The World Cup: a proxy for the Middle East's institutional and economic failures?

Published June 16th, 2014 - 03:55 GMT

While unfortunate, it is certainly not surprising that this is the second consecutive World Cup where only one Arab football team - Algeria - managed to qualify. While most Arabs probably wish the Algerian team the best of luck, very few of us expect them to deliver miracles in Brazil. Yet, as the world turns its attention towards Sao Paul, the Arab failure in regularly reaching, let alone ever winning, this championship is something worth reflecting upon. The fact is that sport cannot be separated from what goes on in a particular society and how this society’s institutions function. As such, there is no reason for a nation to perform well in football when it is suffering from an institutional failure in every other sector. This is probably the scenario in many footballing nations which were affected by the Arab Spring, such as Tunisia and Egypt, and one hopes they will soon recover their athletic glory once the overall situation is stable and secure in their respective societies. Meanwhile, it is the absence of the more stable Gulf countries, renowned for their feverish fondness for football, which raises several questions, particularly as most Gulf nations have a vast amount of resources and are able to provide the infrastructure and facilities for their players to enable them to compete at an international level. Actually, it is embarrassing that the national teams of countries, such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar did not qualify for Brazil 2014, while these countries, or representatives of them, own some of the biggest and most successful European football clubs. Of course, football has never been a sport only for the rich, quite the contrary actually, and it would certainly be naive of our football officials to think that this sport could be developed by just throwing money at it. If this were so, we would never have seen a poor country excel in football or make it to the World Cup. Having said that, while spending on improving sports infrastructure may certainly help improve facilities and acquire experience and talent, the real issue is most likely that many of us believe that there should be a “magic pill” effect, whereby results are guaranteed immediately. Obviously, this is not the case. However, there are some positive signs that Gulf football might be headed in the right direction. In Saudi Arabia, where the responsibility for developing the sport is entrusted to the head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), an interesting development is that it has recently been decided that the president of SAFF will no longer be appointed, but is to be elected. This means that what was once an honorary position filled by a member of the Royal Family, who is not necessarily an athlete or a footballer himself, will now be up for grabs and will be filled by a suitable candidate who will be held accountable for the success or failure of the national team. What also needs to be done in Gulf countries is to encourage international transfers of local players to help them gain additional skills and experience. Of course, we must first accept and admit that not all of our players are going to be accepted by top ranked international football clubs. However, it goes without saying that we must start somewhere! What is also a given is that we need to exploit our ownership of some of the biggest European football clubs to develop serious and rigorous scholarship programs for our players, managers and coaches whereby they can shadow and gain experience from their international counterparts. Another thing that can be introduced is finding ways to encourage the best local talent to take up sport as a career. For this to happen, it will require an abolition of any “wasta” (preferential treatment) when it comes to scouting, hiring, training or disciplining football players. Also, we could take into consideration some of the best practices globally when it comes to encouraging athletic careers, such as the American model where sport is considered a serious industry rather than just a mere pastime. In the US, scouts search for young talent from an early age, and then the selected candidates are offered academic scholarships and an integrated nurturing and traininTheg program that guarantees them a decent life as they develop into professional players. Going back to the World Cup and the Arabs’ failures, it is also additionally embarrassing that our capability – as Arabs – to dominate newspaper headlines is confined to accusations based on recently leaked documents and letters showing that Qatar paid large sums of money to secure the honor of hosting the World Cup in 2022. If proven, such accusations are not only going to turn what was perhaps the only Arab success into a scandal, but will also be damaging to the reputation of Qatar, and of Arabs in general, given that they reinforce a negative stereotype that we – as Arabs – can’t secure a victory unless we buy it.

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