Amidst the tragic devastation in Syria and the general turbulence engulfing the region, the recent football turmoil in the Middle East may seem trivial. Yet the intermingling of sports, politics and identity in the region makes it too important to be overlooked.
As ‘the football war’ amongst the Egyptian football clubs al-Ahly, al-Masry and the police continues to simmer following another round of riots last month upon the confirmation of verdicts over the 2012 fatal stadium riot, a match-fixing scandal has emerged in Lebanon.
In a country where sports - at least on the national level - has temporarily united a deeply divided nation, the treachery committed by some football officials alongside those who bribed them must not go unnoticed. The anguished statements made by Lebanon’s football national coach Theo Bucker after the team literally gifted their chance to advance to the 2014 World Cup in exchange for cash gifts resonated widely. “I am really destroyed”, he said in an interview, “not only [did they] sell the game, [they sold] a country”, he added.
FIFA last week issued an international ban against 24 players and officials in line with the sanctions imposed by the Lebanese Football Association. The key culprits, striker Mahmoud al-Ali and defender Ramez Dayoub, were handed life bans and fines. Dayoub had deliberately made several backpasses last year in a World Cup qualifier against Qatar, which gave the Gulf state a victory and spoilt Lebanon’s chances of qualifying for the first time.
Yet while the players and one official have been penalised, those behind the match-fixing operation remain unnamed and unpunished.
In another blow to Lebanese football, three referees are facing trial in the city-state of Singapore for allegedly accepting sexual bribes in exchange for influencing an Asian Cup game. The officials will face trial early June and have been refused bail.
Meanwhile Qatar, which acquired French football club Paris Saint-Germain last year, has also faced allegations of corruption regarding its successful World Cup bid. Its former Asian Football Confederation president, FIFA Executive Committee member and presidential candidate Mohammed Ben Hammam has been banned for life for breaching the FIFA code of ethics pertaining to conflict of interest.
In addition to the potential of moving the competition to winter, the most recent controversy surrounding the 2022 competition relates to Qatar’s treatment of its workforce. The International Trade Union Confederation last week demanded that FIFA revoke the World Cup hosting rights due to Qatar’s infamous Kafala system, the low wages and cramped living conditions it offers foreign labourers who are erecting its stadiums and infrastructure. In what seems a response to these criticisms, Qatar Foundation and the 2022 organising committee released the worker’s charter which aims to ameliorate living conditions and curb exploitation. The proof, however, is in the pudding.
While violence, racism and corruption in sports is a rampant phenomenon as the recent Europol investigation in Europe and the racist chants by some Beitar Jerusalem fans reveal, the state of sports in the region, its governance bodies as well as the labourers behind the scenes, should be seriously addressed. While rooting out the cheaters, racists and exploiters is a tall order, naming and shaming them, at the very least, is a necessary first step.