Martin Hardie, "The Indignados of Football and the Arab Spring"

The Indignados of Football and the Arab Spring
Play the Game Conference Day 1
Martin Hardie

When Organizer Jens Sejer Andersen addressed the opening session of the 2012 Play The Game Conference, which is being hosted by the German Sports University in Cologne, he spoke of the fact that today is a holiday in Germany which celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall. Play The Game he said gave asylum to those who speak the unheard of stories of global sport – the stories that the institutions and the corrupt of the sporting world would rather not hear, the stories they would rather suppress. The image he intentionally created was that the Conference was a place for the indignados of the sporting world to come together, to hear each other, to reflect, and hopefully to inspire action.

Sejer Andersen reminded the conference that the lesson of the fall of the Berlin Wall was that when a system´s values crumble, when people lose faith in those that govern that system can disappear in the blink of an eye. In this way he was not only speaking of Arab Spring and the indignados of the global crisis, but also the indignados of the world of sport. Those that have lost faith because of that system´s nepotism and corruption.

Doping, match fixing, institutional corruption, the world of mega events all are on the agenda this week at Play the Game, anything that draws attention to the growing gap between the values of the human condition, of society and its capture by corporations and others in the global economy of governance in the society of the spectacle.

Former journalist, now academic James Dorsey at the Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore followed Sejer Andersen by continuing to agitate the theme of social change by recounting a little known story of football and revolution in Egyptian act of the Arab Spring. Dorsey started his presentation with a video of an Egyptian Football match – Al Zamalek v Al Ahly; a stadium, a crowd bathed in a sea of flags, fireworks and flares with a soundtrack of musica heavy and the letras “We cannot breathe” – the condition of those living in a world in which they cannot speak out. Dorsey spoke of the Egyptian ultras, - not European Football hooligans highly organized, highly politicized with their developed version of middle eastern anarchism and their role in the rewriting of the map of the Middle East. Over the past decade the only place in which a young Arab could breathe any air of than that of the State´s was in the Mosque or on the side of the soccer field. And the real action, it seems, happened in the stands on the side of the soccer field with violence between fans of teams and between the fans and the State security forces.

It was this football battlefield and the experience and the lessons learnt on it that prepared the Egytian youth for the Arab Spring. When the Egyptian people began to occupy Tahrir Square the football Ultras formed one of the three core elements along with the middle class/social networkers and the youth groups of the Muslim Brotherhood. Of groups these the Ultras were the most organized, experienced and developed. When the occupation started the Ultras of rival teams issued identical statements on Facebook calling their supports to arms: “This is what we have been waiting for”.

It was the Ultras who were instrumental in, firstly, breaking down the fear of expressing dissent and then secondly, in breaking down the fear of violence and keeping people in the Square despite the threats of the State and the militias. It was the Ultras that organised the medical, communications and logistical support for the Occupation and they inspired others to join their resolve.

FIFA, Dorsey argues, is and has been complicit in making its bed with Middle Eastern dictators and when football resumed after the revolution this Spring, what was not forgotten was that the sporting officials and the players had not been in the Square. Footballers may have individually sympathized with those who took to the square, but they had too much to lose, they thought, through the benefits they obtained from their patrons – the sporting and state authorities; to join the protests. And at the first game after the fall of Mubarak the Ultras took the opportunity to remind the players of their complicity by chanting: “We were there for you! Where were you when we needed you?”

The experience of Egypt suggest that the connection between the indignados of the square and those of sport are not so far apart. The Egyptian Ultras now have their focus, amongst other things, upon corruption in sport. Another speaker on the opening day, IOC member and former WADA President ended his talk by noting in reference to the decaying façade of modern sport that “it is later than many in sport are willing to admit”.