“Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers every Monday and Wednesday. Sign up here.
One of my earliest memories, no doubt embellished by recollections implanted by others who told me about it over the years, was from 1989, around my fourth birthday. Egypt had defeated Algeria in the final round of the World Cup qualifiers, advancing to the tournament to be held in Italy the following year. The last time Egypt had qualified was in 1934, in the second iteration of the competition (it would be held again in 1938 before a 12-year hiatus on account of World War II).
I obviously don’t remember the match itself, by all accounts an ill-tempered affair held in a packed Cairo Stadium, with 100,000 fans willing the team led by legendary Egyptian coach Mahmoud al-Gohary into qualifying. What I do remember is holding my father’s hand while he carried my brother on his shoulders, walking the street in Alexandria as hundreds chanted “Gohary, Gohary.”
In keeping with the tradition of long absences, it would be 28 years before Egypt qualified again for the World Cup, in Russia in 2018. By then my father had died, and I had largely lost interest in following the sport day to day as I used to, obsessively watching every match of Egypt’s Al-Ahly and the national team. I still watched Egypt’s disappointing showing with enthusiasm followed by heartbreak at our first-round elimination.
Watching the Egyptian national team in international competitions is a rather frustrating experience because Egypt cannot quite be classified as an underdog. We often win in African competitions but crash out of World Cup qualifiers. An underdog should demonstrate some potential for victory and occasionally actually win against a superior opponent to deserve the moniker. Egypt doesn’t do this in the World Cup, despite often having many talented individual players. Its actual performance after the months of hype and popular enthusiasm is usually so uninspiring that, rather than resembling a train crash, it feels more akin to an avocado that turns from ripe to rotten overnight. It felt like that too when we failed to qualify for the Qatar World Cup that kicked off on Sunday.
Football was my entryway into my father’s world, as it was also for many of my friends. I understood and retained little of his conversations with his friends about the stagnant swamp that was Egyptian politics in the mid-to-late 1990s, when President Hosni Mubarak still had some anodyne vigor. But I quickly learned that adults would listen when I made an intelligent observation about football, and would welcome me in their midst as a budding enthusiast of their favorite club. Doing homework at home and studying for school exams were punctuated by the din of stadium fans in televised matches from the Egyptian local competitions, the Arabian Gulf cup, the Champions League, the Euro Cup, the African Cup of Nations and the World Cup. It was joyful and profound and it all lost its luster when he was gone.
Though Egypt’s performance on the international stage was always middling at best, it did occasionally make it to actual tournaments, in addition to winning national and club continental competitions in Africa, thus providing an occasional outlet for non-destructive nationalistic pride. Other Arab countries were in the same predicament, an issue that made important fixtures between Arab teams vastly more ill-tempered, jingoistic and even violent than match-ups against their African and Asian peers. Algeria and Egypt could lose to Nigeria, Cameroon or Ivory Coast without much issue, but losing to one another was cause for shame, national temper tantrums and even the occasional severed diplomatic relationship. I have long believed that anyone still harboring the fever dream of pan-Arabism should simply observe the aftermath of a World Cup qualifier between two Arab countries to quickly disabuse themselves of the possibility. The anger that often ensues and what it says about how Arab populations see each other would remind me of a joke I’d heard from an Egyptian friend and Ahly supporter that he would rather support Maccabi Tel Aviv than cheer for local rival Zamalek in the final of an African competition. (Egyptian football commentators often attempted to emphasize that we should all support our countrymen in continental tournaments to promote national unity.)
This chronic failure over such impossibly low stakes necessitates that Arabs following international competitions hedge their bets, since the obsession with football won’t go away simply because their national teams are relegated to watching. This leads to fervent support for international clubs and European and Latin American national teams, with a fanaticism and enthusiasm that make one believe they hail originally from Munich, Sao Paulo or Manchester.
This was particularly pronounced to me when I was reporting from Lebanon, as I happened to be during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In the run-up to the tournament, the political party flags seemed to largely evaporate into the ether to be replaced by the flags of Germany, Brazil, Spain, France, Italy, Argentina and others. For a blessed month that summer, people were judged not by their sect, class, the former warlord that ostensibly represented them or by the content of their character but whether they preferred Lionel Messi or Neymar, Karim Benzema or Miroslav Klose.
After Brazil’s shocking, historic 1-7 defeat against Germany in the semi-finals, some neighborhoods that had large concentrations of Brazil supporters resembled open-air funerals, and I found myself offering condolences to shopkeepers who had been excited about Brazil’s prospects the day before this modern-day “naksa” (“setback,” as the Arabs’ defeat in the 1967 Six Day War has come to be known). Germany’s victory in the final naturally led to celebratory gunfire that ordinarily was reserved for fiery speeches by militia and political leaders, only this time it seemed more heartfelt.
Somehow, Lebanon had made it to the World Cup finals.
I’m not a historian and thus would be ill-equipped to opine about the historical circumstances that led to this popular obsession with football in the Arab world as opposed to, say, cricket or volleyball. In Egypt at least, it goes back to the era of the British occupation, with the English generally seen as the forebears of the modern game and its codified rules. The country’s two largest clubs, Ahly and Zamalek (then called “al-Mukhtalat”) were founded in 1907 and 1911, respectively, with the involvement of key political figures like Saad Zaghloul, one of the leaders of the 1919 revolt against British rule, who also became Ahly’s first honorary president. Perhaps football can be counted along with milk tea as the only two positive legacies of British colonialism in Egypt.
It would also be tempting to analyze the obsession with football from a sociopolitical perspective, as a kind of opiate of the masses (rather than offering pain relief and relaxation, religion has often had the opposite effect in the region to opiates). Political leaders in the region have often used football to tap into the national mood and endear themselves to the populace, appearing responsive to national sentiment. Moreover, as long as people are obsessed with the latest national derby match, they are perhaps less likely to rebel or notice the rising cost of bread.
Or perhaps you could make the argument that the obsession with football from the Atlantic to the Gulf reveals a deep-seated desire for avenues of success and pride, given the hopelessness and malaise of political life and the disastrous failures of the tyrannical political elites of the region.
It is entirely possible to explain most of it with big-picture academic analyses, though they would be bereft of the emotive volatility and euphoria of it all, even in stakes as low as an inconsequential local league game.
Which is why a World Cup in the Middle East should be an exciting, all-consuming prospect. And yet.
The Qatar World Cup doesn’t feel like an event actually based in an Arab country (aside from the obsession of Western media with whether fans will be able to openly drink alcohol or kiss in public) or the gritty and raw enthusiasm that accompanies big fixtures in countries in the region with an established football culture and tradition.
This is of course partly because very little of the mainstream reporting about Qatar and the World Cup has actually been about football, focusing instead on the politics surrounding it as well as human rights issues like the suffering and death of many migrants involved in building stadiums and other facilities (in addition to issues not directly related to the tournament itself, such as gay rights). This is of course a laudable aspect of the coverage, though regrettably it was not as prominent an issue when Russia hosted the 2018 World Cup, even though it was simultaneously bombing Syrian hospitals. The combination of this, along with the virtue-signaling of various athletes and fans who are attending the tournament, as though only progressive democracies are supposed to host it, has largely meant that Qatar has spent the run-up to the competition trying to ameliorate every aspect of its Arabness to mollify the critics, rather than imbuing it with something resembling character and a reflection of thousands of years of regional history.
This is also partly the fault of the region itself, given the past decade of polarization and strife that has seen Qatar and its neighbors at odds over their support for competing factions in the region’s civil wars, to the point where Qatar’s neighbors blockaded the country for a few years.
Hardly the glowing image of Arab solidarity that we are fond of pretending exists. Can you imagine a regional World Cup, like the 2026 one that will take place across 16 cities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, but in the Arab world? A competition with games in Doha, Dubai, Jeddah, Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus and Aden? Perhaps a game or two in Jerusalem and Istanbul? It would likely be as disorganized as the 1948 Arab invasion of Israel/Palestine, and most Arabs would be unable to attend any games outside their own countries due to visa restrictions.
Qatar is of course not the only Arab country appearing in the tournament. Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia will also be there. I will follow their travails out of a sense of affinity and a milder sense of duty because I have been conditioned to do so.
Then after they are eliminated in the group stages, or perhaps the round of 16, I’ll turn my attention to the real heroes of the Arab world: Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.