Jordan football rivalry turns ugly
The question of the Jordanian police officer at Gate 3 of the King Hussein Sports complex was very clear.
“Are you with Wihdat or Faisali?”
“Neither”, I answered, “I am a journalist, we must be neutral.”
The officer did not want any of this and asked me again which of the competing sports clubs I supported.
I showed him my ticket and he sent me to Gate 10.
I soon realised why he was asking the question. The stadium was divided 75 per cent for the fans of the home team, which happened to be Faisali and 25 per cent for Wihdat’ fans.
My first class ticket was therefore part of the general home team section.
The weather was beautiful and it was a nice day for a football game. But Jordan’s decades old rivalry was not.
To be fair, things started off well. The head of the Faisali team, ageing Sheikh Sultan Adwan, came with his entourage and was pleasantly greeted by MP Tareq Khoury, the head of the Wihdat club, which bears the name of one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps and whose supporters tend to be Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
Just before the game began, the players, each holding the hand of a child, came out for the traditional photo display.
The Faisali team rolled out a large sign stating that the team’s fan club says “No to intolerance”.
So, with plenty of security, team leaders shaking hands and the fan club’s publicly disavowing acts or words that reflect intolerance, I expected that this long and nasty rivalry will not spill out on the pitch or anywhere else.
Boy, was I wrong.
It was five minutes into the game when the Wihdat team won a corner kick. One of its players took the ball and was about to kick it when full plastic bottles started to be thrown at him from the Faisali club fan area.
It took about five minutes for the bottle attack to stop despite the pleading of some of the Faisali players.
Disruptive acts by Faisali fans would take place a few more times.
In turn, the Wihdat fans, not wanting to be seen weak, also threw some bottles when a Faisali player had a throw-in close to them.
Again it was the players pleading with the fans that stopped the act.
The bottle throwing continued throughout the game, mostly by the Faisali fans.
Wihdat players would often kick the ball quickly to avoid the bottles, but the action was clearly intimidating to the players.
Before the end of the first half, bottles again were thrown by Faisali fans and the players stopped awaiting a resolution.
With a minute left in the regulation time, the referees who were flown from the United Arab Emirates to ensure neutrality, whistled the end of the first half. The game was tied 1-1.
No change occurred in the second half. Bottle throwing continued, mostly from Faisali fans, but also some from Wihdat.
With a few minutes remaining, a civilian official was telling, over the walkie talkie, which side should leave first once the game was over.
The security personnel like to allow the fans of the losing team to leave first. But when it is a tie, it is not clear.
In the end, it was agreed to let the Wihdat fans leave first. But that was no longer necessary. Five minutes before the end of the game Faisali scored the winning goal. The game ended 2-1.
Yet despite the fact that their team won the game, the Faisali fans acted rowdily in the stands and poured onto the pitch.
The security personnel did not or could not stop them.
The following day the Wihdat team issued a statement accusing the Jordanian security of being biased and not taking action against the Faisali fans, while preventing many Wihdat fans from even entering the stadium, which left a section of the stadium empty.
They stated that the bottle-throwing incidents affected the morale of the team who were afraid of getting hurt, thus having to rush throws to avoid the bottles.
Football around the world thrives on rivalries and Jordan is no exception.
But the inability to separate healthy and normal rivalries from destructive and abusive fans is not something that should be tolerated.
In the past, abusive and racist slogans used to be chanted by competing teams.
The Jordan Football Association issued financial penalties now to both teams, and that will be the end of their intervention.
Football hooliganism is not new, nor is it easily controlled.
Reform of the game and of the various clubs is badly needed.
Clubs are acting as closed shops and not allowing new members to join them.
The association must act decisively in instituting much deeper reform, both at club level, allowing for diversity of members, and at the level of the league as a whole.
Jordan which successfully hosted the Under 17 World Cup games and is poised to host a number of other international games, must do more to stop abuse and intolerance once and for all.
At the Wihdat-Faisali game, there were few female fans despite the fact that women are integrated very nicely in the game.
With the intolerance and violence, it is clear why women fans choose to stay away.
Football is a beautiful game and should be watched by all people without worry about harassment, intimidation or violence.
The fight in Jordan against violent extremism certainly requires the country to begin this struggle in the football field.