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Media Literacy And Syria’s Improbable World Cup Dream

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I have written about media literacy in regards to Syria in the past, and a recent Daily Mail piece on the Syrian national football team’s World Cup hopes offers another chance to dissect media narratives. We know that Syria has been engulfed in a bloody civil war for half a decade. Yet, despite international opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian “state” has not yet fully collapsed because there is still—on some small level—a modicum of national “identity” left in the battered nation-state. This tragic civil war shows the dangers of allowing division to triumph over dialogue, and a recent article regarding the Syrian national football team shows why alternative readings of modern media narratives are necessary to form independent positions of thought.

Journalist Ian Herbert of the Daily Mail wrote a piece on 30 September 2017 entitled “Syria are on the brink of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup… but will their team just be a propaganda tool for the murderous Assad regime?”. With all due respect to Mr. Herbert, I took from his article the opposite conclusion: It is possible that Syrian qualification for the World Cup would actually be a propaganda tool for FIFA instead? I came to this conclusion after a critical reading of the article, which I will share here.

In the article Mr. Herbert makes a few arguments that could lead the reader to an opposite conclusion, yet the title has already framed the issue at hand for readers; no independent analysis is necessary and the reader is made to believe that anything good that happens for Syria’s national football team is bad. That the headline should be one of the first signs of a biased media piece is not very surprising. In just the second and third sentences of this article, we are shown how evil the Assad regime is: “One of the national team’s goalkeepers was deemed an enemy of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and survived several assassination attempts. Another was jailed. A talented member of the nation’s Under 16 squad was killed by a bomb a few years ago”. An educated reader, of course, will already know that this is the case. It will not seem out of place; it fits with the headline.

 

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Just Who Stands To Gain From Syria’s Possible Qualification For The World Cup? Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-4936834/Syria-brink-World-Cup-just-propaganda.html

 

In the fifth sentence, we see the shift: “Such is the backdrop to the most extraordinary of all the World Cup play-off ties: Syria‘s journey to the brink of qualification. Beat Australia over two legs, and Syria will have one final qualifier — possibly against the USA, of all countries — to earn a place in Russia”. Here are the seeds of a feel good story, one fit for a Hollywood movie. The team from the war-torn country, that the West is saving from a tyrannical leader, will face their liberators (here Australia and possibly the United States) in football and play for a right to go to the World Cup. What a narrative it is.

The article goes on to inform us that the seeds of the team’s performance were planted in the midst of the Assad regime a decade ago:

 

As the [Syrian national] side progressed deep into the qualification stages, the charismatic [coach Ayman] Hakeem has persuaded several of a golden generation developed in the past decade to put their abhorrence of Assad to one side and return to the international fold.

 

But before we get to thinking that there was actually a positive aspect to life under Assad, the author wakes us up:

 

They include veteran striker Firas al-Khatib, whose young cousin was killed in an attack on Homs, and Omar al-Somah, Syria’s most celebrated footballer due to his goal-scoring exploits with Saudi club Al Ahli – but this is by no means the fairy tale it seems. 

Assad’s regime is providing the team’s finances and seeking a propaganda coup. In the early stages of qualification, some of the team’s players wore shirts featuring an image of Assad at a pre-match press conference. 

Making it to Russia would create the impression of normality and order in his country. It would also give a headache to FIFA, who vehemently oppose political interference in football.

 

It is shocking that the writer makes the reader believe that Syria’s success would be a boon for the Syrian regime and not the West. As the author explains, there are few in Syria who do not want their country to win—and the piece ends with this quote from striker Firas al Khatib:

 

The people could do with some kind of enjoyment and happiness. The reason why I have come back into the team is very complicated but I can’t talk more about these things. Better for me, better for my country, better for my family, better for everybody if I not talk about that, but if we can win and go the finals it will lift the people. The people deserve that.

 

I do not think one could find anyone from a Western audience who, after reading the quote above, would not support the Syrian national team. It would be very, very difficult not too. And it should not come as a surprise to anyone that this particular quote was the one selected to close the piece. So why does the title of this piece conflict so much with its contents?

Perhaps it is because the author does not want to dwell on the fact that there might just be life beyond politics. Maybe it does not all have to be about politics, maybe we can—for once—celebrate Syrians being able to come together for the purpose of supporting their national football team. Or maybe it is because there are clearly some footballers—like apparently Firas al Khatib—who have some sense of national identity left that they care to spend their energies for their country’s team, since this would go against the anti-nationalism rhetoric of Western media outlets like the Daily Mail. Or maybe it is even because the truth hurts too much: the truth might just be that Syrian qualification for the World Cup will mean a propaganda coup not for Assad, but for FIFA. After all, FIFA has far more to gain from Syria’s qualification. It will mean a feel-good story about a country pulling itself together against all the odds, and those stories always sell. An emotional story about Syria will also help FIFA sell the World Cup and paint over the fact that they gave the 2018 World Cup to Russia (where stadiums are in trouble according to The Daily Mail) and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a state sponsor of terrorism. In short, it seems like FIFA has much more to gain from Syrian qualification for the World Cup than Bashar al-Assad does.

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Russian Stadiums For the 2018 World Cup Are…Different. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-4947998/World-Cup-venue-Ekaterinburg-Arena-odd-new-stands.html

 

Who knows, with reporting like this, maybe the Russian football fans who branded the BBC “Blah Blah Channel” were right: mainstream media is too busy building narratives to actually report on anything in a non-biased objective way. Maybe it is because, in the age of 24 hour media available on the internet, journalists are no longer tied to their consumers. If no one pays for news anymore, then there is no longer a system of checks and balances. If journalists cannot be held accountable, then we–as the public–lose a valuable resource in the public sphere.
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Spartak Moscow Fans Voice Their Opinion. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/spartak-moscow-fans-brand-bbc-10056759

 

 

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US World Cup Hangover: The Economics of Soccer in the United States

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The United States bowed out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup after a spirited performance against Belgium—a nation of just 11 million (or, as one humorous article put it, “a Dakota and a half”. For the record, Ohio’s population of 11,570,808 makes it the closest state in terms of population to Belgium. A “Dakota and a half” renders only around 1.5 million).

While the loss was not unexpected it was still upsetting for me as it is any time one of my countries loses in football—especially since, inexplicably, the US had a chance to win the game at the death before Chris Wondolowski—also inexplicably—managed to make a mess of his moment in front of goal. But football is, sometimes, like life. You get your one moment, and you either make the best of it . . . or you don’t. There is no real in between.

A few articles have been written in the wake of the United States’ second round exit, including a very interesting one that asks the question “Has the US Men’s National Team Plateaued?”. Personally, I would be less dramatic—after all, this is football and anything can happen. I should know. My other team, Turkey, made an improbable run to third place at the 2002 World Cup—and another to the semifinals of the 2008 European Championships with an admittedly under-talented side. Hard work coupled with heart and belief can go a long way in football (like it can in life)—just look at the Greece team that won the 2004 European Championship!

So do I think the United States will, in the next three World Cups (a twelve year cycle), have a stunning performance? Yes, I suppose I do. But I won’t ask them to compete with the likes of Brazil, Argentina, and Germany year in and year out. And that’s ok because I also—secretly—like soccer in the US to be more of an inside joke amongst those of us who truly enjoy the game for what it is, and not some marquis event for frat boys who want an excuse to slam beers at odd hours of the working day in the name of banal nationalism done ‘Muricuh style. And that inside joke would be made even sweeter if the US somehow managed to scare the world by advancing past the Quarterfinals of a World Cup. I’ve watched enough US matches on foreign soil to recognize the glee when the US concedes a goal—in the last week alone I’ve seen it in both Russia and Turkey—and I can imagine the fear of a US World Cup win.

It does not appear that soccer in the US will ever move beyond being an inside joke that becomes part of the country’s mainstream culture for just a few summer weeks once every four years (selling many Nike shirts in the meantime) before, again, retreating into hibernation. I don’t think like this because I’m negative or a non-believer in US soccer, it is mainly because I am a realist—both in International Relations theory and in terms of football. When one looks at the facts it should not come as a surprise that the United States will never be a true world power in football. At the heart of it—as in so many cases—lies economics (James Carville would be proud).

The top professional soccer league in the United States is Major League Soccer (MLS), a league that has been steadily improving since its inception in 1996 despite competing with the other major American sports for visibility, fans, and . . . athletes.

Its not hard to understand why. On April 10, 2014 MLS released their salary information and the results were shocking. The top seven salaries in MLS—those of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Defoe, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill—account for 31% of all player salaries. In fact, as Empireofsoccer.com shows, the top 5% of earners represent 45% of total player salaries. That is a huge disparity for a country that prides itself on equality (perhaps there is a psychological dimension to this as well—the economics of MLS are fundamentally un-American!).

The salaries of the aforementioned seven players have, as empireofsoccer.com stated, inflated the league’s average salary to a figure of $207,831 (up from the 2013 figure of $165,066 when the median salary was just $100,000). Still, just a cursory look at a sample of the Colorado Rapid’s salary information for the 2014 season shows some glaring examples of the issues in play. At least three Rapids players—professional athletes who face far greater risk of serious injury daily than I ever did at work—make less money than I made sitting at a desk in my old day job!

Now compare the (admittedly inflated) average salary figure of $207,831 in MLS to the average salaries in the other major US sports from two years ago, courtesy of Forbes unless cited otherwise:

 

Major League Baseball (MLB): $3.2 million in 2012, now it is just under $4 million.

National Basketball Association (NBA): $5.15 million, now it is 3,453,241 (with a median of $1,500,000—fifteen times the MLS median in 2013).

National Football League (NFL): $1.9 million

National Hockey League (NHL): $2.4 million

 

The disparity is staggering. And now lets look back at that list of the seven highest paid MLS players, for a moment. Only three of the seven—Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan—are American. And after Jurgen Klinsmann’s now legendary snubbing of Landon Donovan, only two of them made it to the United States’ World Cup squad! Clearly, what big money that does exist in MLS is certainly not going to help the development of the US Men’s National team. And that means that for your average American soccer player, the chances of making big money at home—and representing your country on the biggest stage—are very small indeed.

This in itself poses a problem for the development of the game in the US. Many talented soccer players at the youth level in the United States often play multiple sports. Soccer is either a fall or spring sport depending on where you live, so that leaves the options of American Football and Baseball in other seasons, not to mention Basketball and Hockey in the winter months. Unlike in other countries, where football is the only money-making game in town, American athletes have other options as well that may prove to be more lucrative in the long term. While it is obviously difficult to make it as a professional in any of the major US sports, the fact that there is more money—and more collegiate scholarships (Soccer has the same number of NCAA Division 1 scholarships as Swimming/Diving and Wrestling)—available in the other sports means that it is very difficult to keep the country’s best athletes playing football. This is a fact that, unfortunately, does not bode well for the hopes of developing a truly world class US Men’s National Team; it doesn’t meant that it is impossible by any means, just that it is more difficult than it is in other nations.

 

Tim Howard Does His Country Proud, But Can Only Slump Off In The End As Belgium Move On:

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2014/07/01/onsoccer/r7h11DZZUn5HsRJGqfZ0hJ/story.html

 

Champions League Fans Targeted in Nigerian Bombing: A Reminder That Security Forces Worldwide Should Be Wary of World Cup Related Violence This Summer

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Scanning the football news I came across a report of a bombing in the Nigerian city of Jos, which targeted football fans watching the UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid May 24th at a viewing party. At least three people were reported to have been killed, and the number would have been much greater if the (allegedly) suicide bomber had detonated his bomb at the correct time and place. According to Chris Olakpe, the commissioner of police for Plateau state, the bomb “exploded before the viewing centre because of pressure from local youths and the alertness of the local people”.

While Nigeria is no stranger to violence—just four days earlier, on May 20, twin car bomb explosions killed at least 118 people in Jos— this event is particularly worrying in light of the upcoming World Cup (which Nigeria will be competing in Group F along with Messi’s Argentina).

The Islamist militant group Boko Haram has been suspected in both recent attacks, and has been suspected in previous football-related violence as well. Please see this passage from the Agence France-Presse item appearing on Yahoo News:

 

Last month, suspected Boko Haram gunmen stormed a packed venue in Potiskum, northeast Yobe state, and shot dead two people showing the two Champions League quarter-final matches.

Police at the time did not directly blame Boko Haram for the attack but the group has been known for preaching against football as part of its agenda to impose strict Islamic law in northern Nigeria.

 In several video clips, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has described football and music as a Western ploy to distract Muslims from their religion.

 

It would behoove security forces in not only Nigeria but across the world to ensure that security is tight at all open viewing areas. I myself attended a viewing party in Berlin during the 2010 World Cup and can attest that the atmosphere is certainly electric—but it is also chaotic:

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Security forces the world over should be on their guard at all times. Major sporting events have always been conspicuous soft targets for attacks, but such attacks tend to occur in the home country (the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta is an example). With the World Cup being a truly global event that brings large numbers of people out to watch even in countries that did not qualify, the number of targets grows, and the festive atmosphere serves to provide cover for those with destructive plans. Just because a country is not hosting the tournament does not necessarily mean that it won’t be a target for smaller-scale attacks.

I urge football fans everywhere to keep an eye out for suspicious activities wherever you may be watching this summer, and wish you a safe and enjoyable World Cup 2016.

 

The Scene After the Car Bombing in Jos (Image Courtesy of: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/46-dead-in-suspected-boko-haram-twin-car-bomb-attack-in-jos-nigeria-9406229.html)

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A Humbling Few Days For Former Turkish Soccer Great Hakan Şükür May Portend Further Moves by the Turkish Government

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Turkey is a country where if you expect the most absurd thing to happen…it may very well occur. The latest such event happened in Istanbul’s Sancaktepe neighborhood a few days ago on April 8th. The local soccer stadium—which up until then had been named “Sancaktepe Hakan Şükür Stadium”, after the footballer who is arguably Turkey’s most famous—is now just plain old “Sancaktepe Municipal Stadium”. Workers were sent to the stadium to take down the old lettering just days after the AKP’s victory in local elections (In English and Turkish). And, in further insult to injury, two days ago—April 13th 2014—Hakan Şükür’s name was also erased from the Esenyurt municipal stadium in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district (In Turkish). Now, how did we get here?

Even casual fans of European soccer will recognize Hakan Şükür’s name—after all, he was Turkey’s marquee player in the late 1990s and early 2000s, scoring 51 goals in 112 appearances for Turkey (One of those was the fastest goal in World Cup Finals history, a strike after just 10.8 seconds against South Korea). On the club level he was Galatasaray’s talismanic striker, finishing third in the European Golden Boot competition with an astounding 38 goals in 1996. After helping Galatasaray win the UEFA cup in 2000 (the only Turkish club success in Europe) he moved to Italian giants Inter Milan for a season and a half before a few unsuccessful stints with Parma and Blackburn Rovers. He returned to Galatasaray to see out his career, winning two league titles and a cup title before retiring at the end of the 2008 season.

After retirement from football Mr. Şükür decided to try his hand in yet another game—this time it was the game of Turkish politics. On June 18, 2011 he became an MP from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party. This did not come as a surprise to his legions of fans; Mr. Şükür did not hide his piety during his playing days and some circles criticized him for creating a rift between religious players and non-religious players in the locker room during his final years at Galatasaray.

For a while this was a boon for the AKP, especially because many times people in Turkey choose to support political parties as they would a soccer team—fanatically and unquestioningly. His eminently recognizable name on the ballot no doubt helped bring in many new voters for the AKP. In the wake of the corruption scandal that rocked the AKP in December, however, Mr. Şükür chose to resign from the party on December 16, 2013 but still remain a member of parliament as an independent. It has been thought that he was under orders from the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen—Prime Minister Erdoğan’s backer-turned-enemy—who, from exile in the hills of Pennsylvania, has waged a war on the AKP by uncovering the corruption scandal through his vast network of supporters within the Turkish judiciary and domestic police force. Mr. Erdoğan responded by going on a witch-hunt of sorts, reorganizing domestic security forces and government offices in a bid to rid them of Gülenist supporters.

But the Prime Minister is now continuing his assault. In a move typical of his populist style of rule he has now taken on Mr. Şükür in the very arena he made his name in—sports. This is surely the simplest way to shame Mr. Şükür for abandoning the AKP, a well-played political move by Mr. Erdoğan which carries very little risk but could bring great reward in terms of political and social capital within Turkey. In fact, it is possible that Mr. Şükür was seen as a “soft target” following a few incidents involving him in the past weeks. After the AKP victory in the elections Mr. Şükür said that “we must respect the election results as a part of democracy”. The public responded by asking “When you left the party you were elected to you didn’t care about the public’s choices, did it just now come to your mind?” (In Turkish). Later, he was even attacked April 2nd 2014 at the funeral of a late Turkish soccer coach, where an unidentified man said “You betrayed our Prime Minister and our country!” before being dragged away (In Turkish). Such words show how closely many in Turkey identify with Mr. Erdoğan, and how they take any slights to him personally.

Mr. Şükür, for his part, seemed amused by the ridiculous nature of developments. Following the events at Sancaktepe stadium he tweeted to his 746,000 followers “Instead of having your picture on a wall, have your name heard in the world :)”. He followed this up with another tweet following the disappearance of his name at Esenyurt Stadium: “May no one forget: The most solid and final nameplate is your tombstone. And everyone lies beneath that stone not with their name, but with the account of their truth in servitude”(In Turkish). The religious underpinnings to this last tweet were, I can only assume, intentionally blatant.

Who knows what will happen in the coming days, but this much is certain—Prime Minister Erdoğan has started moving against his enemies, as he promised following his election victory when he announced that “they will pay”. Though this is a small step aimed at one former disciple, it would be fair to assume that more wide-ranging and concrete moves will be made in the coming months.

 

Note: All translations are mine.

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Hakan Şükür From Football (Image from: http://ball72.com/hakan-sukur.html) . . .

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To Politics (Image from: http://www.zaman.com.tr/_hakan-sukur-ak-partiden-istifa-etti_2184204.html)

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Workers were sent to the Sancaktepe stadium to take down the old lettering just days after the AKP’s victory in local elections (Image from: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/spor/futbol/26182417.asp)

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Esenyurt Stadium Before (Image from: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/26215754.asp) . . .

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And After (Image from: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/26215754.asp)