Why Does Football Matter to Us?

The Moroccan national team celebrates its victory in the quarter-finals of the 2022 World Cup, raising the Palestinian flag

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Nahla Chahal

Professor and researcher in political sociology
Editor in Chief, Assafir Al Arabi

Translated by Sabah Jalloul

Because football stands as one of the scarce sources of joy for the peoples of the region, and because the sport has always acted as an effective and genuine connector between them - as proven at the Qatar World Cup 2022, where feelings of brotherhood transcended all entrenched sectarian and political divides - football truly matters. Indeed, the game seems to hold a secret charm that stirs up deep feelings of belonging and oneness among the masses.

Shedding light on sports has not been part of the customary “mission” of Assafir Al-Arabi, although several of our writers are avid football supporters who “know” the sport well and are passionate “fans” of their teams. It is these writers who have, with joy and enthusiasm, produced the eight beautiful texts that appear in this folder.

In our region, as in the whole world, football doubtlessly arouses popular interest that far exceeds any other. The sport’s ability to convey overlapping symbolisms that relate to all kinds of fields, as well as its historical presence as a politically charged ground since its early days, have contributed to the emergence of devoted brigades of football enthusiasts known as “the Ultras”. These individuals are not your typical fans, nor are they the infamous rioting “hooligans”; instead, they are organized ultra-fan groups with robust internal rules and codes. They adhere to a strict set of practices, deliver coherent, grand performances, and possess the ability to mobilize public opinion. In this sense, they resemble social movements, with the distinction that they do not represent particular professional or factional sectors, but the football teams they support.

This completely new form of fandom is remarkable in its scope and characteristics, and its significance has been made more observable than ever since the Ultras began to express candid political opinions through their slogans and chants. Whether in the stadiums of Morocco, Algeria, or Egypt, their voices have tirelessly reflected the profound pains of their societies, objecting to neglect, poverty, and oppression, while standing in solidarity with the cause and people of Palestine at every match and in every way. The ultras have consequently faced repression, persecution, bans from attending at stadiums, and various restrictive measures on multiple occasions.

Repression sometimes reached horrifying extents, as seen on two occasions in Egypt where massacres were committed in the Port Said and the Air Defense Stadiums. The culmination of the ultras’ interest in public affairs - which is essentially the definition of “politics” - was their active participation in demonstrations and sit-ins in the squares and streets during the 2011 uprising in Egypt and the 2019 uprisings in Iraq and Algeria…

In this folder entitled “Why Does Football Matter to Us?”, our writers have attempted to cover these topics, delving into the Ultras’ “origin stories” and the inner workings of the phenomenon, which has roots that precede its current forms in today’s political ambiences. These stories include the Ultras’ role in the struggle against French colonization in Algeria, their assertion of national identity in the face of patronizing British colonialism in Iraq and Sudan, and their historical transcendence of class polarizations and ideological and political affiliations in Egypt under British rule.

One of our folder’s texts is dedicated to women’s football in our region and aims to explore possible shifts on this front, considering the sport and its ultra-groups have always been male-dominated realms. Our writers have also taken a close look at the effects of professionalizing football clubs and how that might have stripped the sport of some of the conditions that give it its unique character. The texts additionally question the “business” that football has become, which is often linked to sprawling corruption and personal interests and conflicts.

Our researchers, both men and women, have underpinned their texts with photos and videos, creating a comprehensive compilation of the chants and performances of various Ultras, sometimes transcribing lyrics to provide further evidence for the analyses they offer. These visuals, sounds, and words, born out of the Ultras’ stands, profoundly and emotionally resonate with people everywhere, making the picture complete.







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