Football is the most popular sport in the Middle East. The second you meet someone new, the first question they ask you, after learning your name, is what football team you support. And your answer will either spark a new friendship, or start a lifelong feud with a mortal enemy who supports the opposing team.
The sport has integrated itself into our culture like no other. It has become part of being an Arab. You either support one of the many local teams, an international team, or your country’s national football team. Or perhaps you have dedicated your life to the sport, and support all at once.
People will cancel plans and call sick to work if an important match is on, and they will defend their team like it’s their mother’s honor.
You can feel the tension during the day of an important match with people buying their team’s flags, shirts, and anything remotely close to their favorite team’s colors. They flood to their favorite cafe hours in advance to reserve the best spot, equal distance from the TV and the barista to keep the coffee and the shisha coming.
The entire country falls quiet, except for the loud screams and insults thrown at the TV and sighs and groans of defeat. Then, people either take on the streets with loud honks of celebrations, or drive home quietly with the occasional yell of frustration.
But it doesn’t end there. After the match is over, they will watch the many analysis videos and podcasts made to dissect each of the players’ moves and the various strategies used. And if it was a really good match, they will probably rewatch it to analyze it themselves.
Initially, it may seem like an ideal way to bring a nation together in support of a single cause, but when football supporters go to the extreme, chaos follows and lives are lost.
In 2012, 74 people were killed and around 500 were injured following an Egyptian Premier League football match between Al Masry and Al Ahly clubs. Thousands of Al Masry club spectators attacked Al Ahly fans, trapping them inside the El Ahly partition of the stadium.
This raises the question of whether this sport brings the Arab world citizens of various social classes, ages and beliefs together, or divides the nation based on what team they support?