Faris Awad’s ecstatic poem celebrating Sergio Augero’s last minute title-winning goal for Manchester City in 2012 was composed on the spot. Forgive me, but there is no way in print, but by typological feint, to render the cadences and intensity of Awad’s brilliant commentary for Al-Jazzera. Don't take my word for it though, listen for yourself. Or like the rest of the arabic speaking football world tune in to the urbane but emotional Tunisian Issam Chawali, a graduate in French literature who peppers his work with cinematic and literary references and has become the leading commentator of the era; not least as the arabic voice on the FIFA video game series. His high intensity, percussive account of Lionel Messi’s two goals against Bayern Munchen in the semi-final of the Champions’ League in 2015 was the verbal equivalent of craquage - the simultaneous detonation of flares and fireworks beloved of North Africa’s ultras. Not that anyone should be surprised that Arabic should prove such a poetic medium in which to express the meanings of football or that its public should be so receptive to its rhythms: the language has a rich literary tradition of exaggeration and hyperbole, of tall tales that can render the every day epic and that remains a demotic, popular appeal; on the occasion of Palestine’s first international game actually played in Palestine the announcer began with the words the nation’s greatest poet Mahmoud Darkish - Palestine will make the earth tremble! “Football is more noble than war!” - and then read a series of his verses to the crowd before play commenced.
Both Awad and Chawali have become instantly recognisable across the Arabic-speaking world on the satellite channels that show football to a huge and growing audience. At home, in tea houses and coffee shops, from Fez to Basra, the public appetite is insatiable. In 2016, when the European Championships coincided with Ramadan and kick-off times coincided with Itfar - the meal that breaks the daily fast - football, for the first time, displaced soap operas as the public’s choice of after dinner relaxation. In many of the region’s cities life stops for El Classico - the derby game between Real Madrid and Barcelona. In Erbil, in Kurdish Iraq, the television schedules are cleared for hours in the build-up to the game. Afterwards the winning sides’ fans parade loudly through the night in a motorised cavalcade of flags and horns. In Gaza, Palestinians defied Hamas’ order not to watch the game and tuned in their hundreds of thousands. On match day the Qalandai Israeli military checkpoint by Ramallah is a sea of fake Barca shirts for sale. If Barcelona have the edge in the West Bank, Real are kings in Morocco, where local fans unveiled a banner at a World Club Cup game in 2000, “Welcome to your second home.” Real have reciprocated the love in the region by agreeing to remove the Christian cross from their club crest when they are in town. Barcelona fans have beamed back they own message to the Kurds with the banner, “Catalonia is not Spain, Kurdistan is not Iraq.”
This embrace of European football should not be read a simple form of neo-colonialism. The peoples of this region have long proved resistant and flexible enough to absorb and domesticate rather than merely mimic their temporary imperial overlords. Thus football, the game of the European coloniser was - in North Africa and the Levant particularly - quickly embraced and then deployed as both a symbolic challenge to imperial rule, and as practical tool of organisation and political self-education. In Egypt, Al-Ahly has always understood itself as the representative of the nation. In Algeria, football clubs served as clandestine cells for the growing nationalist movement, while matches against French settler sides the perfect opportunity to challenge their rule. In the later stages of the War of independence, the FLN would actually establish their own Algerian national team-in-waiting touring the world to drum up support for the cause. The Arabic language has taken on and domesticated nearly all the english terminology it inherited in the early twentieth century; converting penalty and its impossible ‘p’ in arabic, for example, to Darbat ul Jazaa. On the other hand, the language has remained open enough to widely employ the best of english football idioms; a player awarded a harsh yellow card for a fifty-fifty challenge is, in both Doha and Rabat, “more sinned against then sinning.” The arrival of a clutch of arabic speaking players in the English Premier League same saw coach loads of fans make the journey north; both to Hull City whose anglo-Egyptian owner brought in three Egyptian players, and to Wigan Athletic whose Omani goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi was a cult figure across the region. In this light, the Middle East’s love of both poetry and european football suggest a civilisation that is complex, playful, in parts refined, connected and cosmopolitan; all a welcome antidote to the stereotypes of closed and xenophobic islamic republics and malign jihadi networks.