For football fans in Jordan, both plays and politics battle on the field

Story by Kimberly Russell // Photo by Katie Kriz

AMMAN, Jordan – Last December, Al-Wihdat, one of the two most popular professional football teams in Jordan, defeated Al-Faisali, another top team, in an exciting 1-0 match.

But instead of remembering the contest for what happened on the field, the game has become infamous for the riots that broke out, resulting in more than 200 injuries and an estimated 12 deaths.

“The pictures in the [news] showed how bad it really was. A lot of blood,” said Emad Abwini, 22, a rabid football fan in Amman who supports the Al-Faisali team. He went on to say, “We didn’t realize how many people were hurt at the time. It was madness.”

Football matches have always been notorious for offering Jordanians, typically hesitant to speak out politically, an outlet for their views. This is especially true for the warring Al-Wihdat, a Palestinian club founded in a refugee camp, and Al-Faisali, which is mostly made up of native Jordanians.

Muhammed Ramadan in his downtown Amman sports shop on the sometimes combustible rivalry between the two teams: "I want to say that everyone’s going to get along in the future, but I just don’t see that happening."

That changed in 2009, however, when King Abdullah demanded the fierce rivalry be peaceful after his wife, Queen Rania, a Palestinian, was mocked by fans of the Al-Faisali team. The games remained relatively calm after that until the Dec. 10 match when tensions reignited.

During that game in King Abdullah Stadium, fans exchanged bigoted verbal insults and violence broke out afterward as Al-Wihdat began celebrating its win.

In the Jordanian football clubs, there is a tradition allowing fans of the winning team to remain at the site of the game for a half-hour to celebrate, explained Muhammud Ramadan, 24, manager of a sports store in downtown Amman that supplies both teams with their official jerseys. Ramadan attends every game, and was at the December match to watch the events unfold.

“[A few] Al-Faisali fans outside of the stadium threw rocks at Al-Wihdat fans, and the police got involved,” said Ramadan.

He explained that the stadium police attempted to physically force Al-Wihdat fans out. As a result, people fled. Some were trampled in the chaos.

Fans of both teams acknowledged the physical fights that took place were sparked by the Al-Faisali rock-throwers, but most blame the stadium’s security personnel for the high number of reported injuries. Both Ramadan and Whalid Al-Torque, a fan of Al-Faisali who was also at the game, said most fans are respectful of one another.

“The other team is good, I respect them,” said Al-Torque through a translator as he was shopping at Amman’s downtown open market. “But we were disappointed that we lost. Some of our fans threw rocks at the other team’s fans, but that was only a few people. It was more the police who made trouble, and it makes us look bad.”

Loyalties run deep for most football fans in Jordan, and often span many generations. But the stakes are particularly high with these two teams because the fans see them as an extension of their homeland. Abwini, for example, began playing football in his early childhood and credits the sport with helping him network socially, stay in shape and spend time with family. But he follows Al-Faisali because his father and brother are both loyal Al-Faisali fans, and because he is proud of his pure Jordanian roots.

Anas Salman, an employee at the Reebok store in the massive City Mall in Amman, grew up a fan of Al-Wihdat due to his family heritage. “My grandfather was from Palestine. The street we live on has many like that. We watch games together, we are all Al-Wihdat fans,” said Salman through a translator.

“The problem is we [Al-Faisali] think we’re better because we are the original Jordanians,” said Usama Abu Safe, a fan of Al-Faisali because of his family’s long lineage of Jordanian descent. “Al-Wihdat has a fan base that is primarily [supported] by the Palestinian refugee camps that came over to Jordan after we were already here,” he said through a translator.

Both Al-Faisali and Al-Wihdat fans believe that the football field is the place where political differences are most apparent in Jordanian culture because speaking out against the government otherwise is generally forbidden.

“Here, we can’t talk about it, so people show it by wearing scarves of their country’s color and chanting at football games,” said Ramadan of the blacked-checked scarves people of Palestinian descent wear, as opposed to the red-checked scarves worn by “Jordanian Jordanians,” as they’re often called. “It’s a high competition environment,” he continued, “and people make it about something else.”

The use of the stadium as a place to voice political views has ruined the game of football for some. As a result of the fights, many fans refuse to attend games for fear of injury and attendance has decreased. After the trouble on Dec. 10, the coach of Al-Wihdat even threatened to pull his team out of the championship it had been expected to win.

Ramadan, who spends time with members of both teams, described the sadness the players endured after the fights. Many, he said, were angered by the inappropriate behaviors of their fans and the police.

“The players on both teams are friends with each other, they respect each other. There’s not the same anger on the field that was seen in the stadium. A lot of the players, especially on the Al-Faisali team, tried to stop the police. One of the players on Al-Faisali, [of Palestinian descent] watched his brother, [an Al-Wihdat fan] get trampled by the police. He was hospitalized,” he said.

Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, president of the Jordan Football Association, has stepped in to call for unity among the players. With the help of King Abdullah II, the association has created stricter policies for spectators, charging abusive fans fees when they lash out against the opposing team. The intervention has helped reassure the population, but many say they believe it’s just a matter of time before the violence erupts again.

“I want to say that everyone’s going to get along in the future, but I just don’t see that happening,” said Ramadan. “High competition can make people crazy.”


About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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