By Abdullah Al Shayji, Special to Gulf News & Published: 00:00 November 23, 2009
We should learn to enjoy sporting victories and accept defeat with good grace for the greater good.
As many people know, Bloodsport is a 1988 martial arts film. But this title could just as easily describe the football rivalry between Arab countries, which frequently leads to rifts, friction and even beatings.
Two heated football matches took place last week between Egypt and Algeria to decide which would be the only Arab country to qualify for the Fifa World Cup finals in South Africa.
The Egyptians had eliminated Algeria in a World Cup qualifier in 1989, securing Egypt’s second trip to the World Cup. Algeria has not made it to the World Cup since 1986, while Egypt’s last participation was in 1990. The media, and especially websites and bloggers, have stoked tensions and fed the hatred in both countries.
The clashes between Egypt and Algeria have set off an unprecedented Arab rivalry. Egypt won in an emotionally packed atmosphere in Cairo, where Egyptian fans pelted a bus carrying the Algerian team, injuring three Algerian players. But the two countries finished Group C with an equal number of points, the same goal difference in group matches, same number of goals scored in group matches, same number of points in all Algeria-Egypt matches and same goal difference in all Algeria-Egypt matches. This meant that a playoff was held at fever-pitch in Khartoum, which Algeria won 1-0. This set off recriminations which spiralled into a diplomatic spat between the two large North African nations.
As football-related violence and diplomatic wrangling between Egypt and Algeria continued, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt warned before a supportive and cheering parliamentary session, “We will not tolerate those who harm the dignity of Egyptians. Egyptians’ dignity is Egypt’s dignity.”
The Egyptians recalled their ambassador from Algeria, protesting the Algerian fans’ assaults on Egyptian supporters in Khartoum. Not to be outdone, the Algerians called the Egyptian ambassador to protest. Egyptian crowds demonstrated in front of the Algerian embassy and burned the Algerian flag.
This newfound animosity is ironic because the Algerian revolution in the 1950s against the occupying French was supported by the charismatic Egyptian leader Jamal Abdul Nasser. Similarly, the Algerians rose to the occasion and supported the Egyptians in their conflicts with Israel in the 1960s and 1970s, But today they are being lampooned by Egyptians for supposedly preferring to speak French, rather than Arabic. This is unacceptable behaviour from both sides.
Even politicians are getting involved and the sons of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were seen in the stadium cheering the Egyptian team. One of them even had harsh words for the angry Algerian fans who assaulted Egyptians in Khartoum. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mousa, an Egyptian, has intervened in an attempt to calm things down. All of this heightened political drama is unprecedented in Arab affairs and it does not bode well for unity and solidarity, which has already been marred by political rivalry, bickering and distrust. It is unthinkable that sport is causing such tension.
In the past, other nations used sport as a diplomatic tool to reconcile their differences — for example, ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ between the US and China and wrestling and football diplomacy between the US and Iran. But in the Arab world, we are instead using sport to divide and fragment people.
Although Arabs are long on rhetoric about unity, solidarity and brotherhood, beneath the veneer of seemingly strong ties there is a fragile bond among our countries and people, which snaps when it is really tested. Indeed, relations between many Arab countries are acrimonious. Saddam Hussain pillaged and occupied Kuwait overnight, Syria dominated Lebanon for three decades, Morocco and Algeria bicker over the Western Sahara. The late Moroccan King Hassan said in 1990, “Our aim is to turn the Arab Maghreb into one country with one passport … one identity and a single currency.” But as was reported in 2007 by Reuters, “Each step towards unity has proved transient: the Morocco-Algeria frontier remains closed as tensions simmer over Morocco’s presence in the disputed Western Sahara.”
The last thing Arabs need at this juncture is to adopt the treacherous behaviour seen from Egyptians and Algerians it is not in keeping with Arab traits. Winning little meaningless victories at the expense of the larger Arab aspirations and goals is not worth this heavy toll, which widens the distance between us rather than bridging over our differences. This qualification victory for Algeria will not solve their nagging political, economic and social problems, nor will their heated reaction help Egyptians to overcome their own challenges. Lessons have to be drawn from the mistakes made by these two competing countries. Their peoples and the rest of us must learn to enjoy the thrill of victory and bear defeat, without resorting to violence or a war of words. We all stand to lose, even those who won little victories.
Dr Abdullah Al Shayji is a professor of international relations and the Head of the American Studies Unit at Kuwait University.