North African football reaps what Arab Spring has sowed

North African football reaps what Arab Spring has sowed

James M. Dorsey - Hürriyet Daily News
North African football reaps what Arab Spring has sowed

Algeria’s Hassen Yebda heads the ball on top of Tunisian midfielders during the two teams’ friendly match on Nov. 12, 2011. According to one analysis, the two teams are among those who have performed significantly better after the Arab Spring. AFP photo

Protest is good for football. It enhances performance despite the hardship of civil strife, according to an analysis of the performance of six North African national football teams before and after prolonged mass protests that demanded regime change in their countries.

Matthew Barrett, a sports sponsorship professional, concluded in an analysis that Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Morocco and Algeria, five nations that experienced political upheaval in 2011, had performed significantly better in terms of average points per match following the protests, or, in Sudan’s case, the cessation of South Sudan, compared to 2010, the year before the unrest.

The six national teams, Mr. Barrett calculated, played 53 matches since the series of Arab uprisings erupted in Tunisia a year ago, in which they scored 87 goals with an average of 1.64 goals per match and won 45 percent of all games played. By comparison, the same teams played 60 matches in the year before the revolts in which they scored 79 points with an average of 1.32 goals per game and won 33 percent of the games played.

Despite suspensions

The teams performed better even though professional football was suspended for months in several countries, including Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, during the protests in a bid to prevent the football pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point. The enhanced performance occurred further against the backdrop of a rift in various countries between fans, who played key roles in the protests, and a majority of players who opted to either remain aloof or, in some cases, to come out in support of the embattled autocrat.

The improvement in performance constitutes an apparent triumph of national identity over internalized neo-patriarchism, which characterizes Arab autocracies and means that players and managers more often than not identified with the autocratic leader as a father figure. It also highlights the debilitating effect that politically motivated autocratic interference in the game had on performance.

Libyan goalkeeper Samir Aboud said enhanced performance was the result of post-revolt national teams having a sense of truly playing for their country rather than their ruler when he said after a draw against Zambia that allowed Libya to progress toward the 2012 African Cup finals, “This is for all Libyans, for our revolution.” Libya’s Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta said his squad was “not only playing for football success but for a new government and a new country.”

Nabil Maalouf, coach of Esperance Sportive de Tunis, which this year won the African Champions League, said, “The events at home really stimulated our team, and we believe that the players felt greatly liberated after what happened.”

Defender Khalil Chammam said, “One positive thing from the revolution was that, although we suffered a lot, those changes and the suffering made us stronger – mentally and physically.”

The triumph of national identity over neo-patriarchism, symbolized by the post-Gadhafi Libyan team flying the pre-Gadhafi Libyan flag and singing a new national anthem, enabled Libya to remain undefeated in competitive matches since the country’s autocratic leader, Moammar Gadhafi, was toppled earlier this year. That is no mean feat for a team that was dominated for years by al-Saadi Gadhafi, the Libyan leader’s cruel and mercurial son with football ambitions of his own, who equated its success with that of his father’s regime and its failures as unacceptable poor reflections on the regime.

Arrest warrant

Interpol has issued an international arrest warrant for al-Saadi Gadhafi, who has sought refuge in neighboring Niger, on charges of misappropriation of football funds and armed intimidation of players and officials. In a separate case, al-Saadi Gadhafi is under investigation by Libyan authorities for the 2005 murder of an anti-Gadhafi player.

The impact of neo-patriarchism that turned players into celebrated figures, who when victorious were showered with expensive gifts, meant that the Libyan team was increasingly split during the revolt between supporters of Mr. Gadhafi or those who lost close ones among the NATO-backed rebel forces in the war and Gadhafi loyalists. The team’s captain denounced the rebels as dogs and rats, language used by Mr. Gadhafi to describe his opponents, while the goalkeeper and three other players defected to the rebels four months into the rebellion with 14 club players.

The Libyan team’s rising star contrasts starkly with the fact that, like Sudan, it had barely ever registered on the radar of African football prior to the wave of protests that have swept the Middle East and North Africa in the past year and led to the overthrow of not only Moammar Gadhafi but also the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, far-reaching political reform in Morocco, continued unrest in Algeria and the carving out of an independent state of South Sudan.

The Algerian national squad, with anti-government protests moving this year from the streets back into the stadiums after having forced the government to lift the 19-year-old state of emergency, won three of its five matches to emerge at the top of its group, according to Mr. Barrett, who calculated that it had scored 1.75 goals per game as opposed to 1.25 last year. For its part, Sudan qualified as a runner-up in its group, achieving a 53 percent win ratio with 1.79 goals per game as opposed to a 25 percent win ratio and 1.13 goals per match a year earlier.