Regime change scores big in North Africa

Most North African football teams are playing better amid Arab Spring upheaval.

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
January 2, 2012 17:27
Soccer players headding the ball [illustrative]

Soccer players headding the ball 311. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

A year of unrest in North Africa has had a surprisingly beneficial effect on national soccer teams, which have registered dramatic improvements in their performances for the 2012 Africa Cup, the third most important football competition after the World Cup and Euro Championship.

With their training schedules and economies disrupted by more than a year of mass protest and civil war, this year’s championship looked like a lost cause for football – soccer for Americans –  and other organized sports. But a statistical review of the national soccer teams of Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria and Egypt show that political upheaval got them better results on the field than stability.

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With the exception of Egypt, North African countries on average scored more points per match in the 12 months after the Arab Spring broke out last December, compared with the previous 12 months, according to Matthew Barrett, a sports sponsorship professional, who published his analysis on FootballSpeak.com. They boosted their win ratio to 45% from 33%

“There must be a very indirect link on how people can be inspired from seeing events at home, seeing what their fellow countrymen are doing, and using the instability of their country as some kind of inspiration to perform well for the rest of their people and their teammates,” Barrett, who arranges corporate sponsorships for professional sporting events, told The Media Line.

Barrett, who has published work before on the impact of wars on national teams, said evidence showed that political upheavals also had a strong effect on the athletes themselves. This effect is especially keen nowadays because national teams are seen symbol of the country and a source of patriotic pride.

“When everything is going wrong around them the most important thing is to do well for your immediate colleagues and teammates,” Barrett said. “All these footballers were experiencing all these upheavals and uncertainties had probably been bound together in light of these mounting crises. And judging from their statistics it has affected their playing. They have all come together. And they have all done very well.”

Barrett noted that Libya and Tunisia and Egypt, all of whom overthrew despots of long standing over the course of 2011, suspended their football schedules suspended for months during the peak of the unrest.

But since then, Libya, which “hardly ever registered in African football consciousness,” astonished everyone by qualifying for the 2012 African Cup. Barrett noted that even Morocco, which had experienced smaller protests but, nevertheless, has taken major steps toward more democracy, improved its performance and finished at the top of its qualification group. Indeed, Morocco just defeated Algeria, which had also dramatically improved their performance in conjunction with the lifting of a 19-year old state of emergency. 

Sudan, which has experienced violent conflict and the trauma of seeing the southern part of the country secede into the new state of South Sudan, boosted its win ratio to 53% last year, compared with just 25% in 2010.

“This is for all Libyans, for our revolution,” declared Samir Aboud, the goalkeeper of Libya’s team, which has remained unbeaten since the revolution against Muammar Gaddafi. Libya’s coach, Marcos Paqueta, was clearer, saying his team is now “not only playing for football success but for a new government and a new country.”

Nabil Maaloul, the coach of Tunisia’s Esperance squad, said: “The events at home really stimulated our team and we believe that the players felt greatly liberated after what happened.”  The Libyan team has a new kit in white, and the team for the first time played under the pre-Gaddafi flag, in red, green and black, which has been adopted by the rebels.

 “One positive thing from the revolution was that, although we suffered a lot, those changes and the suffering made us stronger – mentally and physically,” defender Khalil Chamman was quoted as saying.

James Dorsey, who writes a blog on Middle East sports and is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told The Media Line that in autocratic regimes the soccer players usually stood on the sidelines of the revolt.

In Libya, the national team was lavished with gifts from Al-Qaddafi and the leader’s son, Saadi, was once captain of the national team and ran the Libyan Football Federation. Nevertheless, the club’s stadium and clubhouse were burned down and three fans sentenced to death after Saadi was criticized during a match.

“What they said was ‘We support the demands of the protesters, and we are fed up with the nepotism, but we don’t want the leader to be humiliated’,” Dorsey said. “They were being showered with gifts, but they were not playing for the leaders, but rather for their people.”

He said the sport took place in the backdrop of a fan base which, particularly in Egypt’s case, was intimately involved in the protests.

“There was an incredible enthusiasm and they were for the first time representing a free country. It was expressed not in terms of victory of the team but as a victory of the revolution,” Dorsey said.

The one exception to the rule is Egypt, traditionally Africa’s football giant. Egypt’s national team suffered a dramatic fall from its preeminent position when it was ousted from the qualifications for the 2012 Africa Cup for the first time in 33 years.

“Egypt has almost seemed to have hit the self-destruct button,” Barrett said, noting that Egypt had been the champions of the past three tournaments.  “The fact that they suddenly, completely reversed and are at the bottom of their qualifying group is almost unbelievable.”

Unlike Tunisia and Libya, many political analyst say Egypt has not yet experienced real regime change. While president Husni Mubarak was ousted from office, the country is still controlled by the generals who were Mubarak loyalists. Tahrir Square, which has been the center of anti-Mubarak protests, remains the site of often violent demonstrations against the government.

“I think that really does mirror what is going on in that country itself. Whereas, a lot of other countries have seen themselves pull together and it seems as though the revolutions have taken shape and they are moving forward. Egypt has been very uncertain in the last few months,” Dorsey said.

“Some countries will use that as a good period to come together and work towards a new and common improvement. It seems to me that in Egypt it has thrown everything into turmoil from which they haven’t quite recovered from; they haven’t rallied around together in quite the same way.”

Barrett said his research focused on North Africa and he has not yet examined the impact of the massive unrest in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.


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