Kuwait may’ve scored first against Australia in the opening match of the Asian Cup but when the match ended 4:1 in favour of the Australian hosts the message wasn’t simply of a defeat on the pitch. It highlighted the importance and the impact of Middle Eastern politics on the region’s game.
In a world where government diplomacy’s expanded into public and cultural diplomacy, and where nations are ranked as much on their performance in high-profile international tournaments as on other attributes, autocratic abuse of sports is nowhere more prevalent than in the Middle East and North Africa.
Ten of the 16 finalists in the 2015 Asian Cup hail from the Middle East. And politics plays in the background each time a national squad enters the pitch. The politics range from long-standing, heavy-handed interference in national soccer affairs (as in the cases of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran), to teams like Palestine who see their performance as a projection of nation- and statehood, to efforts to shore up the tarnished images of various regimes (including those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Bahrain).
Kuwait’s national team was carrying significant political baggage when it showed up for the opening match. Kuwait’s failed to win an Asian Cup for the last 35 years. The team’s coach, Jorvan Vieira, an Arabic-speaking Brazilian–Moroccan national, who led Iraq to winning the tournament in 2007, was fired barely six weeks before the kick-off in Australia.
Viera was blamed for Kuwait’s poor performance in the Gulf Cup in November. He was the latest casualty of a Middle Eastern approach towards soccer as a zero sum game. Members of autocratic ruling elites punish trainers for failure on the pitch, seeing it as failure to help them polish personal and political images and improve their standing in the soccer barometer of their nation. Unlike Viera, Iranian coach Carlos Quieroz escaped dismissal—because of an Iranian conviction that they were knocked out of the Cup because of referee bias.
Still, Viera’s but one recent casualty. Bahrain’s Anthony Hudson was dismissed barely three months after being hired as a result of his team’s poor Gulf Cup performance. Soccer performance is important to Bahrain’s ruling minority Sunni Muslim family. Almost four years after brutally crushing a popular uprising, it confronts ongoing protests, and struggles to shake the image of a repressive regime unwilling to seek genuine political compromise with its majority Shiite Muslim population.
Similarly, Iraq fired Hakeem Shaker after his team ended last of its group in the Gulf Cup. Iraq’s winning of the 2007 Asian Cup was feted as a triumph against the odds of a team composed of members of its warring Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish communities, at a time when—much like now—Iraq’s territorial integrity as a nation state was in question.
Saudi Arabia’s changed coaches more than 20 times in the past two decades. One of its longest-lasting coaches, Juan Lopez Caro, was also let go in November after Saudi Arabia failed to defeat its political nemesis, Qatar, in the Gulf Cup final. Soccer as a tool to project modernity is important for Saudi Arabia at a time when its puritan Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is under fire as a feeding ground for more militant jihadist philosophies like that of Islamic State.
For Qatar, fresh from winning the Gulf Cup, soccer performance is not simply part of its soft power strategy. Its controversial winning of the right to host the 2022 World Cup has been mired in controversy over the integrity of its bid and the working and living conditions of its majority migrant labour population. It needs to counter allegations that it has no soccer legacy nor a real soccer future. The fact that its squad in Australia is in majority made up of Qatari nationals was key to that effort.
Similarly, Iran hoped to repeat its success in the World Cup in Brazil six months ago. Despite narrowly losing a match against World Cup favourite Argentina, Iran emerged in Brazil as the spectator’s darling, a badly-needed image boost for a nation long seen as one of the world’s pariahs. ‘We know the world will be watching’, Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation president Ali Kafashian told The Daily Telegraph at the time.
The politics of Asian soccer were evident even before the kick-off in the Asian Cup’s first match. Asian soccer federation bosses, led by Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, one of the most powerful men in world sports, endorsed Sepp Blatter for a fifth term as world soccer body FIFA president. Blatter’s used his past four terms effectively to support Arab autocracy.
Sheikh Ahmed—a mover and shaker in Asian soccer even though he has no official position in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) or FIFA—advised FIFA vice-president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, the foremost proponent of reform of world soccer’s sordid governance, to rethink his newly declared challenge to Blatter. He was echoed by AFC president Bahraini Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family.
The politics of the game play out both on and off the pitch.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title. Image courtesy of Flickr user Tourism Victoria.