- The FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar marks the first time the tournament is being hosted in the Middle East.
- Soccer was first introduced to the Middle East and Africa by European colonizers.
- During the mid-20th century, independence movements throughout the region used soccer as a way to galvanize support.
This year marks the first time a World Cup has been hosted in the Middle East, with teams from all over the world gathering in Qatar. It also marks the first time an African or Arab nation has made it to the World Cup semi finals, with Morocco’s success igniting celebrations across the region.
The history of soccer in the Middle East and Africa dates back to the 19th and 20th centuries when European colonists brought the sport to the region.
Players in the Middle East quickly made the sport their own. Nationalist and independence movements during the mid-20th century in countries like Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan created soccer leagues as a way to organize their communities — making the game an integral part of their independence stories.
“The story of Arab football — like so much in the region — is tied up in the history of colonialism and the struggle against it,” associate professor of history at Georgetown University Abdullah Al-Arian wrote in an op-ed for Asharq Al-Awsat.
France and England introduced the sport to the region
In the 19th and 20th centuries, during the height of French and English colonialism in the region, soccer was introduced to the Middle East and Africa by public officials. Sports was often used by the British Empire as a way to impose British moral codes onto colonized people.
In his book, “Football in the Middle East,” Al-Arian writes that soccer was introduced by European officials in an effort to “transform colonised subjects into ‘properly obedient individuals’ whose physical conditioning formed an integral part of colonial education.”
In the 1920s, during British control of Palestine, British officials established sports clubs in which Arab and Jewish teams both took part. In his book, “Arab Soccer in a Jewish State,” Penn State professor of sociology Tamir Sorek writes that these games were “politically motivated and initiated by the British authorities to pacify the anger of the Arab population who opposed the pro-Zionist British policy.”
A few decades later, Arab elites in places like Jordan and Sudan began to organize their own soccer leagues using the same structures as Europeans to access the social and cultural advancements of their communities in their quest to build their own independence movements. These gatherings began to grow into meetings and ways to organize the community.
Algeria’s independence story, in fact, cannot be told without soccer.
As a French colony, people born in Algeria were considered French citizens and therefore played for French national soccer teams. But in 1958, four years into the FLN‘s — Algeria’s independence army — bloody fight for independence from France, professional footballers from Algeria who played for French clubs risked their livelihoods and jail time to create a de facto Algerian national team, Equipe FLN. It was a team-in-exile and was a statement of defiance against colonialism.
FLN’s leader, Ahmed Ben Bella, saw the move to create a national football team as a way to show the world that Algeria was ready to fend for itself. Not only could it support itself politically and economically, but it was also competitive in sports.
The team competed and beat other national teams, such as the USSR and Hungary. France unsuccessfully pushed FIFA to punish teams that played against Equipe FLN. Despite all opposition, the team played over 100 games between 1958 and 1962.
A growing love for the game
With the evolution of soccer over the decades, its popularity in the Middle East has continued to grow.
Qatar has its own unique history with the sport. The country started its own football league over 10 years before it gained its independence from England in 1971, and this World Cup marks the first time the national team competed at the prestigious tournament.
Up until this cup, 12 of the 21 tournaments have been won by European teams.
With other Arab countries from the region blowing-past expectations at this year’s World Cup, including Iran’s win over Wales, Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina, and Morocco’s run to the semi-finals, it has many fans hoping the Arab world will continue to be a large part of the future of the sport.