IT’S HARD to overstate the importance of football in the Arab world; it is undoubtedly the number one sport and matter of national pride. Arab leaders have historically taken a keen interest in the game — a keen interest, particularly, in qualifying for the World Cup. To this end, leaders from Libya to Qatar have adopted management styles that would be considered intrusive in other parts of the world. And, though they shared the same goal, their approaches have been very different. Every autocrat is a peerless philosopher. And so, over the last half-century, football fans throughout the Arab world have witnessed some rather extravagant social experiments. In what follows, we offer you a short survey of this grandiose and neglected history.
Saddam Hussein is the prototype of the Arab dictator as football philosopher. He set a template that would become industry standard, appointing his son head of the national football body and promising players huge rewards in case they qualified for the World Cup.
Saddam’s other tactics were more unorthodox. He once fielded an entire team of players named Saddam in a crucial World Cup qualifier against Oman, earning him the admiration of his entire cabinet. While these strategies didn’t always ensure success, they showed Saddam’s visionary and experimental attitude to the beautiful game.
Saddam had a dream a few days before Iraq’s friendly match against Azerbaijan. He dreamt of Iraq winning the World Cup. Unfortunately, the only practical detail he managed to retain was that the players were dressed in full Assyrian attire; Saddam ordered his tailors to make Assyrian costumes for the whole Iraqi team. Predictably, the imperialists at FIFA intervened against this expression of native pride, declaring the costume and its accessories contrary to international standards. Saddam accepted his mistake and remedied it by ordering all of his tailors shot.
After that, Saddam decided to take a more elevated approach. The problem, it seemed to him, was not that the Iraqi team was losing, but that irresponsible commentators were reporting the results in an unpatriotic way. With the help of Baghdad-based French thinker Michel Passepartout, Saddam arrived at the philosophy that the score doesn’t actually reflect the game objectively. Iraqi football commentators were advised to report Iraq’s losses as wins. (Passepartout wrote several essays legitimizing this practice as an anti-imperialist tactic.) Saddam called this Saddamiyah — or, in English, “the most exalted reality.”
To this day, Iraq’s 7-0 drubbing of Brazil remains the pinnacle of this policy, a result that was celebrated around the country. People that insisted they saw Brazil score three goals and missed all of Iraq’s were convinced otherwise.
Syria’s Hafez al-Assad was a long-time opponent of Saddam Hussein and the rivalry influenced not only his political decisions but also his approach to football. Al-Assad cultivated the image of a reasonable pragmatic leader, helped in no small measures by Saddam’s excesses, which made him look like a suburban librarian by comparison.
This restraint manifested in his policy on football, which was restricted to subtle gestures such as naming every single football stadium in Syria “The Hafez al-Assad Stadium,” like every school, university, hospital, airport, and dam. While this made life hard for Syria’s taxi drivers, it filled the Assad family with pride and humility.
In the 1980s, though, al-Assad began to feel threatened by the success of the Iraqi football team and decided to pressure the Syrian team to qualify for the World Cup. His philosophy of steadfastness and confrontation, though, urging coaches and players to “assume heroic postures” and wait for the opponents to crumble under the weight of their internal contradictions, proved to be less successful in football than it was in politics. Al-Assad then lost interest in football and dedicated his spare time to his new hobby, acquiring Lebanon.
George Orwell described international football as “war without the guns.” Clearly he hasn’t been to Lebanon. The Lebanese differ from other Arabs in many respects. For one, they don’t have individual autocrats who rule the country, but a more egalitarian system based on a committee of autocrats, formed from feudal chieftains and warlords. The Lebanese are also quite astute and pragmatic.
Rather than supporting the national team, the Lebanese pick strong teams like Brazil and Germany through which to channel their passion for football. This combines two of the favorite Lebanese pastimes: football and proxy wars. Ideally, this would involve a game between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which would allow the Lebanese to split their support neatly along sectarian lines.
Foreign embassies in Lebanon understand the importance of these proxy football wars and support their local fans, both morally and financially. Established football nations like Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina spend vast amounts of money to win these football proxy wars. This, incidentally, is quite similar to the way politics works in Lebanon.
In 1996, former Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani came up with a daring plan to acquire the World Cup — that is, he offered to buy the trophy directly from then-holders Brazil. Regrettably, the Brazilian Football Federation declined his offer. The Emir was disappointed and ordered a 30-foot replica of the World Cup to be built in Doha. If you stand far enough from the statue you can take one of those endearing pictures of yourself pretending to hold the World Cup — a popular pastime in Doha. The Qatari love affair with football would have a happy ending, though, as Al Thani later succeeded in buying the World Cup directly from FIFA.
No piece about Arab football teams can be complete without mentioning Egypt, the epicenter of the game in the Arab world and a place where passion for the game runs very high. Despite Egypt’s successful clubs and the achievements of its national team in the Africa Cup, it doesn’t have a good record in the World Cup, qualifying only twice and not managing a single win. In the 1970s, former president Anwar Sadat took an interest in this problem, hoping to prop up his popularity among the Egyptian population. Translating the tactical nous that he had honed in politics, Sadat suggested offering a series of strategic concessions to the other team, hoping that this would shame them into similar concessions, achieving draws that could be then repackaged as strategic victories. The plan was abandoned following several harsh defeats for Egypt by teams that didn’t have the aesthetic sensibility to appreciate Sadat’s complicated philosophy.
In 2009, Egypt was involved in a volatile diplomatic dispute with Algeria over two matches with them in the World Cup qualifications. The war of words between the two escalated sharply, almost producing an actual war. Responding to perceived insults by the Algerian media, Alaa Mubarak, the son of then President Hosni Mubarak, phoned in to a talk show, saying, "We are Egyptian and we hold our head high, and whoever insults us should be smacked on his head." Incidentally, Alaa’s defensive talk show performance was one of the reasons his father deemed him an inadequate successor.
In 1978, Saudi King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud decided that it was time for the national football team to go the World Cup, so he summoned his advisors for a brainstorming session. After much deliberation, the advisors decided that Saudi Arabia would qualify to the next World Cup, Inshallah (God willing.) Against all odds, the plan didn’t work. The King lost interest and decided to instead fund the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
Like Saddam, Muammar Gaddafi channeled his football philosophy to the masses through his offspring. He named his son Saadi Gaddafi head of the Libyan football association and the captain and star of the Libyan national team. He was the only player that announcers were allowed to mention by name; all others were referred to only by their numbers. The Libyan game revolved around Saadi. Indeed, during the qualification campaign for USA 1994, he averaged more shots on goal than any other player in the world. Unfortunately, he wasn't very good at shooting, and Libya failed to qualify after a disastrous 10-0 shellacking by Ghana. His father refused to accept the loss, arguing that it was a Western conspiracy to make his family look stupid and "divide Africa's children from one another." Luckily, his son lost interest in the sport, and Muammar spent his life's autumn focusing on his true passion, female mixed martial arts.
Tunisia and Algeria
Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was such an ordinary and uninspiring dictator that one would struggle to even make up a story about his football excesses that would fit in a guide like this. Perhaps as a result of this, Tunisia has a decent football record, qualifying to the World Cup several times and winning the Africa Cup in 2004.
Algeria’s excellent campaign in the 1982 World Cup, which included a historic win against West Germany, happened under the reign of Chadli Bendjedid, a reasonable president who didn’t interfere in football. But it would be mad to expect other Arab autocrats to learn from his example.
Disclaimer: The survey above is a mixture of fact and fiction. The author trusts his readers to distinguish between the two. Dedicated to the memory of Ammo Baba, the greatest Iraqi football manager.