Football and the Arab Spring

It can include governments demanding that its national team be allowed to wear poppies on the shirts, regimes getting involved with the affairs of associations, militaries owning clubs and even the imprisonment of fans and players, but politicians and rulers around the world often seek to use football to their advantage. No wonder - it is the world game and has a unique power to bring people together.

The embrace is particularly tight in the Middle East, a region full of regimes that were never slow to get into bed with the beautiful game when it served. In recent years, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and Kuwait have been suspended by FIFA for governmental interference in national association affairs and others should have been.

Long-time Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was happy to wrap himself in the national flag before the tempestuous 2010 World Cup qualifier with Algeria. He never got another chance to do so as, after three decades in power, Mubarak was ousted on February 11 last year, swept away by the Arab Spring. Football fans, the most passionate of which were modelled on Italian and Serbian-style ultras, played their part and in doing so showed that the regime was right to be wary of the thousands of disaffected youths gathering in stadiums and elsewhere. That is still the case. Mubarak rule has been replaced by military rule and, increasingly, Al-Ahly fans have been heard on television during matches calling for them to go, too.

It may be some time before a clear picture of what happened last Wednesday in Port Said emerges. Over 70 fans went to watch a football match between Al-Masri and Al-Ahly and never returned. What is certain is that there is a great deal of anger in the country towards the government and its security forces, with questions remaining over locked gates in the stadium, police standing by and watching, lights turned off and the number of weapons carried by some alleged Al-Masri fans. There is a widespread belief that the ruling military council has been waiting to take revenge on the increasingly politicised hardcore fans of leading clubs like Al-Ahly and, in the process, increase instability in the country ahead of June's presidential election.

James Dorsey, an expert on the relationship between the game and politics in the Middle East, told ESPNsoccernet of the involvement of football fans in the Egyptian edition of the Arab Spring. "It's part and parcel," he said. "The ultras played a key part in the revolt and are the military's most militant opponent. They played a key role in the breaking down of the barrier of fear and in the defence of the protesters." This was especially apparent in the crucial 'Battle of the Camels' at the height of the protests on February 2 when mounted Mubarak supporters tried to take Tahrir Square.

These fans were one of the few groups in the country with experience of fighting back against the police. That expertise was invaluable and didn't stop with the dictator's departure, according to Dorsey: "They are a major concern, having overrun the offices of the State Security Service immediately after Mubarak's departure, the storming of Israeli embassy, frequent clashes in the stadiums and the street battles in November and December near Tahrir Square in which more than 50 people were killed."

Egypt is a big deal as the most-populated country in the Middle East and home to 80 million people - roughly 100 times more than the least, Bahrain, which is another nation still shaking due to the Arab Spring. Neither made it to the 2010 World Cup. Egypt lost to Algeria while Bahrain came just as close, losing both inter-continental play-offs for the 2006 and 2010 editions by the narrowest of margins to Trinidad & Tobago and New Zealand respectively.

For 2014, Bahrain are unlikely to be one of the ten that even make the final round of qualification. With one match left in the third stage, they need to win at home to Indonesia at the end of February - which is likely - and for Qatar to lose in Iran - not as likely as it could be as already-qualified hosts are no friends of Bahrain either in a political or football sense - as well as making up a goal-difference deficit of nine.

This probable failure can be placed, at least to some extent, at the doorstep of the ruling Sunni family, the Al Khalifas. As the Arab Spring arrived in Manama in February 2011, Shia Muslims, the majority in the nation, took to Pearl Square. The regime did not wait long to suppress protests by any means necessary. It was also not long before football became involved in a big way as experienced Shia stars, all internationals, such as A'laa Hubail, Ali Saeed Abdullah and Mohamed Adnan, joined the marches in February along with a number of other athletes.

The national team had long featured players from both communities and was something of a unifying factor in the country but, over the next few weeks, the media started to label the sportsmen traitors and in April came arrests and, according to the players, torture. They were eventually released but charges were not dropped and protests have not stopped. The players have been banned from their clubs, and in effect the national team, and most have left the country.

Adnan, who represented Bahrain 79 times, is now with Australian champions Brisbane Roar and told the country's Fairfax Media that he joined the protests on February 23. "My cousin is dead," he said. "He received one bullet in his head - I started thinking, 'Why don't we do something to stop this killing?' But I didn't go there to say: 'Because you killed my cousin, I go to protest'. I go because we don't want any problems with each other. It doesn't matter - Sunni, Shia, Christian - we don't care. We just want to live as before and respect everyone.

''My life was really good there. Everyone respected me - the police, the people. I can't walk in the mall or city centre without signing for someone. {Now] some of them hate me, some of them still love me.'' In football terms he, and his banished team-mates, have been missed.

The situation is far from settled with the government continuing to clamp down on protestors. A member of the ruling family, Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, is also the head of the country's football association. Salman, who claims to be a passionate Manchester United fan, also wants to become the next head of the Asian Football Confederation when elections are held, probably this year. He would have been a frontrunner but after the messy end of Mohamed Bin Hammam's tenure in the confederation, there is a desire to steer clear of controversy.

There is still plenty of that in the region and much worse. Syria's descent into chaos, violence and repression has forced Sunday's vital 2012 Olympic qualifier with Japan to be played in Jordan. Iraq can sometimes be found in Amman though tend to play most of their 'home' games in Doha on FIFA's insistence. Iraq and Libya, two countries whose footballers suffered under dictatorial rule, at least offer a little hope. Iraq won the 2007 Asian Cup while Libya, fresh from the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi, narrowly missed out on a quarter-final spot at the ongoing 2012 African Nations Cup.

That what it should be about - football and nothing else - but events of the past week, and the past year, have reminded us that this is too often not the case. They also remind us that, while there are many more things more important than the beautiful game, few have the same potential to bring people together.