Anti-racism campaign by FIFA has work cut out for it in the Middle East

Anti-racism campaign by FIFA has work cut out for it in the Middle East

Anti-racism campaign by FIFA has work cut out for it in the Middle East

Farhad Majidi (L) and Farzad Hatami (C) of Iran’s Esteghlal club, vie for the ball against defender Nathan Otavio Ribiero (R) of Qatar’s Al-Rayyan club during an AFC Champions League match. AFP photo

World football body FIFA’s newly established anti-racism committee has its work cut out for it in the Middle East and North Africa where ironically only Israel and Iran have taken some, albeit too few, steps to counter discrimination based on color, religion, ethnicity or sex.

In countering racism and discrimination in the Middle East, FIFA faces not only racist outbursts by fans, players and officials on the pitch but often a structure and unwritten policies that are inherently discriminatory.

In the latest incident of racism, Iran’s football federation this month banned Paykan FC coach Firouz Karimi for eight games and fined him $3,000 for calling Dutch player of African descent Sendley Sidney Bito a cannibal and a Negro and refusing to shake his hand.

“I only tried to express my respect toward Karimi. I offered him [a] handshake, but it seems he was angry with the result.” Mr. Bito told reporters, referring to the defeat of Paykan which was last month relegated to the second division by his Fajr FC team. Karimi justified his refusal with the fact that Iranian culture dictates that the older person initiate a handshake. A video of the incident has gone viral on the Internet with fans organizing campaigns against racism despite a crackdown on access to the web that makes it difficult for Iranians in the Islamic republic to access popular social media websites.

'Whatever Tractor goes'

The sanctioning by the Iranian football federation is in stark contrast to it its turning a blind eye to regular denunciations as donkeys of players and supporters of Traktor Sazi FC, the club based in Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, widely seen as a potent projection of Azeri ethnic and national identity. “Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” said a long-standing observer of Iranian football. The Iranian federation’s neglect is tied to the government’s crackdown on anything that reeks of separatism.

Similarly, a recent rejection of two Chechen Muslim players because of their religion by militant, racist supporters of Beitar Jerusalem, the only club in Israel to refuse Palestinian players, sparked outrage in Israel but little effort to force the club to put an end to its discriminatory hiring policies. The outrage was rooted in the militants’ use of Third Reich terminology by vowing to keep their club pure and by the fact that it countered a long-standing pillar of Israeli policy that seeks to forge close ties with its neighbors’ neighbors in the absence of relations with a majority of Arab states.

To be sure, the Israeli football federation, the only FIFA member in the region with a long-standing anti-racism campaign has repeatedly slapped Beitar, which has close ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, on its fingers but has refrained from insisting that the club adhere to the country’s anti-discrimination laws. To the credit of Beitar-owner Arcadi Gaydamak, the acquisition of the Chechens was in part designed to break the militants’ hold on the club and to pave the way for Palestinian players by first hiring non-Arab Muslim ones.

Similarly, Hany Ramzy, the coach of Egypt’s Olympic football team who is credited with Egypt’s winning of the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations championship, returned to Egypt from last year’s London games a football hero and a model in a country and a region in which identity politics rather national identity often governs the beautiful game. A Coptic Christian and one-time legendary national football team captain of a squad whose former national coach Hassan Shehata established Muslim piety as a criterion for membership equal to skill, Mr. Ramzy, symbolized what is possible as well as the immense problems Middle Eastern and North African nations have in coming to grips with their ethnic and religious minorities.

European pride

Mr. Ramzy is one of the few if not the only Coptic Egyptian national team player in past decades. He is the exception that proves the rule in a country in which the Coptic Church has its own Copts-only football teams. Mr. Ramzy is believed to owe his success to a significant extent to the fact that he earned prestige by being hired by various European teams, including Neuchâtel Xamax, Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern.

“In Egypt, there is a problem that many people don’t even consider. This problem relates to not allowing the Copts to play in the national teams of sports, especially football which is the most popular game in Egypt. Marginalization of young Copts by the Football Association and the administrations of Egyptian clubs resulted in having no Coptic players in the core teams. Youth teams have very few Copts and they are laid off as soon as they reach certain age and never take the chance to promote,” said Safwat Freeze Ghali, writing on the website of Copts United.

Charging that football discrimination against Copts encourages discrimination by Muslims and anger and hate among Copts, who account for some 10 percent of all Egyptians, Mr. Ghali spoke out of personal experience.

“I suffered from this problem with my son who was born in 1995 and has a great talent in football. Many people have said so after they saw him playing. My son then started in a small club, but never took a chance to play. His coach treats him so badly, and his colleagues make fun of his Christian name. His coach told him: I won’t let you touch the ball [play in the team] and never ask me why! We got fed up and I took him to a bigger club and they liked him very much and promised to recruit him but they never did. Then, I moved him to another club where they liked him too, but when the coach knew his name [a Christian name], he said: We’ll see, later!” Mr. Ghali wrote.