Picking up James M. Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer to learn about the region’s football’s great clubs, culture, and players not named Mohammed Salah or Alireza Jahanbakhsh, is self-limiting. This book, in fact, is, about civil society through the lens of football. It is not full of pacey wingers, marauding fullbacks, brickhouse center-halfs—instead it uses football as the backdrop for a full-bodied exploration of how civil society in highly autocratic states functions. Primary mentions of great clubs and teams, past and present, are from within a political context (i.e., Saadi Qaddafi’s preferred club was al-Ahli Tripoli and Benjamin Netanyahu’s is Beitar Jerusalem) and the book explores the uneasy relationship that Middle Eastern state organs have with civil society.
When Dorsey goes to the soccer stadium, he views it as a theatre of political protest, regime torture, and an arena where Middle Eastern gender norms are the combatants—more so than the two sets of eleven kicking around a ball. This does have the drawback of losing strictly footballing information, which might have appealed to the sports fan reader. There is no mention, for example, of the Egypt squad who qualified for the 1934 World Cup, the first Middle Eastern team to do so. Also absent is the Algerian team who was swindled so badly by Germany and Austria in 1982 that FIFA had to change the rules about matchday times on the final day of group play at the World Cup. However, for the interest student or scholar of political science, this is an essential and refreshing window into political dynamics in parts of the Middle East.
Particularly noteworthy is the section about Prime Minister Erdoğan of Turkey and the cleavages of Turkish politics (114-129). To sell just this section as a strength would be grossly unfair to the work that went into writing and researching this book. I do not know for certain if every country that can be considered in the Middle East is covered in this text, but the attempt is valiant. In addition to Turkey, footballing civil society in over a dozen other countries is explored in some fashion. This includes the women’s leagues of these nations, a step many sports broadcasters around the world fail to take in their coverage of the most popular game on Earth. This book was published before Iranian women were given the right to watch men’s games in the stadium for the first time since the Islamic Republic was founded, and the struggle of those footballing fans to watch, as well as play, is an interesting highlight given the ruling in late 2019. Another positive aspect of the chapter on Middle Eastern women in football is that it, perhaps unintentionally, exposes hypocrisies about Western attitudes toward women’s football. This is most obvious when discussing the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) and its commitment to the mandatory subsidization of Under-16 and Under-19 women’s football (221). This is more state support than the four-time World Champion US women’s team is getting in their fight for equitable wages.
What could have been better from a comparative studies perspective would have been showing that political protest is not unique to the Middle East. Football fans across the world have often engaged in political protest at matches—a very recent example on 29 February 2020, when Bayern Munich fans protested Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp for his perceived bribery of the Bundesliga. While this example is far too recent to be of any use to Dorsey in discussing the image of the strongman leader, it could have added depth to mention that Real Madrid have long suffered from the label of being General Francisco Franco’s team.
Another concept introduced in the text is neo-patriarchalism, which could also have helped branch out from the region using the footballing lens. If it neo-patriarchalism is defined, as the book suggests, as “the dominance of the father [patriarch] the centre around which the national as well as natural family are organized,” (29) this could easily have been linked to the smaller concept of the “concentração.” The concentração is a system in which players are put on lockdown from the outside world before matches—an approach that has existed in variations in Italy, Brazil, Spain, and potentially also Middle Eastern football leagues, through which the club assumes a sort of state-like rule over its players. I cannot answer to the existence in Middle Eastern leagues because, unless he could tie in the state, Dorsey does not often delve into domestic football as a contest.
In Chapter Four, Dorsey ventures into how contest reveals divisions within a state structure, by elaborating on the rivalry between Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin, the first Palestinian club to win the Israeli League in 2004. I could feel myself in the stands when he described the jubilation of Bnei Sakhnin’s fans with that triumph—and if Dorsey had gone more into domestic football as a politicized game, I have little doubt I would have been cheering on certain passages and booing others. I regret that I did not read this chapter before writing the script to the racism episode of the Real Football Podcast, because the example of virulent racist behavior by Beitar fans (168), and the mountain of other sources the author has, would have added a stronger sense of the footballing foothold to that episode.
One comparison from within the region Dorsey does make with extreme effectiveness is the comparison between police use by the Egyptian and Turkish states (136). The choice of making this comparison could also indicate a desire to keep solely within the Middle East. It also highlights the depth of research given topical complexity. I am convinced that this author, had he wished to, can write several academic articles, highlighting civil society in individual states as well as political developments in post-2011 Egypt as a focus.
This bounteous supply of information would have been made even richer if a methodological section of the text (either in the introduction or in the afterword) had been devoted to coherently explaining how all of the information was gathered. Through Dorsey’s blog it can be assumed that some of the on-the-ground information, particularly when referencing Ultras groups and their anti-government stances, were probably gathered through such channels of communication such as WhatsApp messages, Skype, and Viber calls rather than through conventional forms of field research. This potential unorthodoxy might bother more scholarly-minded readers; football fans will find the idea of using WhatsApp to discuss issues—whether it be how Ronaldo’s EURO 2016 triumph makes him better than Messi, or how to protest an autocrat in stadium—familiar and comfortable. This approach could also have been an attempt to minimize security risks both for Dorsey and those he is interviewing, particularly if they are verbally opposing autocratic practices. Dorsey does list quite a few people who helped this book come to be in a brief acknowledgements section, so readers do know some of the names who built the text—just not necessarily how, or the depth of their participation.
The book is somewhat weakened by awkward language in places. That scholarship out of the West struggles with terminology for Middle Eastern politics is not unique to this book, and part of this issue can be explained by the passage of time. This book is roughly four years old and the term “Arab Spring” which appears throughout has fallen out of favor as a useful term for what happened in the region during the early 2010s. Terminology issues unrelated to age or events outside of Dorsey’s control include the use of the term “infidel” to describe the US men’s team (19), which feels borderline sardonic in an otherwise serious book. Other moments whose inconsistent tone potentially interferes with reading comprehension include when Dorsey quotes comedian John Belushi (124) and musician Frank Zappa (197). Both are funny quotes but it is a bit jarring to go from talking about the attempt of the United States to use soccer as a nation-building tool in Iraq to such wisecracks. The most disconcerting moment, however, was when the author inexplicably highlighted Princess Reema Bandar al-Saud’s “letting her mane of black hair flow for all to see” (224). I understood the intent was to highlight not wearing a traditional abaya outside of Saudi Arabia, but the way it was done was problematic and superfluous.
The biggest issue with how the text is constructed is that each of the six chapters felt like their own topics were each worthy of a book, and probably could have been several books. They were all well-researched topics, and each came with insights that ranged from amusing (for example, a study cited in Chapter Two of Egyptian households claiming to show divorce rates are higher in Egypt when the husband is a football fan and the wife is not) to heartbreaking. This meant that the text could be jumpy and made creating a cohesive conclusion difficult. The essays, though remote both in geography and topic, do come back to the idea that football is central to regime attempts at co-opting civil society in autocratic state environments (283). The tribalistic nature of football fandom adds difficulty, given that the suppression of one fan group could lead to backlash from other fandoms, who would otherwise love to see the fans of hypothetical Club A suffer, though in purely footballing context. Some readers might find this to be a strength as there is a new trove of facts in every page, but some sort of narrative glue—like a mid-fielder who transitions the ball from defense to attack—would have added robustness and minimized the guesswork about overarching narratives.
One positive element related to a decentralized focal point is that this text cannot be accused of seeming to favor one autocratic nation over another. Dorsey presents each regime’s tempestuous or combustive relationship with civil society without the frills of a diplomatic cable or an orientalist political stump speech.
This does branch into another series of topics where Dorsey could develop fuller manuscripts on—for example, how certain regimes (namely Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) are trying to use football as a tool to “brand” themselves to the outside world. For the United Arab Emirates, the key to this is the takeover of Manchester City, once a footnote in the Premier League but now competing for the best signings in the world on the back of the Emirati sovereign wealth fund (252-255). For Qatar, this has come with their securing of the 2022 FIFA World Cup and use of Qatari Sports Investment (QSI) to make French club Paris Saint-Germain into the team with the most expensive player contract purchase of all time. It has not all been smooth sailing for either Gulf nation, with each facing questions over forced labor of migrants and the kafala system and thus falling under heavy scrutiny. These practices are estimated to have killed over ten thousand migrant workers in the construction of World Cup stadiums in Qatar, and led to FIFA demanding reforms—and the Qatari state to agree, at least nominally (249). Saudi Arabia at time of writing had yet to take over a major football club, but at the time of writing of this review they are attempting to buy Newcastle United from Mike Ashley, whose own labor practices deserve as much questioning as Qatar’s kafala system. Had these topics been more fleshed out (with 2016 information being the focus of the Saudi angle), would have been more relevant both to globalization discussions and avoided meandering of FIFA’s structure.
This book is designed for a student of political science and would be most useful for those trying to understand the nature of autocracy in the Middle East in relation to civil society. It would also make for a good if unconventional textbook. The flawed terminology is not such a problem that it cannot be corrected with discussion but, if used in a course, other texts (either short articles or other works by this author) might be necessary to achieve a consistent flow of information. Sports fans looking for pure entertainment and player statistics may struggle with the heavily political nature, but it could forever wipe out the ridiculous idea that sport and politics are not joined at the hip. Football is politics—there just usually is a scoreboard displayed somewhere, and this book enforces that point marvelously as an afterthought.