Celebrations rocked Gaza and the West Bank when Muhammad ‘Assaf, who grew up in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, won the region-wide singing competition known as “Arab Idol.” But spontaneous street parties also broke out in many other parts of the Arab world, including in neighborhoods across Jordan. ‘Assaf, the first Palestinian ever to win the popular televised contest, is now a national icon, far more popular than Mahmoud ‘Abbas of Fatah or Isma‘il Haniyya and Khalid Mash‘al of Hamas, and a beloved celebrity across the Arab world. At one level, “Arab Idol” is just a TV show, just a piece of trivia. But at another level, ‘Assaf’s victory demonstrated the power of pop culture to unify, at least temporarily.

Jordanians, too, celebrated the ‘Assaf moment — and not just those of Palestinian background. For some Jordanians, it echoed a moment of national pride in the same competition ten years earlier. In 2003, Diana Karazon became the first Jordanian to win “Arab Idol.” More Jordanians voted for her (via cell phone) than in the country’s parliamentary elections that same year.

Unlike many of its neighbors during the “Arab spring,” Jordan has yet to experience revolution, civil war or anything like it. There has been considerable social mobilization, to be sure, including demonstrations almost every Friday for more than two years. While there are clearly divisions between government and opposition, there are also divisions within the opposition itself.

Islamists, leftists, pan-Arab nationalists and youth-led popular movements have tried on many occasions to join forces — including within organizations such as the National Front for Reform. But they have frequently been thwarted by divisive tactics old and new. These tactics include what is euphemistically referred to as “regional” politics, boiling down to emphasis on Palestinian Jordanians as opposed to “Jordanian” Jordanians, West versus East Bankers. For most Jordanians, from grassroots activists to the king and queen themselves, this line of division is outdated and cynical. Jordan is, after all, made up of both of these communities and more. It includes Christians as well as Muslims, and Circassians as well as Arabs. Still, conservative and ultra-nationalist elements continually invoke West and East as a kind of ethnic trump card that too often works as planned.

Similarly, Jordanians of all backgrounds have been disturbed by accounts of inter-tribal violence, especially on university campuses. As in all societies, the dividing lines in Jordan shift depending on the topic of debate — between groups that see themselves as “loyalist” and “opposition,” secular and religious, left and right, inter- or intra-tribal, and, importantly, rich and poor.

It is easy, though, to get lost in the weeds and forget the many sources of unity. Jordanians remain proud of being Jordanian. And that pride comes through in many ways, including via pop culture.

In some ways, the most riveting national moments of the summer of 2013 have come on the soccer pitch (hereafter, football, in keeping with global usage). Indeed, these moments were so electrifying that they cut through, at least temporarily, the many conventionally political debates in Parliament and outside.

In early June, the national women’s team, affectionately known as the Nashmiyyat (“the brave”), was in a tough spot in the qualifying rounds for the Asia Football Cup. The Nashmiyyat had beaten Lebanon, but with two games remaining, they would have to defeat both Uzbekistan and Kuwait, and do so by a combined 18 goals (since goal differentials counted as tiebreakers to advance from the group). In a sport where a single goal can determine the World Cup, it seemed a ludicrous task. But the Nashmiyyat responded not only by winning both matches, but also by posting scores of 4-0 over Uzbekistan and a resounding 21-0 over Kuwait, to take a Jordanian squad to the Asia Cup final for the first time ever.

A week later, the national men’s team, the Nashama, having lost a key match to Australia, faced a similar hurdle: They had to defeat Oman in order to remain in contention for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In a closely fought battle, the Nashama won 1-0, with the single goal bringing the crowd to a deafening roar in Amman’s King ‘Abdallah Stadium. For the even larger audience watching on television, one announcer shrieked euphorically that the Nashama had just brought life to the Dead Sea.

The men’s and women’s football teams have each experienced a notable resurgence — and brought a nation along for the ride. In a region boiling with ethnic, religious and sectarian tensions, both teams represent cross-sections of Jordanian society (which, in turn, is far more diverse than is generally known). The players hailed from Palestinian and East Jordanian backgrounds, and they included Muslims and Christians. Prince ‘Ali bin Hussein, president of the Jordan Football Association and FIFA Vice President for all of Asia, seemed to have staked his stewardship of national and Asian football on a single core idea: inclusion. In Jordan, the efforts have paid off. The prince and his staff have made sure that support for youth football is felt from swanky West Amman neighborhoods to the dirt pitch in the Zaatari refugee camp (including skills training, coaching and free balls) — in addition to helping rejuvenate the men’s and women’s national teams.

And in June — despite difficult economic conditions, intense debates over reform and the danger of spillover from the Syrian war — the Nashama and Nashmiyyat, regardless of background, were the unquestioned favorite sons and daughters of all Jordanians.

How to cite this article:

Curtis Ryan "Football Matters in Jordan," Middle East Report Online, June 24, 2013.

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