This story was originally published in the Monmouth University Outlook. Read the original here.
A match between the Zamalek SC White Knights and ENPPI erupted last month when a riot among fans and police broke out, killing 25, on Feb. 8. The riot comes as a 3 year anniversary to a similar soccer fueled riot that killed 71, also in Egypt.
The Egyptian Premier League initially responded by canceling the entirety of the season. According to Yahoo.com, after some deliberation, “between the Ministries of Interior, Youth, and Sports, as well as the Egypt’s soccer association,” the League is scheduled to resume play with one stipulation: fans cannot attend the games.
The League has yet to establish whether the abolition of fan attendance will continue in future seasons, but for the immediate future it is outlawed. The complications stem from the cause of the riot being unclear. BBC reported, “Police fired tear gas and birdshot at fans trying to force their way into the stadium, leading to a stampede.”
Regardless of motivation, the riot last month illuminated the role of soccer, (rather, football), as a cultural and political driving force around the world. A 2006 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) “Big Count” estimated 265 million men and women play football, while five million more referee the game, totaling 4 percent of the world as involved with the game. Additionally FIFA cites 1.3 billion people as interested in football.
For comparison, the US Youth Soccer National Tournament Database noted only three million US players in 2014, leaving the majority of footballers living worldwide.
As the most popular sport worldwide, football easily becomes immersed in the culture surrounding it. Dr. Charles Cotton, an adjunct professor of political science, explained football as a representation of past warfare.
“In most places, a soccer match resembles a microcosm of a previous war. An example would be when England plays Germany. There is no doubt much hostility directed from the English to the Germans due to the wars of the 20th century,” said Cotton.
“Justified or not, it helps to fuel a different kind of passion and meaning towards that particular match,” said Cotton.
The eponymous Football War is a prime example. In 1969, El Salvador and Honduras fought a 100 hour war, which, although largely concerning immigration, was further fueled by riots between the countries in a FIFA qualifier.
Additionally, Cotton views the passion in soccer as a byproduct of national or regional attachment. “In professional sports in the US, teams move and players change so much that people just don’t have the same attachment to teams.”
“In European soccer clubs, many of the players are homegrown and thus there is more of a local attachment. Here in the states, that is just non-existent,” continued Cotton. Instead, he said that US collegiate sports most closely resemble the support of football clubs within nations. “Here in the US, going to college and supporting your school bad or good, you have that same feeling of being part of something that you support and thus it helps to shape ones identity,” he said.
David Acuna Camacho, junior and Captain of the Men’ Soccer team, sees the role of soccer in defining culture as stemming from its ease of play. “Soccer can be practiced without the equipment needed to participate in official competitions. A plastic bottle, a plastic glass, anything could be used as a ball and, after that, you only need your feet.”
But even before countries wage war against one another, football can spark tension within a nation, as is the case with Egypt. Accompanying the fear of terrorists such as Daesh (Arabic term for the self-proclaimed Islamic State), tension between Muslims and Christians, the fear of socio-political tensions from football are a real possibility.
Dr. Saliba Sarsar, Associate Vice President for Global Initiatives, and an individual who grew up in Jerusalem recalled wrestling, swimming and football being among the most popular with Middle Easterners. “Growing up in Jerusalem, when televisions were expensive and scarce, I often witnessed men and boys congregating in coffee houses to watch football or wrestling. Today, many have televisions and satellite dishes and watch games from the comfort of their homes.”
He added that the tensions between police and pedestrians, particularly since the Arab Spring, have risen, and the sports rioting is just one way to explain it. “Riots or demonstrations sometimes happen at or after huge events, e.g., after the Friday prayer or a major game. In Egypt, much has occurred since late 2010 as part of the Arab Spring, which has seen since then the removal of President Mubarak, the arrival and removal of President Morsi, and the election of President Sisi.”
Sarsar explained that the riots three years ago were also the result of governmental tension mixed with pedestrian emotions. “The riot that occurred three years ago, which resulted in 74 dead and over 1,000 wounded, was not only between organized fans, known as ultras, of different teams but with the security forces as well.”
He continued, “It is unfortunate that people’s dissatisfaction and anger with societal or governmental conditions often spillover into sports. Obviously, law and order are important but proper mechanisms must be found to enable citizens to express themselves without resorting to violence.”
Cotton, who lived in Spain, mentioned the cultural ties between the cities and their teams give way to problems. “In Spain, a multi-national and thus a multi-cultural state, a soccer team is the embodiment and identity of a region or city. If you look at probably the biggest rivalry in all of sports (sorry Red Sox and Yankees fans, but you don’t even come close) the Real Madrid vs. Barcelona matches represent so much more than a soccer game.”
Real Madrid represents Spain and a unified state. Barcelona represents the stateless nation of Catalonia, and thus they are the de facto “national” team. Their club slogan is “mes que un club” (more than a club) because of what it represents in terms of identity to the Catalan people.”
Cotton continued, “If Barcelona were to win against Real Madrid, it wouldn’t be just one team beating another; it would be a nation (in this case without a state) triumphing over the state as a whole, a David beating Goliath if you will.”
Acuna Camacho reiterated these sentiments, however in reference to US teams being less passionate than international fans. “Personally, I think [U.S. fans] are not as passionate for soccer when it comes to evaluating the level of passion involved in domestic competition. In other countries, such as Argentina and England, clubs and rivalries date back to over 100 years.”
“Therefore, rivalries are strongly developed and the level of passion involved in domestic competition is unmeasurable. The MLS is considered a league in development compared to the greatest leagues in the world, such as the English Premier League and La Liga Española. As a consequence, rivalries, which I consider the sources of passion, are still in development,” said Acuna Camacho.
Following the Egyptian riot, the football world is on pace to encounter another politicized debate. The 2022 World Cup, slated for kickoff in Qatar, a Southwest Asian Arab nation, has entered into conversation regarding a number of variables, including the temperature as well as building regulations. The construction of the 2014 World Cup Arena Amazonia in what was formerly rainforest saw criticism from individuals like the English Soccer Coach Roy Hodgson, who was worried about the humid conditions for play.
The Qatar conversation has moved beyond mere weather concerns, into a civil argument about the lives of constructors. In the operational risk graphic, the Qatari stadium poses significantly higher risks than that of the US.
The International Trade Union Confederation’s report released in March 2014 projected 4,000 workers will die in construction of the site, which includes both the arena, and surrounding area for housing and other amenities.
Additionally, FIFA announced the inability for potential cooling systems to adequately offset the 105 degree Qatari summers, thus moving World Cup play to Winter. International football leagues are taking a financial hit for this move, having to suspend play not only for the games, but preparation leading up to the event.