An announcement by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that it intends to establish its own soccer teams to compete in the country’s professional leagues has sparked significant debate and taunts on social media.
Speaking at the opening of a brotherhood community city in Tanta, the group’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie, said: “We are going to launch TV channels soon, as well as sport clubs to compete in the Egyptian League and Cup.”
The move is as much of the result of close cooperation between the youth group of the brotherhood, which was banned under President Hosni Mubarak, and militant soccer fans during the mass anti-government protests that in February toppled Mr. Mubarak as it is an effort to capitalize on the sport’s widespread popularity and the deep-seated emotions it evokes.
Young Muslim Brothers and militant supporters of Cairo soccer rivals Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC connected on the city’s Tahrir Square during 18 days of protests in January and February this year.
The two groups, the only ones on the square with any experience in street battles with the police, manned the demonstrators’ frontlines in violent clashes with Mr. Mubarak’s police and supporters of the former president.
The Brotherhood’s move into soccer also constitutes an endorsement of the sport at a time that Egyptian Salafis, some of whom view soccer as a game of the infidels, are asserting themselves in post-Mubarak Egypt. Authorities have in recent weeks blamed Salafis for the destruction of religious shrines, which they see as expressions of idolatry, as well as for attacks on liquor stores, Christians and suspected brothels.
An Egyptian Salafi cleric, Abu Ishaaq Al Huwayni, in 2010 denounced soccer as a form of fun banned by Islam.
“All fun is bootless except the playing of a man with his wife, his son and his horse… Thus, if someone sits in front of the television to watch football or something like that, he will be committing bootless fun… We have to be a serious nation, not a playing nation. Stop playing,” the sheikh said, ignoring The Prophet’s endorsement of physical exercise to maintain a healthy body.
Sheikh Huwayni’s comment followed a controversial religious ruling in 2005 by militant clerics in Saudi Arabia that decried soccer as an infidel invention and redrafted its International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) rules to differentiate it from that of the heretics. The ruling banned words like foul, goal, and penalty and clothes like shorts and T-shirts. It ordered players to spit on anyone who scored a goal.
The significance of the Brotherhood’s move was, in a sign of the times and a further indication of the widening gap between Arab public opinion and militant Islamists, lost on many who mocked the initiative on blogs and social media.
“Football fans are eagerly awaiting Egypt’s clash between arch-rival clubs, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Police Union,” Al Ahram Online quoted one blogger as saying referring to Ittihad al-Shorta, the premier club owned by the Egyptian police. “Brotherhood goalkeeper will miss next match due to security arrest,” quipped another.
In a play on the Brotherhood’s repeated statements that it would not seek a majority in parliamentary elections scheduled for August, a third blogger imagined the group’s soccer teams saying: “Because we just seek participation, not domination, a draw is enough for us at this round, so we will play without strikers.”
Jokes focusing on the application of Islamic religious principles to soccer sparked responses from conservative bloggers, pleading that remarks be restricted to the brotherhood’s politics rather than its religious views.
“Allah prohibited mocking anybody because they might be better than you,” said one conservative commentator.
The pleas did not stop a soccer fan on Twitter from tweeting that “FIFA adopts regulation giving a yellow card to any player pulling an opponent’s beard.” Joked another fan: “The player must shoot the penalty kick by his right foot saying ‘in the name of God,’ otherwise he will be fouled.”
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)