Can football succeed where diplomacy fails?

Voices from the excited atmosphere at the first football match in four years in Basra and how it is connected to the developing Qatar crisis

The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha in May (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha in May
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The morning of June 1, Ali, a young student from Basra, Iraq, woke up early. It was the first Thursday of Ramadan, and it seemed like the entire city turned up for Sukhoor – the last meal before dawn prayers and the day of fast. But for Ali, this wasn’t just a normal Ramadan day.
The day was special because for the first time in more than four years, an international football match was to be played in Iraq. FIFA, the football world governing body, has banned international matches in the country since 2013, due to the security situation in Iraq and the ongoing war with Islamic State. Following tenacious Iraqi diplomatic efforts to show that the country is safe again for playing ball, the ban was lifted two months ago, and Ali looked forward for watching Jordan’s national team enter the local stadium for a friendly match.
“Football is coming home,” Ali told the Jerusalem Post Magazine. “After years of traveling afar for matches and host games in Malaysia, Qatar or Iran, we are now finally able to host a football match in our own country,” he said excitedly.
“For some it’s only football, but in Iraq, football is an integral part of our identity. It is one of the last sources for hope here. In the Middle East in general, football is the ‘X-Factor.’ This is why today it’s a holiday here for all Iraqis,” he concluded, counting down the minutes to the kick-off.
What does Ali mean by saying that football is an X-Factor in the Middle East? On the domestic level, football teams in Iraq express local and political identity. For instance, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, the Iraqi Air Force Club, represents the moderate secular Iraqis who support the regime and the Iraqi nationalism, while Sport Club Erbil promotes the Kurdish identity within Iraq. The Iraqi national team, on the other hand, creates a shared national pride that crosses the sectarian divisions fragmenting its society.
The ban forbidding Iraq from hosting FIFA games on Iraqi soil was devastating for many Iraqis, in a way suggesting their country isn’t a “real country.” The ban lift was therefore celebrated as regaining something of national independence and recognition.
Due to Ramadan, the match started late (10 p.m.) to allow time to break the fast, but nothing discouraged the 60,000 passionate Iraqi fans who populated the renovated venue in Basra from creating “an electric ambience in the stadium” according to those who were there. Throughout the match, the Iraqi national television channel broadcasted a fixed ad: “From liberating Iraqi land in Mosul to the liberation of the stadium in Basra, Iraq wins!”
Iraq won the game 1-0, thanks to a magnificent header goal by Alla Abdul-Zahra. Speaking after the game, Ali was bubbling with excitement. “Today we forget all our troubles. It’s important for the world to see that Iraq is not only about terrorism or war, but a place of people who love their country and are passionate about football.”
Ali tells one story of Middle Eastern football – a story of national pride and identity, but football is also a match played in the international geopolitical arena. The events unfolding in Qatar this month that eventually led to a bloc of Arab countries discontinuing key aspects of their relations with Qatar could very much be told through football diplomacy.
Good Morning Doha
On June 5, four days after the Iraq-Jordan match, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain unilaterally called off diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar. Later that same day, additional countries joined the Saudi-led bloc, blaming the Qatari media network Al Jazeera for inciting terrorism and highlighting Qatar’s relations with Iran and accusing Qatar of funding terrorism and interfering in the internal affairs of its neighboring states.
Saudi Arabia declared the complete shutdown of all land, sea and air borders and ports, and the prevention of entry or transit of Qatari citizens to the kingdom. All of a sudden, at the beginning of Ramadan, the country that hosts the biggest US army base in the Middle East found itself the target of a regional and international blockade, sparking a severe crisis that threatened its lucrative status as a medium world power.
Qatar has been on the radar of many Western countries – and not in a good way – for several years now. Along with the subversive expansion of Al-Jazeera and its agenda, both in English and Arabic, Qatar is preparing to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, an event of global importance.
It was announced in December 2010 that Qatar would host the world’s biggest football event – the first Arab country to be graced with this prestigious privilege. Wealthy beyond wonder thanks to oil and gas resources, Qatar persuaded first-class football figures like French superstar footballer at the time Zinedine Zidane and Josep Guardiola, then the coach of FC Barcelona, to endorse their bid.
Not so long after the announcement, bribe allegations in fact emerged regarding members of the FIFA Executive Committee and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in a scam to buy the rights for hosting the World Cup in the country. The allegations were investigated by the FBI, after which several FIFA officials, including the organization’s former president, Sepp Blatter, were found guilty of bribery and corruption charges. Blatter had to step down from his position, banned from football for eight years, and other officials were arrested and fined for millions of Euros.
Bribery is not the only wrongdoing Qatar stands accused of. In 2013, a human rights organization and the British newspaper The Guardian exposed that the conditions of the migrant workers employed by Qatar in the construction of world cup stadiums border on inhuman. The story indicated a horrific death toll among the workers, who labor in what was termed, “slavery conditions in a severely hot climate.” A report released by the International Trade Union Confederation in March 2014 estimated that 4,000 more workers are expected to die on the site before the preparations for the World Cup are complete.
The writing on the wall
The current crisis caught Qatar unprepared, but the writing was on the wall weeks ago – yet again, connected with football.
Due to the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, teams from the respective countries play against each other on neutral ground. About 10 days before the Qatari crisis exploded, the Saudi national champions, Al-Hilal Riyadh, faced Iranian former champions Esteghlal Khuzestan for a match in the Asian Champions League knockout stage. The neutral venue picked was Doha, Qatar.
Prior to their trip to the Qatari capital, the Saudi team made controversial tweets (later deleted) on its popular official Twitter account, calling the Qatari government and media “seditious.” In response, when the Saudi team landed in the airport, they were not greeted by a Qatari official welcome, contrary to their expectations. The team waited at the airport gates for hours, finally going independently to the hotel. In the world of international football, this is regarded as nothing short of explicit disrespect for the team, even humiliation.
The atmosphere leading to a crisis was evident at that point. And why wouldn’t it be with a Saudi team playing an Iranian one in Qatar? From here, matters only escalated.
Football sanctions
The very same day the Qatar crisis erupted, the Middle East witnessed a series of football-related actions that isolated Qatar from the rest of the Arab countries.
First, Al-Ahli Jeddah, a premier Saudi Arabian football clubs that had only recently renewed its sponsorship contract with Qatar Airways, terminated the deal.
Later on, the Yemeni national team, which due to the ongoing civil war in the country (which Qatar, Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in) is “hosting” its international matches in Qatar, has announced that it will stop doing so.
The following day saw another element in the escalation. The 2017 Gulf Cup tournament scheduled to take place in Qatar this December is regarded as one of the main rehearsal opportunities for the Qataris prior to the World Cup. The tournament’s organizing committee began to consider replacing Qatar with the United Arab Emirates, due to the crisis. This ignited a global discussion in the social media and conventional networks about canceling Qatar’s most coveted event – the 2022 World Cup. The current crisis gave the parties fighting against having the tournament in the country a serious boost.
With the Qatari crisis significantly intertwined with the region’s football scene, the game is being used as a convenient field to make deeper and more far-reaching statements.
On Tuesday night, Qatar’s national team met South Korea in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Even though the Gulf state had already lost its chances to qualify for the tournament, the tensions over the political fallout were very present. After the battle, Qatar defeated one of the strongest teams in Asia 3-2, and provided a glimpse of optimism for the isolated country and its leaders.
Arena of Politics
The stories from Iraq and Qatar highlight something we don’t read in the daily news. Football has unique attributes that can touch a young boy’s heart, yet at the same time is being cynically used as a political weapon between countries.
Whether it is young student’s passion for national football in Basra or the Qatari emir’s desire to host the World Cup, the past few weeks have highlighted how football is a key arena for Middle Eastern politics and identities.
While in Iraq the game has reflected the optimism of a national revival and a victory over a terrorizing reality, in the Qatari crisis football has played an active role in the dynamics of power relations in the region.
The 2022 World Cup is still on track to take place in Qatar, but recent events work in favor of those who don’t want to see the most important football games played in Doha. Nonetheless, as Ali from Basra stated, football is the “X-Factor in the Middle East.” One way or another, it will continue to play a role in shaping the ever-shifting domestic, international, social and political reality in the region. 
The writer runs the football blog Baba-Gol, which covers football and politics from across the world, focusing on the Middle East.