The beautiful game is back: Nations reclaim their names

On colonialism, the nation-state and the World Cup.

Soccer Iran- Morocco
Supporters of Iran celebrate while watching the match between Iran and Morocco in a fan zone in Moscow, Russia on June 15, 2018 [Gleb Garanich/Reuters]

When you hear the words “Saudi Arabia” do you think of its ruling family, its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, its bombing Yemen into epidemic cholera – or do you think of 32 million human beings as full of fears and aspirations as any other nation, wishing they could drive, men and women, out of any claim the ruling clan has over them? 

What about Iran? When you hear the word “Iran” do you think of a recalcitrant Shia theocracy spreading itself too thin in the world around it or do you think of almost 80 million human beings who call themselves “Iranians” and trace their culture and civilisation to prehistory and wish to lend that history to a peaceful coexistence with their neighbours?  

Every four years, when the World Cup kicks off, we have a chance to think of nations, their ideals, their aspirations, their peoplehood rather than the criminal atrocities that their ruling states commit in their names. 

And this year is no different. As the World Cup started in Russia earlier this month, nations reclaimed the names of their homeland, wresting them from the organised violence of the states that rule over them.

The nuisance of the ruling regimes 

What’s the use of such speculative observations, you may object, and who has the heart or the presence of the mind when the unsurpassed savagery of Trump administration is kidnapping children from their parents at US borders to watch or care how poor Moroccan Aziz Bouhaddouz’s dramatic own goal in added time secured a second ever Iranian World Cup win?

But, as you well know, if you have been following this column, there is more to football than meets the eye.


In the World Cup, our entire humanity gathers for a reassessment of who and what we are. Every time two national teams meet, we don’t think what we have become, but what could have been. That nations have a priority of claim on their names over their states becomes particularly pronounced at that moment. 

This, of course, does not mean that the states do not rush to embrace and own the global spectacle. Russian President Vladimir Putin sat there right next to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the opening game of Russia vs Saudi Arabia. The Saudis lost 5-0. But that score was not a credit to Putin or a loss to bin Salman. 

Yet, in both countries, there have been efforts to appropriate football as a state affair. In Russia, just before the opening match, parliamentarians proposed a fine for anyone who dared “insult” the Russian national team. In Saudi Arabia, right after the match, Turki al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi Arabia’s sports authority, rushed to personally apologise to the crown prince for the loss. 

Even worse and more vulgar was the Islamic Republic insistence on an “IR” to be placed right in front of “Iran” in all official FIFA timetables and announcements. 

The ruling theocracy is so fully aware, so completely conscious, that they are an unwanted appendix to the nation that they desperately need to shove an “IR” in front of the name of the country. That “IR” stands out like two sore thumbs against the solid presence of “Iran”. Iran is the nation, IR is the state rushing to place itself in front of the nation as the world watches. They don’t belong there.  

So, which one has the rightful claim on the name of the country: the actual nation or the fictive state? The choice is a false choice. The true culprit is the flawed category of “the nation-state” – a colonial invention to control the postcolonial fate of restless nations.

The case of “Saudi Arabia” and “the Islamic Republic of Iran” are the most notorious examples of how the ruling regimes shove their systemic violence down the throat of the nation they have violently appropriated for themselves. 

World Cup and the nasty legacy of European colonialism 

When the Israelis invited the Argentinian national team led by Lionel Messi, to go to their settler colony and play in the stolen Jerusalem, the Argentinians refused, leaving the garrison state to deal with a PR disaster. You cannot steal a homeland, dominate its people and then get to invite a global champion to play in occupied Palestine under your flag.  

That little incident brings us to the historical link between football and colonialism. “Why is Morocco abbreviated MAR at the World Cup?” someone recently asked in a pointed piece, and rightly and immediately responded: colonialism had something to do with it. 

The link between football and colonialism, however, is much more serious than a mere name of a county in its French, English, Arabic, or Amazigh gestations. “The World Cup,” I proposed back in 2014 on a similar occasion, “is a drama in which the actors, the spectacle, and the spectators – present and absent – around the globe are all, in one passing moment, part of fair, free, and common play. We become the world in one act of universal ritual that overwhelms and overshadows all the major world religions.” 

That universal ritual is rooted in the pain, power and legacy of colonialism – of which the Israeli occupation of Palestine is today a potent reminder. 

Although the origin of its modern codifications and regulations goes back to rich British public (private) schools, football has a solid history of mobilisation across the globe of national sentiments against both colonialism and domestic tyranny.

“For many former British colonies,” notes Patrick Hutchison in a piece he wrote back in 2009, “sport has a history of serving the colonised people in resisting British rule. Often, it was used by the colonisers to foster a sense of discipline and hard work, but mostly it was meant to help control. However, this control was often flipped on its head and used against the colonizer.” 

Football games as sites of confrontation between the coloniser and the colonised is at the roots of its being a site of contestation between the postcolonial nation and the states that lay false claim on them. 

“Football,” Hutchison tells us, “was the most popular sport in the empire and it often unified the colonized across economic and social classes. Once adopted, football matches would be opportunities for indigenous people to resist.” 

That resistance has today shifted from colonial powers to the legacy of state violence they have left behind. Try as they may to appropriate, finance and abuse football to lend legitimacy to themselves, the actual game and its regional and global spectacle are, in fact, public occasions to challenge the ruling states and their organised violence. 

At least one reason women are denied into football stadiums in Iran is the fact that they are integral to turning post-game jubilations into a spectacle of political protest. The prominent Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006) is a brilliant allusion to this fact.

When Iran played Spain on June 20, Iranian women demanded and exacted from their gender apartheid ruling state to attend Azadi (Freedom) Stadium and watch the game like any other Iranian.

There is an unanticipated consequence to the manner in which football was initially regulated. Citing Laura Fair’s article “Kickin’ It: Leisure, Politics and Football in Colonial Zanzibar, 1900s-1950s,” Hutchison writes: “Although the British wrote and administered the rules of play, they exercised very little influence over how teams were organized in the neighbourhoods or the meanings which men attributed to the game within their own lives.”

The same is true today. As the beautiful game comes up on billions of TV sets across the globe, people rush to reclaim their nations from the violence of their states.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.