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Friday, December 30, 2011

Lebanese soccer unites (briefly) deeply divided nation


Defender Ali al-Saadi celebrates goal against South Korea (Source: FIFA.com)

By James M. Dorsey

In a country where almost every facet of life is defined by its sectarian fault lines, soccer is at least temporarily performing where politicians and religious figures have failed: rallying a divided country scarred by years of bitter civil war around a symbol of national unity.
Soccer’s achievement stems from its defeat of South Korea in a 2014 World Cup qualifier. 

It took a first goal from defender Ali al-Saadi to convince the 60,000 fans in Beirut’s Cite Sportive stadium to shift from sectarian chants to egging on their team with roars of "Minshan Allah, Libnan yallah'' - "For God's Sake, Lebanon Come On'' – to historic 2-1 win over their favoured Asian opponents.

Tens of thousands of fans poured into the streets of the Lebanese capital waving the country's red and white flags with a green cedar in the middle. Traffic came to a halt and for a moment sectarian differences that have deeply divided the country for decades were superseded by a sense of national pride.

However to cement its achievement on and off the soccer pitch, the Lebanese national team would have to score the one more point it needs against a so far winless United Arab Emirates squad. If that fails, it could still make it to the fourth qualifying round if Kuwait follows its example and upsets South Korea’s apple cart.

"Sports can do what religion and politics can't, gather the Lebanese people around a common thing. The national team changed the point of view to many football fans, and it united them for one goal, to participate in World Cup 2014. This was a very good step to help people to leave their political and religious views behind and watch their team without reverting to riots or gang wars,” The Associated Press (AP) quoted Lebanese supporter Serge Mghames as saying.

If the experience of Iraq whose national team became Asian champion in 2007 at a time that the country was wracked by sectarian bloodshed or Abbas Suan, a devout Palestinian Israeli Muslim who refused to sing the Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem, when it was played before a game but united in 2006 Israeli Jews and Arabs by securing with a last minute equalizer against Ireland Israel’s first chance in 35 years to qualify for a world cup is anything to go by soccer’s unifying effect is lost as soon as the team no longer performs.

For Lebanese soccer to succeed where the game ultimately failed in countries like Iraq and Israel is a tall order against the backdrop of bitter feuds between Lebanon’s four million inhabitants who are divided among 18 Muslim and Christian sects and 15 years of civil war that ended with a fragile peace in 1991.

That peace has this year repeatedly been put to the test with militant Shiite group Hezbollah supporting embattled President Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria and a United Nations-backed tribunal indicting four members of the group on charges of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.  Hezbollah has denied involvement in the killing and has vowed never to turn over the suspects.

If that were not enough of a challenge, Lebanon’s national team would find it difficult if not impossible to significantly undermine sectarianism which is so deeply rooted in the country’s game that the government banned fans from attending domestic league matches following Mr. Harriri's assassination.

"There are no guarantees in football. We can only guarantee that we will go about our job in a professional manner. We are in good form, but don't write off the Emirates,'' said Theo Bucker, the national team’s German coach, sounding a cautionary noted according to FIFA.com.

The government lifted the ban on fans in October, but by then the damage had been done. The ban devastated the game: its domestic league all but collapsed and the national team was drained of potential talent. As a result, Lebanon fell in world soccer body FIFA’s rankings from 125 to 178 but has rebounded to 111 with its defeat of South Korea.

"Politics came into football and destroyed it," said Rahif Alameh, secretary-general of the Lebanese Football Association, who dates the "death of football" to 2001, the year when the government intervened in a murky match-fixing scandal rather than the 2005 ban on fans. That was when Lebanon's political-religious leaders began treating the association as a pie to be carved up, just as they share power among Muslim and Christian communities.

Mr. Hariri, for example, sponsored several clubs and bought Nejmeh soccer club, Lebanon’s most popular team, which was largely cross-sectarian, but had always attracted much Shiite support. Mr. had Hariri initially ventured into sports as a moneymaking venture, but later turned his teams into vehicles for consolidating his Sunni Muslim support. Virtually every Lebanese soccer club is identified in sectarian and political terms -- Maronite Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Druze or Armenian with certain political factions -- even if the team’s players are religiously mixed. Those identities have been reinforced by the aftermath of Mr. Hariri’s assassination.

"Football had just (become an extension) of politics. Everything in Lebanon is politicized, the air we breathe is politicized.,” Mr. Alameh told AP.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

French women groups protest FIFA decision to endorse hijab


Iran imposes full Islamic garb on women players (Source: Xinhua)

By James M. Dorsey

Three French women’s organizations have expressed concern and disappointment with world soccer body FIFA’s endorsement of a proposal to lift the ban on women players wearing a hijab, an Islamic hair dress, on the pitch.

“To accept a special dress code for women athletes not only introduces discrimination among athletes but is contrary to the rules governing sport movement, setting a same dress code for all athletes without regard to origin or belief,” the three organizations said in an open letter to FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

Anne Sugier, president of the League of International Women’s Rights (LDIF) founded by Simone de Beauvoire, said in an email that she had sent the letter together with the heads of FEMIX’SPORTS and the French Coordination for the European Women’s Lobby, following publication on December 19 of the FIFA executive committee decision in The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

FIFA endorsed at its December 16-17 executive committee meeting in Tokyo  the proposal to lift a controversial ban on women wearing a hijab in a move that brings closer a resolution to demands by religious female Islamic soccer players that they be allowed to wear a headdress in line with their interpretation of their faith.

FIFA said it would submit the proposal put forward by Asian Football Confederation (AFC) vice president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah, to the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which governs the rules of association soccer.

IFAB is expected to discuss the proposal that calls for the sanctioning of a safe, velcro-opening headscarf for players and officials at its next scheduled meeting on March 3. England alongside FIFA, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland form the secretive IFAB.

The FIFA endorsement follows an earlier approval of the AFC proposal that resulted from a workshop convened in October in Amman by Prince Ali that was attended by prominent soccer executives, women players and coaches, including head of FIFA’s medical committee Michel D’Hooghe, AFC vice president Moya Dodd, members of FIFA’s women committee and representatives of the soccer bodies of Jordan, Bahrain, Iran and England.

The dispute over observant Muslim women player's headdress led in June to the disqualification of the Iranian women’s national team after they appeared on the pitch in the Jordanian capital Amman for a 2012 London Olympics qualifier against Jordan wearing the hijab. Three Jordanian players who wear the hijab were also barred.

The three women’s organizations said FIFA’s acquiesce in the AFC’s assertion that the hijab, a headdress that complies with Islamic law that obliges women to cover their hair, ears and neck, as a “cultural rather than a religious symbol” and therefore did not violate IFAB rules was unacceptable.

The letter suggests that FIFA and AFC efforts to reach a compromise between world soccer rules and Islamic law followed by conservative female Muslim players was, likely to meet resistance from non-Muslim women’s and feminist groups. It is a battle between value systems in which conservative female Muslim players demand a right and non-Muslim women activists seek to impose what they see as a universal value.

Ironically, the two opposing groups may find common ground when it comes to Iran, which welcomed world soccer’s efforts to seek a compromise, but is likely to remain in the firing line because of its imposition of the hijab on its players rather than allowing it to be an individual voluntary decision. Iran is further likely to run afoul of world soccer because of its insistence that visiting foreign women soccer teams dress in accordance with the Islamic republic’s interpretation of Islamic law.

The three women’s organizations charged that the FIFA decision constituted an effort to kowtow to the most conservative Islamic states, presumably a reference to Iran and Saudi Arabia, which effectively bans women’s sports.

“To pretend that hijab is a cultural and not a religious symbol is not only preposterous, but untrue… You neither can put aside the fact that the conflict that has opposed FIFA to the Iranian regime is linked to Tehran’s will to impose its own religious law to women’s sport,” the organizations said in their letter.

They charged that Iran rather than seeing the hijab as a cultural symbol was seeking  “to impose a political religious outfit for women, that covers entirely their body… Sport must stay clear of political and religious interfering. Its aim also is to eliminate all forms of discrimination. FIFA ruling is about to abandon this noble aim and FIFA will be accountable for that,” the organizations said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Protest is proving beneficial to North African soccer performance


(Source Matthew Barrett, FootballSpeak.com)

By James M. Dorsey

Protest is good for soccer. It enhances performance despite the hardship of civil strife according to an analysis of the performance of six North African national soccer teams before and after pro-longed mass protests that demanded regime change in their countries.

Matthew Barrett, a sports sponsorship professional, concluded in an analysis published on FootballSpeak.com that Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Morocco and Algeria, five nations that experienced political upheaval in 2011, had performed significantly better in terms of average points per match following the protests or in Sudan’s case, the cessation of South Sudan, compared to 2010, the year before the unrest. Egypt, , which won the African Cup three times in row, but failed to qualify for the 2012 finals was the exception that confirmed the rule.

The six national teams, Mr. Barrett, calculated, played 53 matches since the series of Arab uprisings erupted in Tunisia a year ago, in which they scored 87 goals with an average of 1.64 goals per match and won 45% of all games played. By comparison, the same teams played 60 matches in the year before the revolts in which they scored 79 points with an 
average of 1.32 per game and won 33% of the games played.

The teams performed better even though professional soccer was suspended for months in several countries, including Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria during the protests in a bid to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point. The enhanced performance occurred further against the backdrop of a rift in various countries between fans, who played key roles in the protests, and a majority of players who opted to either remain aloof, and not take sides or in some cases to come out in support of the embattled autocrat.

The improvement in performance constitutes an apparent triumph of national identity over internalized neo-patriarchism, which characterizes Arab autocracies and means that players and managers more often than not identified with the autocratic leader as a father figure. It also highlights the debilitating effect that politically motivated autocratic interference in the game had on performance.

Libyan goalkeeper Samir Aboud suggested that enhanced performance was the result of post-revolt national teams having a sense of truly playing for their country rather than their ruler when he said after a draw against Zambia that allowed Libya to progress towards the 2012 African Cup finals that “this is for all Libyans, for our revolution.” Libya’s Brazilian coach, Marcos Paqueta, added that his squad was "not only playing for football success but for a new government and a new country”.

Nabil Maalouf, coach of Esperance Sportive de Tunis, which this year won the African Champions League, noted that “the events at home really stimulated our team and we believe that the players felt greatly liberated after what happened." Defender Khalil Chammam concluded that “one positive thing from the revolution was that, although we suffered a lot, those changes and the suffering made us stronger -mentally and physically."

The triumph of national identity over neo-patriarchism symbolized by the post-Qaddafi Libyan team flying the pre-Qaddafi Libyan flag and singing a new national anthem enabled Libya to remain undefeated in competitive matches since the country’s autocratic leader, Moammar Qaddafi, was toppled earlier this year. That is no mean fete for a team that was dominated for years by Al Saadi al Qaddafi, the Libyan leader’s cruel and mercurial son with soccer ambitions of his own, who equated its success with that of his father’s regime and its failures as unacceptable poor reflections on the regime.

Interpol has issued an international arrest warrant for Saadi on charges of misappropriation of soccer funds and armed intimidation of players and officials who has sought refuge in neighboring Niger. In a separate case, Saadi is under investigation by Libyan authorities for the 2005 murder of an anti-Qaddafi player.

The impact of neo-patriarchism that turned players into celebrated figures who went victorious were showered with expensive gifts meant that the Libyan team meant was during the revolt  increasingly split between supporters of Mr. Qaddafi and players who lost close ones among the NATO-backed rebel forces in the war against Qaddafi loyalists. The team’s captain denounced the rebels as dogs and rats, language used by Mr. Qaddafi to describe his opponents, while the goalkeeper and three other players defected together with 14 club players to the rebels four months into the rebellion.

The Libyan team’s rising star contrasts starkly with the fact that like Sudan it had barely ever registered on the radar of African soccer prior to the wave of protests that have swept the Middle East and North Africa in the past year and led to the overthrow of not only Mr. Qaddafi but also the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, far-reaching political reform in Morocco, continued unrest in Algeria and the carving out of an independent state of South Sudan.

The Algerian national squad, with anti-government protests moving this year from the streets back into the stadiums after having forced the government to lift the 19-year old state of emergency, won three of its five matches to emerge at the top of its group, according to Mr. Barrett, who calculated that it had scored 1.75 points per game as opposed to 1.25 last year. For its part, Sudan qualified as a runner-up in its group, achieving a 53 percent win ratio with 1.79 points per game as opposed to a 25 percent win ratio and 1.13 points per match a year earlier.

Egypt is the exception to the rule that autocratic interference diminishes and protest enhances performance. In the days of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s national team coached by the legendary Mubarak loyalist Hassan Shehahta won the African Cup three times in a row but this year failed for the first time in 29 years to qualify for the tournament’s finals.

There is no immediate explanation for why Egypt’s performance has been markedly weaker. Granted, Egypt’s transition from autocracy to a more open political system has been messy and bloody with soccer fans remaining engaged in bitter battles to force the country’s military rulers to relinquish power. Transition has however been messy in most countries with the exception of Tunisia, yet all have displayed performances beyond expectation.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Libyans have sporting chance (JMD Quoted)


Libyans have sporting chance

Dec 23, 2011 | Sapa-AP

TRIPOLI - Athletes and sports programmes in Libya were woefully neglected during Moammar Gadhafi's four-decade rule. With Gadhafi's regime toppled last month, Libya's athletes and sports officials are hoping for a better future.


Oil-rich Libya has never won an Olympic medal and ranks near the bottom in sports competition with other Mediterranean countries that had far fewer resources, including neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.

"Sport, as a social activity, must be for the masses," Gadhafi said in his treatise, The Green Book. "It is mere stupidity to leave its benefits to certain individuals and teams who monopolise them while the masses provide the facilities and pay the expenses for the establishment of public sports."

Nabil Eleman, president of Libya's Olympic committee, said he's expecting the country's new leaders, among them National Transitional Council chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, a former football player, to invest heavily in sports.

"Sports was not a priority for Gadhafi," Eleman said. "We are very optimistic now."

Eleman is setting his sights on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. There's little chance Libyans will win medals in the 2012 Games in London, in part because of the eight-month civil war that ended with Gadhafi's death on October 20.

On a recent sunny afternoon, several Olympic hopefuls met for the first time in months at Libya's main track at a rundown sports centre in the capital Tripoli.

Mohamed Khawaja was stretching on the sidelines. The 400m runner won gold at the 2009 Mediterranean Games and the 2010 African Championships, but said Libya's war and lack of funding prevented him from participating in the 2011 world championships in South Korea.

Still, the 24-year-old's personal best of 44.98 seconds is well within the 45.25 qualifying threshold for London. Asked whether he believes he has a shot at a medal, he said: "Nothing is impossible."

Like other Libyans, he was bitter about the old regime.

"There was nothing called sports in the days of Gadhafi," he said. "They tried to kill sports. They had a committee to fight stars, not to let them shine."

Khawaja said he hopes Libya's new leaders will be different.

"At the same time, they need to start (making changes) as quickly as possible because we have a lot to catch up on," he said.

Discus thrower Ali Khalifa's spot on a Libyan Olympic team is less secure. He threw 57m in training in Tunisia at the beginning of the year. However, his personal best in competition was 55.19m last year, way off the 63m Olympic minimum.

The burly 28-year-old said he trained only sporadically during the war.

"I was hiding from Nato," Khalifa said of the alliance's bombing raids against regime-linked targets during the civil war.

His part-time coach, cafe owner Abdullah Jarhour, said Khalifa would now train twice a day for next month's Pan Arab Games in the United Arab Emirates.

Other Libyans hoping to qualify for the London Games have gone abroad to train, in part because the country lacks facilities. The ongoing political turmoil and the social obligations of a close-knit tribal society also tend to be distractions.

Those training abroad include a half-marathon runner in Morocco, three judo athletes in Algeria, a taekwondo competitor in the US and a 50m freestyle swimmer in South Africa, Eleman said.

Despite Gadhafi's apparent disdain for champions, two of the dictator's seven sons were closely involved in sports, as part of the ruling clan's policy of controlling Libya's key institutions.

Gadhafi's playboy son al-Saadi headed the Libyan Football Federation for much of the past decade and owned Tripoli's Al Ahli club. His terror-filled reign, including the trashing of rival Al Ahli Benghazi's clubhouse and arrest of dozens of the team's fans and players in 2000, helped earn him a spot on Interpol's most wanted list for "armed intimidation".

Al-Saadi, who escaped to Niger during the civil war, also had ambitions as a player, using his money and influence to play in Libya and even, briefly, for Italian league team Perugia.

Like other dictatorships in the Middle East, the Gadhafi regime tried to control football because of its popularity and potential as an anti-regime rallying point, said blogger James M Dorsey.

"What made Libya different from others in the region was the fear that the players could become more popular than the Gadhafis, and al-Saadi's involvement and ambition," said Dorsey, who does research at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

For example, Libyan broadcasters could only refer to players by their numbers, with the exception of al-Saadi, to ensure a degree of anonymity, Dorsey said. Still, Libyan football has survived the regime and last month, the national team beat long odds to qualify for next year's Africa Cup of Nations.

Gadhafi's eldest son, Mohammed, preceded Eleman as Olympic chief and fled to Algeria earlier this year with his stepmother, Gadhafi's second wife, Safiya, as well as siblings Hannibal and Aisha.

Mohammed was less reviled than his notorious brothers and in recent years tried to get money for sports, Eleman said. Still, as a Gadhafi son, he instilled fear and insisted on special treatment.

In 2007, Libya built a National Olympic Academy to evaluate top athletes and support their training, though its director, Haffed Gritly, now says he had to be careful at the time not to promote the Olympic idea too vigorously because the regime suppressed any movement seen as a potential rival. This also applied to teams.

"Any team work might be dangerous. People might start to think in the same manner," Eleman said of the regime's thinking.

That's why individual sports, such as judo, bodybuilding and horseback riding have generally fared better in Libya.

Eleman said he plans to secure government funding for sports, including for building high-level training centers, adding that sports will be a key to rehabilitating thousands wounded in the war.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tahrir and Change Squares: Two Models of Subverted Revolts


RSIS presents the following commentary Tahrir and Change Squares:
Two Models of Subverted Revolts by James M. Dorsey. It is also
available online at this link.
(To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or
feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at
RSISPublication@ntu.edu.sg

 No. 187/2011 dated 22 December 2011

Tahrir and Change Squares: 
Two Models of Subverted Revolts

By James M. Dorsey
  
Synopsis

Continuing demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Sanaa’s Change Square 
represent the protracted struggle for power in the Middle East-North Africa region: 
one against the dominant military, the other against the reincarnated regime of an 
ousted president. Both also show how Saudi-led efforts to support Egypt’s 
military-led regime and Yemen’s newly appointed government have deprived 
protesters of the fruits of their revolt. 
                                                                     
Commentary

THE POPULAR revolts in Egypt and Yemen have been put on the defensive by 
a combination of Islamist electoral success and Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council 
(GCC) support for Egypt’s military and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Despite 
being under siege, Saleh has been showing an uncanny ability to neutralise a 
GCC-negotiated agreement that would ease him out of office by February.

Islamists have successfully exploited Egypt’s first post-revolt election to marginalise 
the protesters on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, who battled with security forces last month, 
resulting in 42 dead. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al Nur movement 
together won an absolute majority in the first two of three rounds in the first 
parliamentary elections since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last February. 
The final outcome will be determined in a third round of voting in January.

From square to ballot box

The intial election result has positioned the Salafis as the main competitor of the 
protesters on Tahrir Square in challenging establishment political parties and forces, 
whether remnants of the ancien regime, the country’s military rulers or the Muslim 
Brotherhood (MB), with the MB being viewed by many as the opposition wing of the 
old established order. The new parliament is expected to appoint most of the 
members of the committee that will be tasked with drafting a new constitution in 
advance of a presidential election in June 2012.

The electoral success of the MB and their rivals, the Salafis – a heterogeneous 
movement of fundamentalist Muslims who want to return to the practices of Islam’s 
7th century Caliphs -- has shifted the battle against the old regime, the military rulers 
and established political parties, from the square to the ballot box.

The military, despite contradictory statements on whether it would recognise the 
election result by allowing parliament to exercise power, sought to reinforce that 
shift in bitter battles with protesters camped out in front of the newly appointed prime 
minister’s office. At least 10 people were killed and more than 300 wounded in ongoing 
clashes. The military is trying to move the protesters away from the prime minister’s 
office and out of the square in the belief that a majority of Egyptians, by casting 
their vote, have opted for electoral politics.

The Egyptian military and the Salafis may be on opposite side of the fence, but they 
both in their respective ways serve Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) efforts 
to blunt the edge of popular revolts sweeping the Middle East that have also toppled the 
leaders of Tunisia and Libya, forced the exit of Yemen’s President Saleh and pushed 
Syria to the brink of civil war. Both the military council and Salafis are supported by the 
Saudis through US $4 billion in assistance to the military regime and reported funding 
for the Salafis through public and private donations.

The Salafis electoral success however constitutes a mixed blessing for the Saudis. 
The participation of a strand of Islam closely associated with that of the kingdom 
implicitly challenges Saudi assertions that democracy contradicts Islam.

Backfiring in Yemen
          
While the Saudi strategy is effectively rendering the Egyptian protesters marginal, 
it is backfiring in Yemen where a GCC-negotiated agreement for Saleh’s departure 
from power has enabled him to maintain his grip even though he has officially handed 
over to his vice-president. Since his return from medical treatment in Riyadh Saleh’s 
agreement to leave office following an election scheduled for February 2012 leaves him 
enough time and space to consolidate his power instead. He has also authorised his 
vice-president to appoint a new cabinet -- in violation of the constitution.

Under the GCC agreement Saleh gets to remain in Yemen with immunity from 
prosecution, while his family members retain control of key military units and his 
vice-president becomes president for the next two years as a new constitution is drafted.

All this has stiffened the opposition of the protesters on Sanaa’s Change Square who reject 
the deal. Unlike the protesters on Tahrir Square who have faded from public view, the 
protests on Change Square have been reinforced by the recent awarding of a Nobel peace 
prize to a Change Square leader Tawakkol Karman.

Their resolve is further strengthened by the failure of the energy-rich Gulf states to 
alleviate the economic suffering in the Arab world’s poorest state. Though Yemen, far 
more than Egypt, is dependent on foreign aid for relief, the Gulf states have refused 
Yemen’s repeated appeals for improved access of Yemeni workers to GCC labour markets. 
These have been restricted since the expulsion in the early 1990s of one million Yemenis 
 from Saudi Arabia in retaliation for Yemeni support of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. 
Opening up labour markets would allow labourers to send remittances back to a country in 
economic collapse.

One striking exception, and a model for what Saudi Arabia and other GCC states could do 
to prevent further destabilisation of Yemen and a potential threat to Gulf security, is an 
initiative by a foundation headed by the wife of the emir of Qatar, Sheikha Moza. Her foundation 
acts to create jobs in Yemen, whose labour force is largely under-skilled and where youth 
unemployment is estimated at 50 per cent, to increase vocational training in Yemen and 
incubate start-ups.

Islamist tide
       
Nonetheless, on both Tahrir Square and Change Square, protesters have found themselves
marginalised. The main factors behind this marginalisation are the established political forces
with the political machinery and experience to exploit the transition for their own ends, and
the Saudi-supported Salafis who are riding the Islamist tide sweeping the region. The fate of
the Tahrir Square protesters will depend on whether the elections, due to end in mid-January,
are perceived as having advanced the revolt’s cause.
By contrast, Sanaa’s Change Square still has wind in its sails. There is a growing perception
that the GCC agreement has failed to oust Saleh while Yemen’s wealthy neighbours stand by
as the country sinks into a deeper morass. As a result Change Square seems to have a longer
lease of life than its more famous counterpart in Cairo.
James Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS),
Nanyang Technological University. He has been a journalist covering the Middle East for
over 30 years
.


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Football Seeks Fans (JMD Quoted in Asia 360)


Football Seeks Fans
Chelsea star Didier Drogba surrounded by fans upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur this July as part of Chelsea’s preseason tour of Asia. Images: Mohd Rasfan/AFP
FIFA Club World Cup fails to get Asians excited about Asian football
The Manchester United bumper stickers, Real Madrid t-shirts and Liverpool hats that abound on the streets of Jakarta, Mumbai and Beijing illustrate how much Asia loves football. But it is a love that is seemingly reserved only for overseas teams.
Local leagues simply do not generate the excitement that the big foreign football leagues do. Given this, when two Asian clubs reached the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan this week, most football fans in the region were more focused on Barcelona (Spain) and Santos (Brazil), the other two clubs left in the tournament.
The FIFA Club World Cup, held annually since 2005, includes representatives from each of FIFA’s six continental football confederations and one local club. The tournament’s global representation is intended to provide a more holistic platform for the world’s best football clubs to do battle than more established continental tournaments such as the Champions League in Europe or the Copa Libertadores in South America.
Asian Champions League winners Al-Sadd of Qatar reached the semi-finals of the Club World Cup with a 2-1 victory over African champions Esperance of Tunisia on December 11. Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol also made the semi-finals the same day, defeating Monterrey of Mexico 4-3 on penalties in front of a rowdy home crowd.
But for many fans, the real tournament did not start until Barcelona and Santos took to the pitch. The two clubs were granted automatic qualification into the semi-finals.
Some take exception to the imbalanced fervour of Asian football fans. A post on the blog, Stop EPL [English Premier League] Colonialism in Asia, earlier this year sums up the situation from a Singaporean point of view.
“If fans want to see improvement in the S-League [Singapore’s Professional Football League], they have to be the change themselves and select an S-League team to support,” the post said. “They can buy match tickets, club merchandise and help spread the word about their favourite football club.”
“And hopefully with this initiative, we may one day see Singapore move away from EPL colonialism and stand proudly for our own S-league.”
European leagues, of course, enjoy the luxury of having the world’s best players to help sell their product. But their popularity in Asia may also be simply due to better marketing.
“One part of it goes to the success of [European Leagues]. The other part of it is the outreach and the marketing of the clubs,” said James Dorsey, a veteran journalist who blogs at The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
European clubs have successfully projected themselves as global brands, making ample use of the Asian market in the process. Most major European clubs take preseason tours of Asia, playing sold out exhibition matches against various national teams and clubs in Asia.
European leagues claim that these tours aid the growth of Asian football.
“We’re here and we’re adding interest to the game, adding interest to football generally,” Dan Johnson, the chief spokesperson for the Barclays Premier League, told The Jakarta Post in August during this year’s preseason tours.
“I think if you can leave a legacy there as well as generating interest in the game, that’ll develop the game here and we take that very seriously.”
Others, however, are quick to point out the flaws of Johnson’s argument.
“How can a Chelsea team playing a mishmash All-Star Thai team help the local game, especially when the Thai national team is playing Palestine in a crucial World Cup qualifier?” Anthony Sutton, a football journalist for The Jakarta Postwrote.
“It may seem unimportant to Chelsea, with its big money players and its chairman and his fancy yacht, but the qualifiers are important to Thailand. By having Chelsea play in town on the same weekend, it diluted the experience.”
Some Asian football leagues enjoy a decent amount of local support. But there is little doubt that many Asian teams could market themselves more effectively. This sentiment was echoed earlier this year by Stop EPL Colonialism in Asia.
“Corruption and plain incompetence are issues in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia whilst in Singapore there has almost been an unwillingness on the part of the FAS [Football Association of Singapore] to promote their domestic S-League.”
Kelvin Leong, the senior manager of corporate communications digital media for the FAS, has a different opinion.
“We believe that there is always a following for local football and we have our marketing initiatives that help to entice the fans to keep supporting local football,” Leong told Asia360 News.
Leong, however, declined to elaborate upon the marketing initiatives of the FAS.
Some Middle Eastern clubs are certainly starting to market themselves more effectively. According to Dorsey, Al Jazira, a small club based in the United Arab Emirates, quadrupled its ticket sales after taking active steps to reach out to fans. Other clubs such as Persepolis in Iran, have massive local fan bases, which can perhaps spark broader followings beyond borders.
“These clubs have the potential of becoming — maybe not global brands — but regional brands,” Dorsey said. “If you want to market that properly, you’d probably make some inroads.”
For Middle Eastern clubs though, making those inroads in large parts of Asia may be easier said than done due to the manner in which continents are defined by FIFA.
Japan and Korea have been the nexus of Asian football for decades. They are not only the two Asian nations to have advanced beyond the group stage of the World Cup on multiple occasions, but also had the distinction of co-hosting the 2002 World Cup, which saw Korea make the semi-finals. Indeed, when Al-Sadd defeated Korean club Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 4-2 on penalties in the Asian Champions League Final on November 5, they became the first club outside Japan or Korea to win the title.
Though some Middle Eastern nations have made waves on the international scene, they are generally not viewed by football fans as “Asian”.
“The Middle East has never projected itself that way as such,” Dorsey told Asia360 News.
“They [Japanese fans at the Club World Cup] would probably not [cheer for Al-Sadd] because of the Asian perception that the Middle East is not Asia.”

Striker Mohammed Ghadir puts Israeli anti-racism to the test


Taking Beitar to task: Mohammed Ghadir (Source: UEFA)

By James M. Dorsey

Maccabi Haifa striker Mohammed Ghadir believes that he and Beitar Jerusalem, the bad boy of Israeli soccer, are a perfect match.

"I am well suited to Beitar, and that team would fit me like a glove. I have no qualms about moving to play for them," Mr. Ghadir is quoted by Israeli daily Ha’aretz as saying. Beitar has a large squad, a significant fan base, wide media coverge and lacks talented strikers, he says.

There is only one hitch: Beitar doesn’t want Mr. Ghadir. Not because he’s not an upcoming star and not because they wouldn’t need a player like Mr. Ghadir but because the striker is an Israeli Palestinian. "Our team and our fans are still not ready for an Arab soccer player," Ha’aretz quotes Beitar’s management as saying. The club prides itself on being the only top league Israeli club to have never hired a Palestinian player in a country whose population is for 20 per cent Palestinian and in which Palestinians play important roles in most other top league teams.

The Beitar management may be right in its approach, not because the team has a point in picking its players on racial grounds but because it prides itself on its bad-boy racist image and is under no pressure to change its ways despite Israeli legal restrictions on discrimination in the work place, the Israel Football Association (IFA) being the only Middle Eastern soccer body to have launched a campaign against racism and Palestinian tax money contributed to the funding of this year’s refurbishing of Jerusalem stadiums.

Beitar has argued that it has broken no laws by not having hired Palestinian players because no Palestinian has ever solicited at the risk of being a target of the club’s racist attitude. Mr. Ghadir’s desire to play for Beitar puts paid to that argument.

“Now an extraordinarily courageous Arab player has stood up, and fearlessly indicated that he is not afraid to play for Beitar. The Jerusalem squad did not assent to his request - not because he lacks sufficient talent, but because he is an Arab. This is a mark of Cain for Beitar Jerusalem and its fans, and also for the city of Jerusalem, the state of Israel and its legal system, the IFA and also for the media, which continues to cover this soccer team. Day by day, we reinforce and popularize this loathsome form of racism,” said Ha”aretz columnist Yoav Borowitz in a recent article entitled ‘Kick racism out of Beitar Jerusalem soccer team.’

Established in 1936 and supported by Israeli right wing leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Beitar traces its roots to a revanchist Zionist youth movement. Its founding players actively resisted the pre-state British mandate authorities. Its fans shocked Israelis when they refused to observe a moment of silence for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who initiated the first peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Beitar has the worst disciplinary record in Israel’s top league. Since 2005 it has faced more than 20 hearings and has received various punishments, including points deductions, fines and matches behind closed doors because of its fans’ racist behaviour. The IFA this week ordered Beitar to play two home games behind closed doors and pay a $16,000 fine for fine rioting during a match against Bnei Yehuda.


Beitar’s matches often resemble a Middle Eastern battlefield. It’s mostly Sephardic fans of Middle Eastern and North African origin, revel in their status as the bad boys of Israeli soccer. Their dislike of Ashkenazi Jews of East European extraction rivals their disdain for Palestinians.

In some ways, Mr. Ghadir’s interest in transferring from Maccabi Haifa to Beitar has an element of going from bad to worse. Israeli police said in October that it suspect militant right-wing Jewish fans of Mr. Ghadir’s own team of painting slogans reminiscent of language used by Jewish settlers on buildings in the town of Bat Yam and Muslim and Christian graves in Jaffa, the formerly Palestinian part of Tel Aviv that today is home to both Israelis and Palestinians. The slogans asserted that "Maccabi Haifa doesn't want Arabs on the team," "Death to Arabs," and "Rabbi Kahane was right," a reference to the late leader of the outlawed extreme right-wing Jewish Defence League (JDL) who was assassinated in New York in 1990. The perpetrators signed the slogans as “Haifa supporters.”

Militant soccer fan racism is encouraged by far-right wing politicians such as National Union deputy Michael Ben-Ari, a proponent of expelling all Palestinians from Israel, who this year proposed legislation that would require members of Israeli national sport teams to sing the national anthem and recognise Israel as a Jewish state. The latter demand is rooted in an Israeli desire backed by Mr. Netanyahu to impose recognition of the Jews’ historic right to settle Palestine and block recognition of Palestinian rights to return to lands within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

Mr. Borowitz noted that “Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, who cultivates an image as a tolerant, modern public servant, has yet to utter a word on this topic. He has done nothing to alter Beitar's racist, discriminatory policy. Avi Luzon, chairman of the Israel Football Association, also remains inert on this issue; and the association's court has never lifted a finger to challenge Beitar's racism. Meantime, Israel's media continues to cover the team's games, and barely addresses the racism issue. Could an English or French soccer squad get away without putting a black or Jewish player on the field throughout its history? How would its fans respond to that? Would football associations in such countries countenance such blatantly racist policy?”

Mr. Borowitz notes further that Jerusalem’s 280,000 Palestinian residents contributed to the NIS 100,000,000 ($27 million) in taxpayer’s money allocated for stadium renovations this year. “Yet this contribution does not entitle the city's Arabs to representation, even of the most minimal sort, on Jerusalem's sole team in the nation's top league,” Mr. Borowitz said.

The importance of Palestinian players to Israeli soccer was driven home to Israelis in 2005 when Abbas Suan, a devout Muslim who refused to sing the Hatikva before a game, achieved for a brief moment what politicians in more than a half-century had not: he united Israeli Jews and Arabs by securing with a last minute equalizer against Ireland Israel’s first chance in 35 years to qualify for a world cup. The game earned him the nickname The Equalizer and made him an Israeli hero; his cheery face and toothy smile featured in ads for the state lottery.

That sense of unity was short-lived. When Suan set foot on the pitch in Israel a week later as captain of Bnei Sakhnin, an Israeli Palestinian team, Jewish fans of Beitar Jerusalem, Israel’s most nationalistic club, booed him every time he touched the ball. “Suan, You Don’t Represent US,” blared a giant banner in the stadium. Fans shouted, “We hate all Arabs.”

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Monday, December 19, 2011

FIFA endorsement of Hijab proposal may end dispute with Iran and Muslim women


Iranian women's team: disqualified for wearing the hijab

By James M. Dorsey

World soccer body FIFA has endorsed a proposal to lift a controversial ban on women wearing a hijab in a move that brings closer a resolution to demands by religious female Islamic soccer players that they be allowed to wear a headdress in line with their interpretation of their faith.

At its executive committee meeting in Tokyo this weekend, FIFA decided to submit to the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which governs the rules of association soccer, the proposal put forward by Asian Football Confederation (AFC) vice president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah.

IFAB is expected to discuss the proposal that calls for the sanctioning of a safe, velcro-opening headscarf for players and officials at its next scheduled meeting  on March 3.

The FIFA executive committee’s endorsement follows an earlier approval of the AFC proposal that resulted from a workshop convened in October in Amman by Prince Ali that was attended by prominent soccer executives, women players and coaches, including head of FIFA’s medical committee Michel D’Hooghe, AFC vice president Moya Dodd, members of FIFA’s women committee and representatives of the soccer bodies of Jordan, Bahrain, Iran and England.

England alongside FIFA, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland form the secretive IFAB.

The dispute over observant Muslim women player's headdress led in June to the disqualification of the Iranian women’s national team after they appeared on the pitch in the Jordanian capital Amman for a 2012 London Olympics qualifier against Jordan wearing the hijab. Three Jordanian players who wear the hijab were also barred.

The Iranian team’s insistence on wearing the hijab contradicted an agreement reached last year in Singapore between FIFA and the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) under which the Iranians agreed to the wearing of a cap that covered hair but not the neck.

The measures were taken on the grounds that FIFA bans the wearing of all religious and political symbols on the pitch on the basis of IFAB’s law 4, which only lists jerseys, shorts, socks, shin-guards and footwear as the sanctioned basic equipment of a player. Applying law 4 is complicated because interpretation of the IFAB rule is left to referees, which has led to differing interpretations on the pitch.

"This issue impacts on millions of women worldwide and it is crucial to address, in the best possible way, the issue that ensures the safety of the players, respects culture and promotes football for all women without discrimination. This is a crucial step forward. Our goal at the end of the day is to ensure that all women are able to play football at all levels without any barriers," Prince Ali said.

A decision by the Amman workshop to view the hijab a cultural rather than a religious symbol helped pave the way for the AFC and FIFA endorsement.

“The hijab issue has taken centre stage in football circles in recent years due to the increasing popularity of women’s football worldwide. It is a cultural issue that not only affects the game, but also impacts society and sports in general. It is not limited to Asia, but extends to other continents as well,” the executives and players said in a statement issued at the end of their brainstorm.

Adoption of the FIFA endorsement by IFAB would solve the problem for Muslim women who want to play association soccer in a way that allows them to adhere to their interpretation of Islam, but it does not fully end Iran’s problem with FIFA. Iranian soccer officials acknowledged that the fact that the hijab is compulsory rather than voluntary for Iranian women players and that Iran imposes the wearing of the hijab on foreign teams playing in the Islamic republic was likely to remain an issue even if IFAB adopts a solution. Iran is the only country that has made the hijab compulsory for its players as well as for visiting foreign teams.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. 

Anti-Syrian soccer protests in Iran position Azeris as potential pawn in Syrian strife

By James M. Dorsey

Stadiums in the northwestern city of Tabriz, capital of Iran’s predominantly Azeri minority, have emerged as a platform for protest against Iranian government policies and demands for greater rights for the country’s Turkic minority.

In the latest protest, supporters of Tabriz’s Traktorsazi Tabriz Football club, a flashpoint of East Azerbaijan Provinces’s identity politics owned by state-run Iran Tractor Manufacturing Company (ITMCO), unfurled Azeri nationalist banners and burnt images of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Sahand Stadium during a Pro League match against Mes of Sarcheshmeh.

The embattled Syrian leader is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world and alongside Russia his most important supporter despite Iranian and Russian calls on Mr. Assad to find a negotiated solution to his country’s eight-month old crisis. Protesters have displayed remarkable perseverance with almost daily protests against Mr. Assad’s regime in the face of a brutal military crackdown that has so far killed some 5,000 people according to United Nations estimates and wounded thousands more.

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The anti-Syrian protest followed nationalist and environmental demonstrations in recent months in Tabriz’s Bagh Shomal and Yadegar-e-Emam stadiums that have raised the spectre of ethnic strife in the Islamic republic and make the Azeris a potential pawn in any escalation of tension between Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Turkey has repeatedly hinted at intervening in Syria but has so far shown no real appetite to do so in part due to concern that a post-Assad Syria would descend into even greater chaos because of the lack of unity among the president’s opponents and fears that escalated conflict could send hundreds of thousands of refugee across its border in a replay of a decade ago, when some 500,000 Kurdish refugees from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein fled to Turkey in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

Underlying Turkish concerns is the fact that the Syrian opposition has so far also not been able to bridge the country’s multiple sectarian fault lines and that increased sectarian strife could spill over into Turkey, where Kurds constitute an estimated 20 percent and Alevis, a Shiite Muslim sect, another 20 percent of the population. Insurgents of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which waged a 16-year long war against Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s have stepped up attacks on Turkish targets in recent months.

Turkish officials believe the PKK enjoys Syrian and some degree of Iranian support. They note that strident Turkish criticism of Mr. Assad and demands by Turkish leaders, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that he step down as well as tacit Turkish support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have prompted Syria and Iran to halt their cooperation with Turkey aimed at curbing Kurdish militants. The FSA made up of primarily low level defectors from the Syrian military have attacked Syrian targets in what they say is a campaign to protect the Syrian protesters.

The Azeris would be Turkey’s card in any escalation that would spark a tit-for-tat proxy war between Turkey, Syria and Iran. The soccer protests in Tabriz signal a rise in Azeri nationalist sentiment and suggest that Turkey could retaliate against Iranian support of the PKK by fueling that sentiment in Eastern Azerbaijan which borders on the former Soviet Turkic republic of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

Supporters of Traktorsazi wore shirts with the Turkish and Azerbaijan flags and raised the Azerbaijani flag during their club’s match in November against Fajr-e Sepasi of Shiraz, according to Iranian Azeri nationalists and various Iranian blogs.

“The main (Iranian concern) is that the idea of Turkism is strengthening in South Azerbaijan,” News.Az, a pro-Azeri news website, quoted Saftar Rahimli, a member of the board of the World Azerbaijani’s Congress, last month as saying. Mr. Rahimli was referring to Eastern Azerbaijan by its nationalist Azeri name. A conservative, pro-Iranian website, Raja News, accused the soccer fans of employing “separatist symbols,” shouting separatist slogans and of promoting “pan-Turkish” and “deviant objectives during the match.

Last month’s protests followed similar demonstrations in September and October sparked by a refusal by the Iranian parliament to fund efforts to save the environmentally endangered Lake Orumiyeh.

Anti-government protests also erupted in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium during last month’s 2014 World Cup qualifier against Bahrain and at a ceremony in May to commemorate that late Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed Iranian defender and outspoken critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.