Jordan Pulse

Jordanian soccer teams’ ugly rivalry reveals deeper divide

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Article Summary
Al-Wehdat and Al-Faisaly teams' long-standing wrath displays ethnic divisions in Jordan.

AMMAN, Jordan — The decadeslong fight between Jordan’s soccer enemies Al-Wehdat and Al-Faisaly flared up again in June when the Jordan Football Association imposed fines on the two clubs and closed their games to the public.

The association’s disciplinary committee decided in early June, in accordance with Article 83 of the association’s disciplinary code, to play their games without spectators because of the discriminatory slogans and insults used by the two teams’ supporters on various occasions.

The decision of the association follows the two teams’ 60-year rivalry, which often included mutual mudslinging and slogans filled with ethnic insults that often dragged in the Jordanian royal family. The rivalry feeds on the ethnical differences of the fans of both teams: Jordanians of Palestinian origin mostly support Al-Wehdat, while East Bank Jordanians support Al-Faisaly.

During the Jordanian Pro League game on Dec. 16, 2016, the divide could not have been more clear when supporters of the two teams went head to head chanting. Al-Faisaly fans chanted in Arabic, “We are the country’s dignitaries,” while Al-Wehdat fans responded with the chant, “We are the uncles of the boy” — a reference to the fact that then-Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah II is of Palestinian origin (his mother Queen Rania al-Abdullah is Palestinian).

The older of the two teams, Al-Faisaly, was founded in Amman by Mustafa al-Kurdi in 1932. Taking its name from King Faisal, it was called Al-Faisaly Scout Club until 1941. The Adwan tribe, which is a large Jordanian tribe, assumed the chairmanship of the club in 1987. 

Al-Wehdat club takes its name from Al-Wehdat refugee camp (Amman New Camp) where it was founded in 1956. The club, which was founded by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), has been affiliated with Jordan’s Ministry of Sport and Youth since 1966.

The divide between Al-Faisaly and Al-Wehdat hides an even bigger schism over identity and belonging within Jordanian society. A cable by the US Embassy in Amman in December 2010, which was made public by WikiLeaks, said that the game between the two teams in July 2010 had “exposed the growing rift between East Bankers and Palestinians in Jordan.” In this game, Al-Faisaly supporters chanted about the Palestinian origins of Queen Rania with the cheer, "Divorce her, you father of Hussein, and we'll marry you to two of ours."

According to Amjad al-Majali, the Jordan Football Association media consultant, the decision of the Jordan Football Association came after the teams' fans had violated the association’s code many times. Majali told Al-Monitor that the violations included verbal abuse of players, throwing items to the players and onto the field, destroying the property of the stadium where the Dec. 16 game was played and hooliganism.

Hatem Zaza, a sports reporter for Arabic Sport 360, told Al-Monitor that the association’s attempts “have been fruitless,” as the association has no power to take judicial action against those who have used discriminatory, racist or religiously offensive slogans — that would have to come from the Jordanian judiciary. He also pointed out that the offensive chants were mostly reciprocal, not the fault of one side, and that the sides often provoked each other.

The June 11 judicial action was issued after the prosecutor of the Jordanian State Security Court initiated a case against the six members of Al-Wehdat's general assembly, including a member who is also a member of the board on charges of insulting the Jordanian monarch and other Arab leaders.

The reason for this charge was a screening by the club’s cultural committee showing photos of Arab leaders, including the Jordanian monarch, late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and others. The video consists of a slide show with photos playing the song “Ya Jheish” ("You Imbeciles") in the background. The video was also posted on Facebook by fans.

In May, another video posted on social media, this time by Al-Faisaly, ignited wide controversy. The video showed Al-Faisaly fans chanting a slogan in Arabic, “In spirit and blood we will defend Israel.” The club's administration said that the video was fabricated.

The slogans also referenced Palestinian traditional foods. Bassem Fathi, a football player for Al-Wehdat, raised a bunch of Corchorus during the final game of the 2014 Al-Manaseer Jordan Pro League, which Al-Wehdat won. The fans of Al-Wehdat named the league “the Corchorus league,” in response to a previous Arabic slogan chanted by Al-Faisaly: “If you expect Al-Wehdat to win the league, you’ll have to wait for McDonald’s to make Corchorus” — referring to the traditional Palestinian dishes of soups or stews prepared with Corchorus.

“These slogans have nothing to do with sports. They show political dimensions related to identity and reflect a social division that causes a tense atmosphere. There is a social rift that may not be apparent under normal circumstances,” Mohammed al-Husseini, the director of the Identity Center, told Al-Monitor, referring to the controversy caused by the number of Jordanians of Palestinian origin who came to Jordan following the wars in 1948 and 1967. Palestinians obtaining Jordanian citizenship is a controversial issue in Jordan.

Ataf Rawdan, a journalist for the Community Media Network, told Al-Monitor, “The slogans on the Jordanian fields are not mere sports slogans. Rather, they represent the origin of the two key components of the Jordanian society, namely Palestinians and East Bankers.”

She said that Palestinians who have acquired Jordanian nationality still feel discriminated against and, consequently, do not have the same sense of belonging toward Jordan. “They look at alternatives to express their feelings and sense of belonging,” she said.

She added that the politicians play on the issues of division and identity. They associate themselves with one of the clubs to gain leverage on certain policies or foreign policy issues. Or when soccer players start supporting politicians in public this can carry them to power, as was the case with former Chairman of Al-Wehdat Tareq Khoury, a successful businessman whose spotlight as the president of Al-Wehdat team gave him leverage into a political career; he was elected to the Lower House of Parliament in 2007.

Both clubs’ administrations maintain that the offensive slogans are made by a small percentage of their fans. “[The supporters who behave badly] represent a small segment of the public, not exceeding 30 persons out of 20,000 fans,” Tamer Adwan, the managing director of Al-Faisaly, told Al-Monitor.

Ali Khalifa, the vice president of Al-Wehdat, shares the same stance. He told Al-Monitor, “The fan club cannot control the slogans during the games when some sing out of tune.”

However, the two rivals also share moments of solidarity. The fan club of Al-Faisaly raised a banner that read, “Salt water,” in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners, in a game played in April against Al-Baqa'a club.

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Found in: football, jordanian society, citizenship, discrimination, palestinians in jordan, identity, soccer

Mohammad Ersan is editor in chief of Ammannet.net and Radio al-Balad. He also reports for Arabi21 from Jordan, trains future broadcast journalists at regional symposia and has contributed to establishing independent broadcast stations in Istanbul and Syria. Ersan focuses on covering Islamist groups and political parties. He completed his bachelor's degree in journalism and media with a minor in political science at Yarmouk University.

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