Why Soccer Might Be Part Of the Solution to Peace in the Middle East

In the wake of violent national tragedies and ongoing tensions in countries such as Syria, Egypt, Israel, and Palestine, one can’t help but wonder whether the current approaches to the establishment of international peace are in need of some creative changes. 

Unfruitful peace talks, ineffective governmental legislation, and domestic and foreign military intervention have failed to unify the people of these nations in a way that will destroy the barriers that are currently preventing peace. But what alternative methods might prove more useful in bringing peace to these violence-plagued societies? What construct exists that will play on opposing groups’ emotional and psychological desires in a way that pushes them toward peace? As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon pointed out at the International Forum on Sport, Peace and Development back in 2011, “Sport has become a world language, a common denominator that breaks down all the walls, all the barriers [to peace].” 

More specifically, that “common denominator” is the internationally popular sport of soccer. By looking at three recent examples of the use of soccer as a peacekeeping tool, I will demonstrate why soccer can actually be the most effective one for initiating peace between many hostile factions in war-torn and violence-ridden countries, particularly those throughout the Middle East. 

Iraq

Soccer provides a great social distraction from ongoing violence by creating a sense of harmony amongst traditionally divided groups. In March of this year, an international friendly match between the national football teams of Iraq and Syria took place in front of 50,000 boisterous fans in Baghdad. FIFA, football’s world governing body, had only a few days earlier lifted a ban on international competition (only friendly matches) in Baghdad due to fears of violence. As reported by the New York Times, what ensued was far from what one would expect from rival footballing nations who have both suffered consistently from war, violence, and terrorist activity in recent times. Not only did a mixed crowd of Sunni and Shiite Muslims chant together for the Iraqi squad, they also cheered surprisingly in support of the Syrian team. 

“The fans also cheered for something more, at one point breaking into the chant, ‘Sunnis and Shiites, we are all brothers!’ Here, as elsewhere, sports links generations and soothes the vicissitudes of life,” said author Tim Arango in the NYT article.

The power of football here united people beyond the barriers of religion and international borders by focusing their attentions away from their respective conflicts and instead on the unity of an entire Arab community. Such a mentality is vitally important in inititating the peace process in these communities.

Israel & Palestine

Soccer also can have a significant impact on the next generation of a nation by creating positive role models, promoting the urgency of the peace process, and most importantly, encouraging more positive attitudes toward citizens of other cultures with whom they will inevitably interact throughout their lives. This exact scenario occurred earlier this month when Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona took a trip to Israel/Palestine for a series of football clinics for Israeli and Palestinian children in both the West Bank and Israel Proper as part of their Peace & Sports Tour. The tour allowed Israeli and Palestinian children to play and learn together, encouraging a positive interaction that is key to the future of an area that has been torn apart by ethnic, religious, and territorial fighting for decades. FC Barcelona’s efforts also created a platform for Palestinian and Israeli leaders to take peace talks to the next level; the team met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to encourage just this. It also provided the children with a sense of hope and excitement for their own futures.

"You are ambassadors of peace. You brought light to our people, hope to our children and a message of peace to the Middle East," Peres told the Spanish club prior to their session in Tel Aviv. It is this kind of positivity that can help set the tone for the next generation of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Ivory Coast 

Finally, soccer can allow an entire nation to focus on its national pride, rather than the differences between internal rival groups, at least in the short term. The most famous and powerful example of this involves former Chelsea FC star Didier Drogba and his compatriots on the Ivory Coast National Football Team. Throughout the early to mid 2000’s, Ivory Coast had been plagued by a deadly civil war. Drogba and his teammates, who were in the midst of a golden generation in terms of footballing talent, recognized a unique opportunity of influence that they could capitalize on to help bring about peace to their beloved home nation. After qualifying for the 2006 World Cup for the first time in their nation’s history, Drogba called on his fellow Ivorians on national TV to put an end to the violence and urged President Laurent Gbagbo to engage in peace talks. The team took this a step further when Drogba, who had toured the country in March 2007 in an attempt to help quell the tensions, urged the national team to hold their June 3, 2007 African Nations Cup Qualifying match against Madagascar in Bouaké, the capital city of the rebellion. For that night opposing forces agreed to put down their weapons and unite for the first time during this national event, which ended in a 5-0 victory for les Éléfants. Soon thereafter tensions between the government and rebel forces dramatically reduced, with peace talks and agreements quickly following.  

"We, the Elephants, all we did was our duty as soccer players, our obligation as Ivorians. We wanted Ivorians to share our dream and see it realized—the return of peace to Ivory Coast,” claimed Drogba in an interview with Vanity Fair after the match

Egypt

A similar opportunity may arise in Egypt over the course of the next year. Egypt has suffered from great political turmoil in recent years, mostly involving the ousting of Prime Minister Mubarak in 2011 and President Morsi in 2013 through a revolution and a coup d’état, respectively. This period in Egypt has been surrounded by violence and social and political unrest, as groups remain divided over how the nation should move. Simultaneously, however, the Egyptian National Football Team, has advanced to the final round of African qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Given that Egypt is a football-crazed nation and that it has not qualified for a World Cup since 1990 (and only twice in its entire history), qualification would send waves of excitement throughout the country. Similar to the situation in Ivory Coast in 2006, this could provide the perfect opportunity to “break down the barriers” that are preventing a movement toward peace in Egypt. By qualifying for the World Cup, Egyptians would have the opportunity to unite emotionally and psychologically as one in a way that would encourage the process of peace.

To take the peacemaking efforts to the next level, players on the team must use their fame and success to engage the media and political leaders to help establish peaceful and effective discussions for the direction of a new government that incorporates the desires and needs of all Egyptians. It is a tall order for the players of the Egyptian National Team, but one that is their duty as people of influence in their country.

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Clearly football alone is not the overarching solution to international conflict, and these stories may oversimplify the process of peace and what it takes to get there. By no means can Lionel Messi’s presence at a soccer clinic alone solve years of tensions and war. But what soccer can do to great effect at a base level is undeniable — it can create a platform for peaceful talks and communication between opposing sides during national conflicts in war-torn and violent-ridden nations. Whether it’s as a social distraction from ongoing conflict, the encouragement of acceptance and hope amongst the future generation, or formation of a united national pride, soccer can provide the initial emotional spark that can lead to peace. And it is the duty of footballers around the world to get that ball rolling.