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Identity Politics Shape Middle Eastern and North African Soccer

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Hany Ramzy returned to Egypt from this month's London Olympics a soccer hero and a model in a country and a region in which identity politics rather national identity often governs the beautiful game.

A Coptic Christian and one-time legendary national soccer team captain in a squad whose former national coach Hassan Shehata established Muslim piety as a criterion for membership equal to skill, Mr. Ramzy, the coach of Egypt's Olympic soccer team, symbolizes what is possible as well as the immense problems Middle Eastern and North African nations have in coming to grips with their ethnic and religious minorities.

Popular uprisings in the past year in countries like Syria and Bahrain have turned sectarian as are protests in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province and the fallout of the insurgency in Syria in neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq that have sectarian or ethnic overtones. Soccer teams across the region in Iran, Israel, Iraqi Kurdistan, Egypt, Algeria, Palestine and Jordan are often as much about sports as they are about identity.

Mr. Ramzy led his team to the quarterfinals in London against the backdrop of a popular revolt that forced president Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office and 18 months of political volatility and violence. In one incident last October, 28 people, mostly Copts, were killed and 212 injured when security forces and the military attacked demonstrators protesting against the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt.

"Egypt's participation in the Olympics could not be more symbolic of the role sports plays as a means to regain national pride and social unity," said journalist Mustafa Abdelhalim in an analysis published by Common Ground that was as much about hope as it was about reality.

To be sure, Copts play in Egyptian premier league teams as do Kurds in Iraqi squads, Palestinians in Israel, Berbers in Algeria and Azeris in Iran. Mr. Ramzy is credited with Egypt's winning of the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations championship. And the Egyptian national team has no doubt abandoned its religious discrimination under its current coach, American Bob Bradley.

Yet, major teams in the region, including Traktorsazi in the Iranian province of Eastern Azerbaijan, Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem in Israel and Jeunesse Kabyle in Algeria as well as the national teams of Iraqi Kurdistan and Palestine are key tools in projecting national or sectarian identities. So are the at times violent protests of their supporters.

Mr. Ramzy, one of the few if not the only Coptic Egyptian national team player in past decades, is the exception that proves the rule in a country in which the Coptic Church has its own Copts-only soccer league believed to include hundreds of clubs and some 10,000 players. Mr. Ramzy is believed to owe his success to a significant extent to the fact that he earned prestige by being hired by various European teams, including Neuchâtel Xamax, Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern.

"In Egypt, there is a problem that many people don't even consider. This problem relates to not allowing the Copts to play in the national teams of sports, especially soccer which is the most popular game in Egypt. Marginalization of young Copts by the Football Association and the administrations of Egyptian clubs resulted in having no Coptic players in the core teams. Youth teams have very few Copts and they are laid off as soon as they reach certain age and never take the chance to promote," says Safwat Freeze Ghali, writing on the website of Copts United.

Charging that soccer discrimination against Copts encourages discrimination by Muslims and anger and hate among Copts, who account for some 10 percent of all Egyptians, Mr. Ghali speaks out of personal experience.

"I suffered from this problem with my son who was born in 1995 and has a great talent in soccer. Many people have said so after they saw him playing. My son then started in a small club, but never took a chance to play. His coach treats him so badly and his colleagues make fun of his Christian name. His coach told him: I won't let you touch the ball (play in the team) and never ask me why! We got fed up and I took him to a bigger club and they liked him very much and promised to recruit him but they never did. Then, I moved him to another club where they liked him too, but when the coach knew his name (a Christian name), he said: We'll see, later!," Mr. Ghali wrote.

Under the leadership of Hassan Shehata, a legendary pro-Mubarak coach who resigned last year after leading Egypt to three successive African titles, the unwritten rule was that only practicing Muslims could join the national team. Players prayed before games for God's intervention and offered up prayers of thanks for goals and victories. To join the team, players had to pass a religious a pious behavior litmus test alongside demonstrating their soccer skills. "Without it, we will never select any player regardless of his potential," Mr. Shehata, who dumped a talented player for visiting a nightclub rather than a mosque, was quoted as saying. "I always strive to make sure that those who wear the Egypt jersey are on good terms with God." Mr. Shehata's statements and policy sparked furor but no change.

At the time, it apparently never occurred to Mr. Sheheta that his righteous squad may have lost its critical 2010 World Cup qualifier game because God loves Algeria and its team too. It seemingly also never occurred to world soccer body FIFA to stop a dangerous trend in its tracks. Imagine what would happen if other national teams had follow Egypt's example; if England had insisted that its players worship in the Church of England; Italy made Catholicism the team's central tenet; Germany booted all Turkish Muslims off the field; Japan played only Buddhists; and Israel declared itself a Jewish team for a Jewish state and exiled its Arab players. Not to speak of the limitations it would put on recruiting top players.

"In June 2012 London's Wembley Stadium was the site of a 'faith and football' day that united students from Muslim, Christian and Jewish schools. This event was planned by the Three Faiths Forum (3FF), a UK-based organization dedicated to building relationships between people of all faiths, and the UK Football Association, which officially oversees the sport in the country. Egyptians could replicate this example by creating nationwide leagues to promote intergroup and interfaith cooperation. These teams could include anyone who wants to participate in the sport and make Egyptians' shared interest in sports a tool for a more inclusive society," suggests Mr. Abdelhalim.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.