THE question seemed inevitable as the applause panned to Asia and Africa at the football fest in Qatar: why don’t India and Pakistan play quality football? They excel in hockey, or at least used to. The sport, not unlike football, requires an incredible amount of stamina to run with the ball while tackling opponents en route at high speeds. Or maybe they were not fast enough, as Europe’s entry into the sport revealed, ending South Asia’s hegemony over hockey.
Considering that the best runners in their favourite pastime of cricket can go out of breath making the mere three or, on rare occasions, four runs of 22 yards each, chances are that Indians and Pakistanis, and with them the rest of South Asia, may not have the legs and the lungs for football. This would probably have less to do with the physique per se, as the Japanese and Korean squads revealed with their ability to outrun the opponent.
Does it then boil down to nutrition, since both countries fare poorly on the hunger index? South Asia, with the world’s highest hunger level, has the highest child stunting rate and by far the highest child-wasting rate in the world. Afghanistan is the only country behind India in the region.
Perhaps P.T. Usha or Shiny Abraham, who’ve won prizes as big-time runners for India, would have a truer answer.
But we’re posing the wrong problem. In fact, it was a relief that India and Pakistan were nowhere near the World Cup in Doha. Imagine the needless hostilities they express in cricket being carried to the already mired field of football. Countries have gone to war over football matches, a fate that has mercifully eluded the South Asian cricket rivals.
Countries have gone to war over football matches, a fate that has mercifully eluded the South Asian cricket rivals.
Today’s narrow-minded, nationalist India may not wish to play cricket in Pakistan and also bar Pakistani players from its domestic cricket circuit to pander to Delhi’s domestic politics. That’s kindergarten stuff given the political animus that lurks around the football fields.
There is, of course, the familiar story of the brief war that broke out between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969, ostensibly over a football match. The 100-hour ‘football war’ ended with a negotiated ceasefire arranged by influential Latin American countries.
It’s not as widely known that football rivalries between the Gulf states erupted into a military threat between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It’s nearly impossible to find any reference to the stand-off on the search engines today, though the flare-up nearly broke up the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members both countries are. Then GCC secretary-general Abdullah Bishara had to run between several Gulf capitals seeking help for a peaceful conclusion.
Matters came to a head when a routine GCC football contest in Saudi Arabia found a Kuwaiti delegation mocking the hosts with images of a white horse, apparently a reference to Turkey’s occupation of Hejaz, the name by which a part of the current Saudi Arabia was then known. Kuwait represented old money, having discovered the black gold ahead of its neighbours. Saudi Arabia was only beginning to grow in stature for the West after the fall of the Shah in Iran in 1979. There was speculation that Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait would not have riled Riyadh had it not feared a similar fate for itself.
Another, possibly far more consequential football feud is raging between Saudi Arabia and Morocco ever since Riyadh opposed Rabat’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup. Saudi Arabia was miffed also by Qatar’s successful bid, but it went out of its way to stall Morocco’s quest, thus enabling the trio of Canada, US and Mexico to become joint hosts of the next World Cup.
India and Pakistan often take it out on each other by publishing their maps of Kashmir to rile the quarry. Saudi Arabia delivered pretty much a similar insult to Morocco, by showing the Western Saharawi Republic (Polisario) as a separate state, a claim that Rabat contests.
The blow hot, blow cold relationship has manifested in Morocco’s withdrawal from the Saudi-led war on Yemen. Riyadh responded by cancelling the Saudi king’s visit to Morocco, where he would otherwise spend his summer holidays lavishly indulging his friendship with the Maghreb.
Rabat had refused to back Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman too, who was in need of support from fellow Arab countries over the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
The die had been cast in Moscow in 2018 where Morocco bid for the 2026 World Cup and Saudi Arabia opposed it. The fact that the as yet unbeaten Moroccan team displayed the Palestinian flag at a packed stadium in Doha is clearly part of the joust between two powerful and ideologically opposed Muslim nations.
I witnessed the Arab League summit in Fez in 1981, where Morocco unveiled the Fahd Plan for the first time, which advocated the recognition of Israel to go with a separate Palestinian state. Morocco’s King Hasan was himself elected as the head of the Quds Committee to ensure that Jerusalem remained part of Palestine. A lot of water has flown under the bridge since.
The Saudi camp has befriended Israel with no sign of a state for Palestine on the horizon. The Moroccan team was mocking the breach of this promise. Here, even Qatar, which has kept close to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hamas, finds itself on the ideological end that’s more sympathetic to the cause of Palestinian sovereignty. Qatar supports the Palestinian quest to excel in football.
Regardless of where India or Pakistan find themselves in the league of major football playing nations, even Palestine has not allowed its troubled existence to interfere with its passion for football. As a member of FIFA, it may be primed to spring a surprise anytime, as Morocco has done in Qatar.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, December 13th, 2022