rule.
The fallout from these soccer events was both swift and tragic, tearing at the heart of Egyptians’ soccer passion. Following the Port Said massacre, the EFA suspended the remainder of the soccer season. Now with the burning of their headquarters and the dangers that soccer fans represented to the stability of both soccer and the nation, the EFA declared that no further matches could be played on Egyptian soil. Yet, Egypt is zealously seeking only its third World Cup bid in 80 years. How could this be accomplished against the backdrop of ever-shifting governments and the exhausting constraints of the National Team now having to travel extensively to get in their qualifiers? Stepping into this drama in September 2012 was Bob Bradley, the former U.S. Men’s National Team coach, who had accepted the job as manager of the Egyptian Men’s National Team. Bradley found himself both a hero to the soccer-obsessed people of Egypt and a man without the resources to accomplish what the nation has been praying for – a World Cup entry. Further, the National Team by its very nature had to be made up of players from these rival clubs who had been enemies to the point of violence and now had to join together to be teammates with a common goal. Many wondered if Bradley could pull it off in the midst of an uncertain political environment whose instability is being fueled by soccer ultras.
Bradley has been very vocal in his view that the Port Said incident was a massacre that was allowed to happen by the security forces. On the other hand, Bradley has spoken warmly about how positive, supportive and enthusiastic the Egyptian people have been toward him and his attempts to bring Egypt their coveted World Cup opportunity. Even matches as far removed from Egypt as Qatar had 1,000 fervent Egyptian fans in an otherwise empty 25,000-seat stadium. They carried signs saying "I (heart) Egypt," responding with loud cheers to Bradley’s over-the-head clapping as strode onto the pitch. Often the team plays in front of only the coaches, players, and officials. The National Team has become a lightning rod for the bonding of sparring Egyptian soccer fans to support their Egyptian players without regard to regional club rivalries. Bradley sees his role as not only a coach to train a team to be competitive on the world stage, but to also mend the clefts that soccer fanaticism has created in Egypt.
This combination of horrific and hopeful events demonstrates the arguments Franklin Foer makes in his book. Even as soccer has been behind the revolution and violence in Egypt, it is also the promise of unity. Finding a way to override the intense "tribal" divisions that come with club soccer, Bradley and the Egyptian Men’s National Team may well be the way to bring the country together. Right now Egypt is just one victory away from winning its bracket in the African World Cup qualifying event. It plays against second place Guinea on Sept. 10. That win would pit Egypt against another bracket winner for the ultimate qualifier for the World Cup. As it stands, Egypt has a perfect winning record in the qualifying event, something extremely positive to fuel national pride. Take any divisive political stance and then imagine joining those opposing forces to address together an even more pressing issue. This is the hope for Egypt. The very forces that have rocked Egypt over the past two years are also the same forces that can join together and celebrate the accomplishments of Egyptian citizens in a drive to earn a place on the world stage of sport. We in the United States may not completely understand the intensity of soccer fanaticism since we are still learning how the sport impacts our lives and our culture, but we do understand fanaticism in other arenas and can see how powerful a tool it can be for either good or evil.
As our kids grow and develop in the sport, we parents need to be able to translate for them the powerful events that soccer around the world motivates or inflames. Soccer feeds national pride, but it also feeds sectional pride leading to fractures among members of the same nation. Soccer can be a force to address issues such as racism, violence and factionalism. But that same force can also spiral out of control in the name of team loyalty. Even FIFA has had to acknowledge these political realities in such situations as Israel’s national team having to play in the European division rather than the Muslim dominated Asian division. We can see how the world political stage affects sports. There was the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Olympics over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, there was the 2010 cancellation of the unfortunately named Islamic Solidarity Games in soccer to be held in Iran. Iran took exception to United Arab Emirates news reports when they compared the Iranian occupation of three islands in the Persian Gulf to the occupation of Palestine. So Iran canceled its sponsorship of the games. Sports do reflect the major political issues and movements of the day, but they also can be instrumental in affecting these issues and movements. Foer has attempted to show how soccer isn’t always just a benign competition. Soccer can also either represent the political climate surrounding matches or actually influence that climate. We can benefit from his insights whether or not we agree with them, and they can offer us a means to explain some of the more intense soccer outcomes to our children.