- The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer by James Dorsey
The book The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer by James M. Dorsey accompanies the blog of the same name where the author publishes daily analyses and comments on football, politics, and religion specifically in the Middle East and North Africa. Although missing from the title, North Africa is a central part of the book, especially since 2011 and the so-called Arab Spring, which brought down the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, among others, but also initiated hope in the West that the region might leap forward in the direction toward liberal democracy. These were premature hopes, as Dorsey aptly demonstrates. Football serves as a prism through which the web of sport, politics, and culture is disentangled, and the ties that keep them together are explained.
Dorsey came to the topic rather by coincidence than by choice; he is not a football fan. This is one of several strong points of the book. It is a view from the outside onto the most popular sport in a region that dominates the headlines for the wrong reasons. Football in the Middle East is closely linked to politics. Yet Dorsey offers more than examples where these two spheres meet. He provides a profound analysis of the state of Islam in the region and how it affects politics and, thus, football. Ever since the Arab Spring of 2011 gave hope that the region might overcome its deep divisions, Western observers have learned that these factions and frictions will not be sealed easily nor will the region find peace soon.
The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 looks at the role football stadia have played and still do during social unrest. For Dorsey, they are "monuments to challenges," and they are "bearing the scars of battle" (11). The second chapter is rich in examples demonstrating the close ties politics and soccer enjoy. Special focus is put here on the ultras [End Page 247] of Al-Ahly and Zamalek. Both sets of ultras overcame their divisions and played a key role during the occupation of Tahrir Square. This is remarkable, as their division is as deep as that between Jews and Muslims. Chapter 3 looks at the relationship between football and Islam. Osama bin Laden was an Arsenal supporter, and football was second to Allah for him. Football was initially an imperialist import but became an anti-imperialist device and a tool for domestic distraction. No work on the Middle East would be complete without mentioning the Israel–Palestine conflict. Dorsey uses a television show to demonstrate the Palestinian reality and how, through football, a new perspective on how to resolve national and political issues emerges. Chapter 5 looks at the role of women. Although short in general, it is shocking that women are neither allowed to play nor watch the game. Dorsey notes that this is not implied by the Qu'ran but rather a social norm that has been reshaped to justify it. In the final chapter, the soft power of the Middle East is described, mainly Qatar. This little state will host the 2022 World Cup, and the royal family have become the owners of Paris Saint Germain, one of France's biggest clubs. Other powers from the Arab peninsula have acquired English football clubs, such as Manchester City, thus underlining that football and politics mix very well indeed. Dorsey does not judge; his writing offers analysis and explanations of why things are as they are. In doing so, it is quite clear that the situation will remain as it is for the following decades.
Throughout the book, the writing and the emphasis on narrative are strong points. Dorsey is an investigative journalist and has had a distinguished career with various newspapers, such as the Dutch paper Trouw and the Wall Street Journal.