28 January ~ If the 2011 Asian Cup has proved anything, it is that government interference undermines the performance of Middle Eastern teams. They accounted for half of the competing nations in Qatar but not one made it to the semi-finals – Japan face Australia in tomorrow's final having defeated South Korea and Uzbekistan respectively. Nowhere is the impact of politics on and imposed government control of the game more evident than in the performance of Iraq, the 2007 winners, and the demise of Saudi Arabia, a three-time Asian champion and finalist in six of the last seven Asian Cup tournaments.
Iraq performed relatively well in reaching the quarter-finals given that their governing body is threatened with suspension by FIFA because of government interference, and that the squad is wracked by sectarian strife that reflects divisions across Iraqi society. Meanwhile, the Saudi convulsions – two coaches were fired during the tournament as well as the head of the kingdom’s football association – are but the tip of a problem across the Middle East.
While the hosts lost 3-2 to Japan in the quarter-finals, the Qatar Football Association (QFA) president Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed al Thani claimed to have been pleased with their displays, saying: “We wanted to show Asia and the world that we have a good team and we succeeded in that. I am happy with the performance of the entire team and the coach. They gave their best.”
Qatari newspapers, however, are quoting QFA officials as saying that French coach Bruno Metsu, who since being appointed in 2008 has lasted longer than many coaches in the Middle East, may find it difficult to hold on to his job. Wisdom may yet prevail in Qatar, which often goes against the regional trend to focus on immediate results. The UAE’s Slovenian coach, Srecko Katanec, whose side were a disappointment in Doha, is another who may be looking for new employers when his contract comes up for renewal in June.
The focus on immediacy is driven by the fact that football offers one of the few release valves in Middle East societies. Government control aims to prevent football from providing an alternative space for popular protest as it recently did when riots broke out in Jordan during the main Amman club derby in mid-December which 250 people were injured with claims that others were beaten to death by police. That has become an even greater imperative in the wake of the toppling of the Tunisian president and continuing mass anti-government protests in Algeria, Jordan and Yemen. James M Dorsey The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer