A set of recent articles in The New York Times about the national football teams of Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine caught my attention. The articles were printed in isolation, prompted by three separate events in the world of football (or 'soccer,' for those of us on this side of the Atlantic). But I thought they were interesting when placed in comparison, as they each revealed something distinctive about the national politics shaping the states from which the teams hailed.
It is always a bit reductive to talk about national sports teams in symbolic terms. For the most part I tend to think that sports are just sports and not particularly representative of much beyond that. But just like all national obsessions, football can sometimes shed light on the popular dynamics shaping the political or social direction of a given nation. In the case of these three articles, I thought that the particular football-politics that they described had some interesting things to say about the current political predicaments facing the three countries.
The first article was a Michael Slackman piece on the Egyptian rioting following the country's loss to Algeria in the final World Cup qualifying match. Egypt was the heavy favorite and the country, which is a perennial powerhouse in the world of African football, had been hoping to finally buck its trend of underperfomance and qualify for football's greatest tournament for the first time in two decades (instead, they lost 1-0).
It was not so much the performance of the team that I found to be indicative of Egypt's current political situation, but rather the response of the country's state leaders. As Slackman points out, Egypt's government officials tried to use the face-off with Algeria to stir up national solidarity and (more importantly) divert attention from the perpetual failings of the Mubarak regime. When Egypt lost the match, the government reacted with petulant accusations against Algerian fans and lashed out by withdrawing its ambassador from Algiers. Alaa Mubarak, the President's son, released statements stirring up feelings of collective resentment against alleged Algerian affronts; they were meant to sound defiant, but instead rang as pathetic. And yet, Egyptians reacted to the propaganda and took to the streets, protesting against the perceived injustices and marching on the Algerian embassy.
This all struck me as remarkably indicative of the political problems that Egypt faces. An authoritarian regime with little to no popular credibility is looking increasingly desperate for new ways to maintain its control on a restless and disillusioned population. It thought the competition with Algeria might help it to boost the nation's solidarity, but when the team lost, it had to resort to the perverted opposite of national pride -- collective resentment. And then, of course, the entire situation spun out of its control. Its public statements and petty reactions led to violence in the streets, forcing the regime to deploy riot police to quell the restlessness that it had unleashed. The whole affair simply leaves the government looking hapless and desperate -- no vision, no credibility, and no ability to control a justifiably restless population.
The second article discussed the current predicament facing Iraq's national football team, which was recently suspended by FIFA due to meddlesome government interference in the affairs of the Iraqi Football Association. The suspension is an embarrassment, particularly for a team that had been flagged as a rising football power in Asia and dubbed "The Lions of Mesopotamia" after they won the Asia Cup in 2007.
When Iraq won this tournament -- Asia's most prestigious -- the country momentarily came together in a great surge of national unity. For all its divisions and strife, Iraqis have united in the past around their football team, which remained under the ruthless supervision of Saddam Hussein's son before 2003. In 2007, the country's victory was heralded as a sign that Iraqis could overcome their differences and work towards a collective future together. Now, the suspension of the team seems to portend the opposite. It uncannily coincides with the current debacle going on in Iraq's parliament over the election law. Just as the various factions seemed prepared to sign an agreement, the loose-cannon VP Tareq al-Hashemi shot the whole agreement to pieces with his veto. Who knows whether the agreement can be put back together. But it does seem that every time Iraqis are given a bit of hope for national reconciliation -- be it in football or in voting laws -- the affair gets hamstrung by the fractious bickering of its perpetually divided political leaders.
The final article gave a more classic account of how football can unite and inspire populations. It described the Palestinian women's football team in their match-up against Jordan in the West Bank town of Al Ram. Although surrounded by blockades and in the shadow of Israeli checkpoints, the event had an uplifting and somewhat defiant tone to it, as though the participants were determined to express their national pride despite the innumerable obstacles currently preventing that nation from coming to full fruition. The players competed and the fans cheered almost as an alternative means of national resistance. It was an powerful sign that despite facing nothing but disappointment in the eternally-draw-out peace negotiations with Israel, Palestinians are still finding reasons to cheer. They are coming up with alternative ways to forward their national project through channels that do not involve uninspiring politicians, intractable negotiating positions, and stalled 'peace processes.'