World Cup Not Easing Tensions In Middle East

Global sporting events like the World Cup are often credited with uniting contentious neighboring countries. But James Montague argues that soccer will never ease tensions in the Middle East, and often serves to exacerbate divisions in the Arab world.

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TONY COX, host:

By now you may have cheered for your favorite World Cup team no matter what country. And as the tournament continues, we hear a lot about how the games can inspire good will among neighboring countries. But that's not always the case, especially when politics rears its ugly head. Case in point: Algeria is the only country from the Arab world that qualified for the World Cup this year, but instead of rallying behind the team, much of the Arab world has turned against Algeria.

In last week's Foreign Policy magazine, author James Montague wrote a piece called "Unity Through Soccer?" with a question mark "Not in the Middle East." He says in that part of the world soccer divides as much as it unites, and Arab fraternity is in dangerously short supply. Today, we try to better understand Middle East politics through soccer.

And if you are a soccer fan, but your politics get in the way a little bit, tell us why. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

You can find a link to James Montague's piece there, as well. So, James Montague, also the author of "When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone," joining us now from his home in London, England. Welcome.

Mr. JAMES MONTAGUE (Author, "When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone"): Hi, Tony. How you doing?

COX: I'm doing fine. Thank you. You write in your piece: To understand soccer is to understand the Middle East. What do you mean, and how do you do it?

Mr. MONTAGUE: Well, I mean, the Middle East is such a divided place. People think of it as one, big Arabic, Islamic kind of institution that is so riven by division, and it's very difficult to look at something that is quite a unifying thread, if it doesn't actually unify people. And football is one of those things, because everybody - sorry, soccer. Everybody agrees on the rules of soccer. So it's a very good mirror of understanding what happens in their societies, because the national teams and the local leagues kind of suck up all the tension and the problems in that society. So, if you look at football and soccer, you can really understand what's going on in their society.

COX: Well, let's talk about Algeria and the Middle East in particular because there's something that you wrote about. I have a two-part question for you, all right?

Mr. MONTAGUE: All right.

COX: The first part is this: That while Algeria is not technically part of the Middle East, it is still part of the Arab world, and why don't Arabs rally around Algeria's team?

But before you answer, before you answer, let me ask you the second part of that question: Are we wrong to presume that they should even do that just because they have this Arab connection?

Mr. MONTAGUE: Well, I think there is a certain degree of Arab fraternity, or there's been a lot of talk about it over the past 50 years. And, you know, when you've seen independence movements in various countries, there's been a lot of Arab support. And there's a lot big issues, like the issue of Palestine, West Bank and Gaza that attract a lot of pan-Arab kind of (unintelligible) and fraternity.

But also, you're right. It is very different, because north Africa has a very different Arabic makeup to the (unintelligible) Gulf Arabs. But you would normally assume that there would be a kind of support for Arab -for Algeria from the Arab world. And the main source of opposition comes from Egypt, because, obviously, Egypt to Nigeria were involved in a very heated triple match, the World Cup qualifier back in November, which led to a huge diplomatic incident - so bad, in fact, that Colonel Gadhafi got involved. So I don't think it's taken as read than every Arab country would support Algeria. But when it's certainly a situation when Algeria will be playing USA - a common enemy, if you like...

COX: Yes.

Mr. MONTAGUE: ...you would think that they would always back them. But I think you're going to see in Cairo a lot of English and USA tops being worn by people who wouldn't normally use them.

COX: Now, James, would you say that the situation in the Middle Easter with the respect to the politics of soccer, if I can put it that way, does it - is it very different from the politics of Latin America or Central America or Asian countries, even though there are few who are involved in soccer and the World Cup? But these divisions, these political cultural divisions, are they sharper in Middle East...

Mr. MONTAGUE: Yeah.

COX: ....than they are elsewhere?

Mr. MONTAGUE: Well, I think so. I think the main reason is - because in South America and other places of Asia, they do have flawed, but working democracies. In the Middle East, you have very little public space. Really, it's the mosque or the football terraces.

And so you find that football becomes a lot more politicized, and the gap between the tensions on the street level and what's going on with the terraces is a lot shorter, a lot smaller.

So since it's in Lebanon, you know, the football fans are being banned from going to the football matches for four years there because every single team is owned by a sectarian group, by - Hezbollah has their own football team, for instance.

And the government is so worried that it will create a civil war that they banned football fans from going. And I was there two years ago to the end of the season, and it ended in riots with fans who turned up for the ground(ph), anyway, you know, between Shia football fans and Sunni football fans.

So you can see it's so close to the surface. I think it's unique in the Middle East, because that's a region, you know, is what - it has so little public (unintelligible).

COX: Well, you know, let's take a call, why don't we? Troy from Michigan. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Troy.

KHALED (Caller): Hello?

COX: Hello, Troy. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

KHALED: Yeah. My name is Khaled(ph).

COX: Oh, I apologize. You're from Troy, Michigan, and your name is Khaled.

KHALED: Yes, sir.

Mr. MONTAGUE: Sorry, Khaled.

COX: I've got it.

KHALED: That's okay. It's okay. I'm actually originally a Jordanian, and I can point out the major reason why this rift happened and when consideration to Algeria in specific.

COX: Mm-hmm.

KHALED: The final game that decided who gets to the World Cup was actually between Algeria and Egypt. And a lot of Arabic people cheer for Egypt. So, when Algeria ousted Egypt out, that created kind of a (unintelligible). That was followed by a lot of shameful events. There was some fighting in - and as an Arab speaking, I think this term Arab fraternity exists, and I hope it does keep going. But such acts like this definitely hurt it and make us look really bad in front of everybody. I was really ashamed when I saw that on the news, and I hope that doesn't give us that image of - as Arabs in total.

COX: Khaled, thank you for...

Mr. MONTAGUE: Khaled, let me ask you a question. Are you a Wihdat or a Faisaly fan?

COX: I did not hear you. Repeat that, please, for me?

Mr. MONTAGUE: Are you Faisaly fan or a Wihdat fan?

COX: I'm not sure.

Mr. MONTAGUE: All right. You don't - Faisaly, the big team in Amman.

COX: I think - was that call - were you asking that other caller? I'm not sure that I'm following...

Mr. MONTAGUE: Khaled, yeah.

COX: Yeah. Khaled, I think we've lost him, so he can't answer that...

Mr. MONTAGUE: All right.

COX: ...so I can't give you the answer that he wanted to give. But I can ask you this in place of that: Do you think, given what he was describing, Khaled was describing, that perhaps we are making - you, I suppose - are making more of these divisions than they really are, and that they have to do with the same sort of divisions you would find in most sports: the Lakers and the Celtics, the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Mr. MONTAGUE: No, actually, it is far deeper. It's far nastier. It has roots in history and dictatorship, I think. I mean, I was in Cairo for the game that he was talking about. And the five days beforehand, there were riots, there were attacks on the Algerian team bus. And also, you saw the whole machinery of the state getting behind the state's line, which was the Algerian fans and the players were lying about the attacks to try and get the game cancelled. And this is all state propaganda. And I've never seen a football match in my life be so politicized because of bad blood between two nations. And then Mubarak politicized that game.

Now, I've been to football matches all around the world, and there is politics in football, and there are divisions in football matches. But nowhere is that politics and that division so close to the surface -especially for the game in Cairo, between Algeria and Egypt.

COX: If you're just joining us, this is TALK OF THE NATION. We are talking with James Montague, author of "When Friday Comes: Football in the Warzone." And there's a link to it at npr.org. You can click on TALK OF THE NATION. And he is joining us from his home in London. And we are talking about the divisions - political, cultural and otherwise - in the world of soccer, particularly as they relate to the Middle East. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

All right. I have an email that I'd like to read and get you to respond to this, if I might, James. It's from Ben in Frederick. I cannot see myself rooting for North Korea in any circumstances. We've gone to a different team now. But it was difficult pulling for Brazil in their match against North Korea. And he says in parentheses that he's an Argentina supporter.

Mr. MONTAGUE: Right.

COX: This gets to be complicated for people when you have world games like this and their loyalties can be split.

Mr. MONTAGUE: Yeah. That is the case - I mean, North Korea is a very unusual example because not for decades have we had a football team turn up at the World Cup where we have no idea who they are, what their players are, and where their government's politics are so abhorrent. And - but I spent some time with the North Korean team in Switzerland, in a training camp a couple of weeks ago. I did a story about it for CNN. And what was interesting about it is you actually saw these North Koreans smiling, having fun, you know, and they were totally devoid of politics.

What's interesting with the North Koreans, as opposed to the Iranian national team in 2006, who qualified for the World Cup and then President Ahmadinejad tried to use the national team to kind of promote national unity back home. And Kim Jong-Il hasn't tried to use that with the national team. So they've kind of come to the World Cup purely as kind of the mysterious man with the weight of their politics on their back. But it hasn't been used politically in any way, but they've certainly added a certain kind of interest and secrecy to the World Cup, which I think is very interesting.

COX: Now, you mentioned Ahmadinejad and the Iranian team of a couple of years ago...

Mr. MONTAGUE: Yeah.

COX: ...and it did work in terms of nation building. Do you see anyone -North Korea not withstanding - able to use the games in that way?

Mr. MONTAGUE: I think so. There are times when football - soccer is most powerful is when it can use the rally around the flag effect, which has happened on occasion. I think the most important example of this is in Iraq. I mean, they famously, in 2007, won the Asian Cup, which is the equivalent of the European championship. And they did it when - in 2007, when the country was on fire, on the verge of civil war, and nobody thought the country would really exist in 12 month's time.

But this team of Shia, Sunni, Kurdish players all came together and won this game against - all - kind of all the odds. It's almost kind of like a Hollywood film script. And they did such a fantastic job. And for me, I don't think Iraq would properly exist these days, certainly in a kind of, you know, a unified form, if it wasn't for this football match. So there can be moments of unity. But football was mainly a mirror by which to watch the society you find it in. And mostly, the society is divided. And there's no more divided society than the Middle East.

COX: Our time is up, but I want to ask you one really quick question for one really quick answer, if I may, James.

Mr. MONTAGUE: Yeah.

COX: The United States, does it do this? Do is use nation building through soccer? I would think perhaps not because it's not as popular here as elsewhere. But what do you say? Really briefly.

Mr. MONTAGUE: I don't think so. But I think sport is used for nation building, and I think especially with a relatively young country like the United States, I think sports is really important in trying to bring people round the flag.

COX: I appreciate the answer, James. James Montague, author of "When Friday Comes: Football in the Warzone?"

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