Lead-up to FIFA World Cup brings much-needed distraction for MENA nations

With the just two weeks away, players, fans and officials alike are preparing for what is shaping up to be the most competitive football (known as soccer in the United States) competition ever. Of the 32 teams eyeing the big prize, five are representing Middle East or North African (MENA) nations: namely, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Tunisia and Morocco.

This year‘s World Cup comes amid heightened global tensions, especially in the MENA region, where political, security and economic instability are par for the course. As such, football fans across the globe are hoping that the "beautiful game" will provide some much-needed respite from their daily struggles.

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While many westerners do not associate the Arab World with sport, football is, in fact, incredibly popular in MENA countries, explained Souhail Khmira, a sports journalist in Tunisia, which is preparing for its first World Cup in twelve years. “Tunisians as a people are super-pumped, super-excited and very thrilled about this upcoming event. Everyone in coffee shops has changed the conversation topic to football and it’s just a very festive atmosphere,” he told The Media Line, adding that this is no small feat in a country that has been embroiled in turmoil since the so-called Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia and spread like wildfire throughout MENA in 2011
“Bars, stores and cafes are setting up extra screens," Khmira enthusiastically conveyed, "as most of the people here view games together, sitting around and happily sharing the experience and excitement. In fact, one of the few thing that can unite Tunisians is the national team, especially with something as important as the World Cup.”

Dr. Simon Chadwick, a Professor of Sports Enterprise at the Salford Business School in the United Kingdom echoed these sentiments, asserting to The Media Line that “football is incredibly popular in the Middle East—they are huge fans. Significant numbers in the region are going to be watching especially as there will be a point of engagement with specific teams in the region.

“If we think about countries in the region," he continued, "there is a recognition of the sense of national well-being created from sports and the active support of sports. As an example, Egypt for a long time has been ridden by factions and divisions but the emergence of a cultural icon like [national team player] Mohammed Salah has been able to bring people together like really nothing else. This is the implicit statement of the power of football.”

James M. Dorsey, a Senior Fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and author of the blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, believes that, in the MENA region, this transformative power is rivaled only by religious practice.

“Nothing except maybe religion evokes the kind of deep-seated passion quite like football does. The Middle East is a football-crazy part of the world. The relationship between football and politics has never been tighter than in the Middle East, it’s been like that for over a century. But," he qualified to The Media Line, "the relief is temporary. After a few weeks it’s over and things go back to normal. The notion that football can change things is ‘pie in the sky.’ If you have an environment of change then football is not a bad avenue, but football can’t change the environment.”

Be that as it may, hundreds of millions of people will soon be imbued with a sense of hope derived from seeing their respective countries represented on the world stage. If only temporarily, the streets of the Middle East and North Africa will be filled not with angry protesters, but, rather, diverse people coming together out of love for a child‘s game.

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(Benji Flacks is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)