The Middle East, North Africa, and the World Cup
Over the duration of the upcoming 32 days, 32 teams from around the world will play to earn the title of “World Champion.” Yesterday, the national teams of both Russia and Saudi Arabia kicked off the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Moscow. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and the Islamic Republic of Iran will be competing in the tournament–the most Middle Eastern and North African representation in the tournament to date. During the group round of the tournament, Morocco vs. Iran and Egypt vs. Saudi Arabia will occur on June 15th and June 23rd, respectively (1). Since the creation of the tournament in 1930, no country from the MENA region has won.
Sports have the ability to shield political nuances during matches and tournaments, allowing fans to focus solely focus on the game. However, there are moments when politics seep into and disrupt the friendly or good natured underpinnings of the game, and this World Cup is no exception. Hours before the Saudi Arabian team lined up to play Russia, Elitsalit-an Emirati telecom firmand the Saudi Sports Authority (SSA) agreed to a broadcasting deal (2). This agreement follows the collapse of negotiations between the SSA and beIN, an Al-Jazeera affiliate, in light of the Gulf Cooperation Council diplomatic crisis that began in June 2017 (3). Similar deals were reached with Egypt and Morocco as well, allowing these three states to have legal access to the games in which their countries are playing. Before the current agreement was reached, Saudi Arabia made it clear that they would be pirating the games in which their team is playing. Additionally, on June 12th, Nike announced that it would bar the Iranian team from wearing its cleats during games as a direct result to sanctions placed on Iran by the United States (4). Iranian head coach Carlos Queiroz stated, “Players get used to their sports equipment, and it’s not right to change them a week before such important matches.” These political events in relation to the sport are just two of the many that have occured over the years.
The sport, like many athletic events, is known for its ability to bring individuals together, cheering for one team and one purpose. For over 2,000 years, soccer has been a valued pastime across the region; it often transcends politics and offers a unique forum through which fans collaborate and celebrate. There is great national pride found in the sport; it has the power to unify individuals who previously believed reconciliation was unattainable. Despite the politics leading up to the World Cup, there is camaraderie and celebration to look forward to in the region over the next 32 days.