The Middle East morass: Soccer could play a way out

I don’t think the Middle East has any organized tournament on any sport that I know of. A tournament that could include countries like Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Egypt, Cyprus,Turkey, and the Palestine Authority. The game would of course be soccer because a lot of these countries are actually good in it and their fans are passionate about the game. The sporting forums like the Olympics and the World Cup are too far and too few in between for these countries to come in regular contact with each other and usually these matches are so hyped up because of that one chance meeting. And yes, I have faith that Palestine will finally be a country, with contiguous borders and not a swath of bantustans.
We could have other countries join the Middle East soccer tourney, like the USA, England, France, Russia, and Australia which have large numbers of citizens of the Jewish diaspora and Middle Eastern descent. This will also give us the alternative of having a venue outside of the Middle East, which might be needed for security reasons and to build trust initially. The Middle East tourney could be held every two years, like the Africa Cup of Nations.
I know that a number of skeptics will look at the list of countries and roll up their eyes and say a mere soccer tournament will not bring all these countries together. In the Middle East it is most practical to have limited goals. Participation is voluntary. If Iran and Israel do not want to participate, that is alright, but they have been invited, and there is more a chance of their soccer teams meeting on the field then there is a chance in a million of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Ehud Olmert meeting up at this point. Iran did meet the Great Satan in the World Cup, in 1998, and it was considered a success in terms of soccer diplomacy as the players came out to play and not engage in fisticuffs.
Michael Ledeen, William Kristol, anyone of those “lets bomb Tehran” warhawks out there to give credence to this proposal? No. I thought not. It is just a mushy lefty pipedream.

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11 comments on “The Middle East morass: Soccer could play a way out
  1. It already exists. There is a small thing called the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, which features most of those Middle Eastern countries plus Australia, Japan, China and others. Australia plays Kuwait in a qualifier in a few weeks.
    Israel is part of UEFA. Bizarre, really, when Lebanon, to its north, is part of the AFC.

  2. Jesse,
    Thanks for pointing out the AFC Asian Cup. I had forgotten all about it. That Israel is part of UEFA and Lebanon is in the AFC is a headscratcher.
    But I think a Middle East tourney by itself would carry more weight. The level of soccer played is very good in these countries. Having Iran and Israel meet might convince both teams that the trouble lies in the hands of the politicians of these countries who want to preserve the status quo, and not at the feet of the soccer players :)
    I have seen quite a number of Israeli- Palestinian theater collaborations to see that there is a dialogue there. Imagine shifting this dialogue to soccer, with its universal appeal, and wider audience. Imagine what a handshake between a Syrian and an Israeli player could accomplish, or the exchanging of jerseys. The ideal thing is that this tournament could be held in perpetuity, for the future generations of Middle Easterners.

  3. We can dream. I think a ME tournament is doable, though not right now. I would also point out that the teams are just soccer players, not politicians. (Didn’t Iran offer a tribute to the Mexican goalie, who had just lost his father?)
    The natural place for this would be Saudi Arabia, but I think there are restrictions on Jews in the country. Maybe Eqypt?
    But as tough as the politics are right now, the non-state actors are the real problem. Could Hezbollah or Hamas or Al-Qaeda or Muslim Brotherhood restist the temptation to slaughter the Israeli soccer team ala 1972? Could SA or Eqypt guarantee the safety of the USA or Israel?
    (That Israel is part of UEFA makes perfect sense given the political reality on the ground.)
    The idea is great. Lord knows that the region needs a reason to cheer and encouraging nationalistic pride (as opposed to the tribalism exhibited now) would be a very good thing.

  4. I absolutely agree. However, the Iranian players also considered themselves as ambassadors in this World Cup(maybe not explicitly so), but they must have felt the need after talk of banning them for Ahmedinejad’s unfortunate remarks. I think the Iranian team’s tribute to the Mexican goalie set up a very positive image of their team.
    There are rewards for playing a great game and also for playing fair. I think the ME tournament should emphasize both equally.
    That Israel is part of Uefa just emphasizes Israel’s contradiction, that it does not consider itself part of the ME. I think the Uefa should seriously take a look at this.

  5. I am not sure that Israel does not consider itself part of the ME as much as the ME does not consider Israel part of it. The inclusion in UEFA is justing bending to the fact that the Israeli NT could not play in most Arab countries.
    I wonder what the ME would like today if the UN did not create Israel. Of course, civil war had raged between the Jews and Arabs prior to the UN partition after the Balfour Declaration in 1917 put the British stamp of approval on a home for a “national Jewish state” in Palestine. (A truly ironic historical note is that Britian was very worried that another European power would try and gain sympathy from the world’s Jewish population with its own version of the declaration. That country was Germany.)
    While my faith (Catholic) is important to me, if I could get rid of one thing in this world, it would be religion. Overall, it seems to cause far more harm then good.

  6. India- Pakistan, Northern Ireland- Republic of Ireland, Iran- Iraq, civil wars in Sudan, Nigeria, Ceylon, insurgencies in the Phillipines, Timor, Russia, etc etc, the list is endless.
    The British also put their imprimatur on the India- Pakistan partition through Mountbatten, the last British governor- general of India. In fact, he gave into Indian demands not to have a UN plebiscite on Kashmir, so now the region is saddled with a problem dating more than 50 years ago.

  7. Strangely enough in one of those bizarre historical coincidences, the official in charge of the UN plebiscite was none other than Madeleine Albright’s father.

  8. Funny about Albright’s father…I did not know that.
    European colonialism is a funny thing. It “worked” in some places and was a spectacular failure in others. It is unclear to me if there is a common denominator of success of failure. (To be clear, I use “success” and “failure” very loosely.) For example, why have Ghana, Benin, Senegal and Mali seemed to have a better time then their felow Africans?
    One common denominator in Africa and the ME (the two mosted screwed up places right now) is tribalism. Tribalism isn’t a race thing (the West has had a history of tribalism and the Jews are very tribal today), but I mean it in the sense of a mindset that rejects assimilation between groups. Colonial rule could not wipe out tribalism and I wonder what can. (I would point out in fairness that at least the Jews are willing to live and let live.) The tribal instinct can be positive (it is at the core of every Gunner/Man U/Yankee/Cowboy fan), but only in moderation.
    The need to belong to a group is primal; the feeling of superiority to other groups is taught.

  9. Israel and its pre-state founders were never interested in being a part “of” the Middle East, just in it. Israel considers itself a part of Europe, always has, always will. It’s been campaigning to be a member of the EU for years now. It’s the basic chauvinism of Israeli society. They’ve always looked down upon their neighbors who quite understandably react with resentment.
    There’s a terrific little film about the Palestinian soccer team’s attempt to qualify for the World Cup. Powerful stuff. Either the Sundance channel or the Independent Film Channel has been airing it throughout the last couple of months. In 1987 I was in Cairo and saw a fabulous match between an Egyptian club and Turkey’s Fenerbache. Loved every minute of it. The fans were wild. I’m Brazilian and we certainly know how to have fun at a football match (and afterward, if we win) but these people were something else.

  10. Sandrahn
    I would love to see this movie about the Palestinian soccer team. Do you know the name of the movie?
    There is a great movie by the Palestinians called Paradise Now that was nominated for the best foreign film at the Oscars, it was opposed by Israel because it seemed to glorify suicide bombers.

  11. Sandrahn, I meant that Israel simply has no choice right now other then to look toward Europe.
    The history of the partitioning up of the Levant doomed it to fail. At that time it was the attacks by Irgun and Lehi (Jewish “freedon fighters”) on British officials that finally caused action.
    Any solution derived at the point of a gun will not last, no matter who is doing the pointing.

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