North African Football and Politics: A Love Story
The power of sports is internationally undeniable, able to make or break morale and relations on both a personal and national scale. In the Middle East and North Africa, soccer has become the unofficial language spoken by the inhabitants of all 22 countries across the region. While game results have incited riots and put international relations on edge, the positive impact “football” (as it is called in these three regions) has made cannot be ignored.
If neither politics nor religion can unite a whole nation, football definitely can. For Egyptians, the Pharaohs—what the national team is known as—hold more value than simply a few players out to win a title or an honorable rank. Winning one of the 32 berths (meaning a sports team has guaranteed a spot in the playoffs) in the 2014 Cup could rally Egyptians who seem to be tearing at the seams with more than 1,000 people dead since July 3 over political disputes.
Since former-President Morsi’s removal, there has been much political strain between friends and relative, with a divide more apparent than usual. As of now, citizens are gladly setting aside their differences in anticipation of hopefully seeing Bob Bradley coach the Egyptian national soccer team into its third FIFA World Cup qualification in 80 years. Excitement is tangible in the streets of a country with talk surrounding the chances of the team beating Ghana on both Oct. 15 and Nov. 15.
Just as there is hardcore competition in Spain between Real Madrid and Barcelona, and in the United Kingdom between Manchester United and Liverpool, there is a strong rivalry between al-Ahly and al-Zamalek in Egypt—red versus white. While this might create tensions between their supporters, it is also a common ground for conversation and dialogue that blurs socio-economic class lines. People swarm to street cafés and smoke shisha to watch friendly matches between the two teams and discuss the odds while unwaveringly standing behind their team and players. Sportsgoers set aside religious and political differences in the spirit of the game. In a sense, football is a religion to those in Egypt, as well as in Tunisia and Algeria. When the realities of their everyday struggles become too much, they turn to football and allow the possibility of victory to uplift their spirits. Football in North Africa is one of few developed institutions that has created an alternative public forum to let out frustration at the government and its stagnancy.
Since 2011, the beginning of the wave of the Arab Spring, football fans have been a large portion of the protestors that felled totalitarian regimes. Five years ago, a group of diehard fans in Egypt established themselves as the Green Eagles, a branch of the original European fan club movement, the Ultras. Behind them, they have rallied supporters across the nation in allegiance to the national team, and their capacity for influence is well-known. This year, the Associated Press named the Ultras network as one of the most organized movements in Egypt. Because of them, many were inspired to take to the streets and call for change. The members that join forge bonds of friendship and all support one another to express themselves as politicized football fans through patriotic music, art, and poetry. One Ultras’ song, “Horaya”, meaning “freedom”, was played across Egypt to remind the protestors what they were working towards.
While the Ultras are known for some violent altercations with the Egyptian police, overall their trend for positive impact is evident. They are everyday Egyptians passionate about their country and loyal to their team; all citizens cannot help but relate to their movement and their message. When they turned against the Mubarak regime, most football lovers followed. There is no doubt in my mind that without the strength of love for this game and the revered players who lead the way by example, the first wave of the Egyptian revolution in Jan. 2011 would have been defeated early on. Beyond that, there is a bond of trust with their supporters formed as a result of the Ultras’ tacit promise to not get sucked into the political game and become a puppet of any current or future leadership.
This worship of football is also mirrored in neighboring North African countries, Tunisia and Algeria. Tunisia will be facing Cameroon and Algeria will be against Burkina Faso in order to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil. With the current transitional governments in these countries reforming their constitutions and policies, the hope for a better future and standard of living has been coupled with the stress of the unknown ahead. Simply qualifying for the World Cup 2014 is not only a matter of honor for these countries, but a boot of morale. The display of street celebrations at such an accomplishment would rival the San Francisco Giants riots that followed the World Series win last year—but on a national scale. And I predict that these economies will grow, even for just a bit, by a potential spike in sales of national flags, football apparel and gear, and other symbols of pride.
As sports columnist for Al Ahram newspaper, Hassan Almstkawy, so eloquently said to The Guardian, “It’s not just a game. Apart from war, only two things can bring millions and millions of people on the streets: revolution and football. Now we have both at the same time.”