The role of sport in society – in different contexts and at different levels

Dan-Erik Andersson
Human Rights Studies, Lund University

Danyel Reiche & Tamir Sorek (red)
Sport. Politics, and Society in the Middle East
284 pages, hft.
London: Hurst Publishers 2019
ISBN 978-1-78738-152-0

The role that sports, and not least football, play in society tends to be undervalued, according to the perspective that it is really just about play and leisure activities. Certainly, its significance for creating passivity (“bread and spectacle”) is apparent, but that the game itself may have real meaning is rarely recognized. Possibly one can go as far as to accept the fact that the sport can reflect the surrounding society and politics and that sport changes as society changes. Societal and political demands on, for example, equality between men and women affect the sport and the sport can then reflect what is happening in the outside world.

However, some of us would think that this is not enough to understand the role of sport in society and politics. In fact, sport is an important factor in shaping and changing society and politics. All that happened with the statue of Zlatan outside Malmö Stadium is not possible to see merely as a reflection of society and political rhetoric. The events take place in the very heart of the shaping and change of society and politics. In the course of dialectics, it is ultimately impossible to see what is cause, mirror, center and periphery, and I am one of those who believe that sport should be an obvious component when social and political events are understood and explained.

Therefore, I am excited to come across any and every book that shares my starting points, and most recently it’s the anthology Sport, Politics, and Society in the Middle East with Danyel Reiche & Tamir Sorek as editors. The book gives examples of the role of sport in different contexts and at different levels. However, the book is not characterized by an explicit and continuous theme, neither theoretical nor methodological, but is held together by the fact that the geographical area of the Middle East is at the center.

The first chapters focus on sport as such and how it is specifically involved in shaping and changing the surrounding society. Following an introductory, more comprehensive chapter by Murat C. Yoldiz, on how interest in sports re-emerged or gained a renaissance (nahda’) in most countries in the Middle East during the early 1900s, with a particular focus on the three mega cities of Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran, come the two in my opinion strongest chapters in the book.

Chapter 2 by Dag Tuastad focuses on the mildly put complex situation in Jordan following the ravages of the great powers and the creation of Transjordan in 1921, furthered by the creation of Israel in 1948 and the ensuing wave of Palestinian refugees into Jordanian territory. The “original” citizens of Jordan (“East Banks”) and their football team FCFaisali have come to compete fiercely with “the new” Palestinian football club Widhat FC, named after one of the largest refugee camps created after 1948. Tuastad manages to show how these groups, supporters of different clubs, use football and rivalry to shape their own identity and how it also replaces dimensions that national projects would otherwise occupy around collective memories and identity formation.

Often, the family and the close surroundings have views about young women’s sports activities.

In the third chapter, Tamir Sorek similarly shows how football and football culture are important parts of the identity formation in the Israeli context. He shows how conflicts between Hapoel Tel Aviv and Betar Jerusalem come from, manifest and build on deep contradictions in Israeli society. Hapoel Tel Aviv’s supporters are largely secular and primarily represent Ashkenazi, that is, European Jews. The club was formed in the 1920s, decades before the founding of Israel. The club was early associated with the establishment that governed Israel’s first decades. Betar Jerusalem was defined instead as the opposition, with a much larger share of religious supporters, especially those that arrived later to Israel from nearby Arab and Muslim countries. In recent decades, however, the situation has been reversed and Hapoel Tel Aviv has increasingly appeared in an oppositional position. The interaction and the mutual exchange between football/basketball and the surrounding community is presented in all its ambiguity.

In two chapters, the situation of women in sports is discussed. Charlotte Lysa highlights the difficult duality that are emerging among women in Qatar. Often, the family and the close surroundings have views about young women’s sports activities. At the same time, the state of Qatar, with pressure from the outside world, represents a perspective that means that women should also be given the opportunity to play sports. In the tug of war between these two approaches, university sports have proven to be a possible middle ground. Through their studies, women can find a free zone where they can more easily devote themselves to their sports practice. In a second chapter with women in focus Nida Ahmadstudies how social media is used by sports women in the Middle East.

In Chapter 6, Craig L. LaMay discusses the question of the role of media in Qatar and the importance that the FIFA World Cup 2022 could possibly acquire. Experiences from Russia show that the media were quite free during the World Cup itself, but that it then went back to “normal”. However, LaMay thinks it doesn’t have to be that way in Qatar. According to him, there is strong support and a genuine desire for openness among very influential sections of society.

In the four closing chapters of the book, the situation of sports is more generally problematized in four different countries and regions: Qatar, Turkey, Lebanon and the Gulf (Gulf Cooperation Council Member States, GCC). These chapters in the book are characterized by less concretion and more macro perspectives. The authors devote themselves to studying how states use sports to pursue politics. Cem Tinaz outlines Turkey’s policy on sports issues from the 1930s onwards, with a particular focus on the time after the AKP’s ascension to power in 2002. In two chapters, Lebanon and sport are discussed. Nadim Nassif gives a general account of how Lebanon after the civil war tried to develop an elite sports policy, while Danyel Reiche presents and discusses four medium-sized international sporting events that Lebanon accomplished and what role they played. In the closing chapter, Simon Chadwick describes how the center of sports has gradually moved east towards Asia, not least through the extensive investments that GCC stood for. The question is, however, whether it is sport itself that has moved east or if is just the investments that come from elsewhere. No major developments in sports as such in the financing countries can be discerned.

Copyright © Dan-Erik Andersson 2020

Table of Content

        1. Mapping the ‘Sports Nahda’: Toward a History of Sports in the Modern Middle East
          Murat C. Yoldiz
        2. Football’s Role in How Societies Remember: The Symbolic Wars of Jordanian–Palestinian Football
          Dag Tuastad
        3. Hapoel Tel Aviv and Israeli Liberal Secularism
          Tamir Sorek
        4. Qatari Female Footballers: Negotiating Gendered Expectacions
          Charlotte Lysa
        5. Sportswomen’s Use of Social Media in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)
          Nida Ahmad
        6. The World Cup and Freedom of Expression in Qatar
          Craig L. LaMay
        7. Turkish Sports: Lost in Politics?
          Cem Tinaz
        8. Developing a National Elite Sport Policy in an Arab Country: The Case of Lebanon
          Nadim Nassif
        9. Legacies of Mega-Sporting Events in Developing Countries: A Case Study of Lebanon
          Danyel Reiche
        10. The Business of Sports in the Gulf Cooperation Council Member States
          Simon Chadwick


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