The Qatar World Cup and the New Islamic Approach to Football in the Middle East

Dag Tuastad, University of Oslo


Sports spectatorship in the Middle East is among the most politicized in the world. Where arenas for political participation are few, football matches represent a rare alternative in which political messages can be publicly expressed. Moreover, in conservative religious societies, football represents a rare occasion, especially for youth, to break free from the disciplined power structures of daily life.[1] For some religious conservatives, however, when people go to have fun at the football stadium rather than the mosque to pray, this potentially threatens the moral order prescribed by religious authorities.[2] This is why a number of Islamic religious leaders in the Middle East have continued to denounce football.[3]

In 2011, the Arab Spring brought substantial changes to the region. The massive political energy of youth released during the uprisings forced political leaders to reconsider their relation to their young populations. This included some religious authorities softening their antifootball attitude.[4] In parallel, in 2010, Qatar’s winning bid to host the FIFA World Cup encouraged some religious conservatives to adapt to football.[5]

In this study, I examine how four of the most influential Islamic lodestars in the region—two Islamic theocracies (Iran and Saudi Arabia) and two Islamic movements (the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah)—relate to football. The cases are selected based on their leading roles within Shi‘a and Sunni Islamic discourse and politics.[6]

I argue that a substantial change in the attitudes of many religious conservatives, amounting to a cultural revolution, has taken place in the region. Many previous claims regarding football—for instance, as a source of Western toxification of the Muslim community—have been revised. Instead, football has been appropriated, even Islamized, and adjusted to Islamic norms and values as a sport and spectator culture.

Saudi Arabia’s Cultural Revolution

In the mid-2000s, as Saudi Arabia came under pressure from al-Qa‘ida and associated violent jihadists, Wahhabi-Salafist religious leaders issued a series of antifootball fatwas (religious rulings).[7] One much-quoted fatwa from 2005 prescribed how Saudi football should be played: matches should be without referees; the pitches should not have any lines drawn on them; and disputes should be adjudicated on the basis of shari‘a.[8] The rationale was that football was only permissible if played with rules different from those internationally standardized and accepted.[9] While Saudi men started playing football in the 1930s, and a national league was established in 1957,[10] Saudi football was never actually played in the way prescribed by the fatwas, revealing the separate worlds in which the Saudi clergy and youth lived. A 2012 report issued by the kingdom’s moral police noted that 59% of Saudi Arabia’s youth were engaged in “forbidden or reprehensible behavior.”[11] Football was not mentioned in the report. For many Saudi youth, football is a key source of joy, with a leading Saudi journalist noting in 2014 that “Here in Saudi Arabia there is nothing to do. No cinema, nothing. Only football.”[12]

Saudi Arabia has one of the youngest populations in the world, with 67% under 35 years old.[13] Saudi youth go to football matches not only to experience passion and fun but also to express anger and frustration, which some Saudi scholars have described as “football fanaticism,”[14] due to the violence and disturbances that regularly accompany football matches in the country.[15] By the mid-2010s, Saudi football had evolved as an exceptional social arena for expressions of popular power. For example, following Saudi Arabia’s failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, the protests of football supporters forced the head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, to step down. Through free elections not seen elsewhere in the country, the football federation subsequently elected a commoner, a former player, from outside the Saud dynasty.[16] In another incident in 2012, a nephew of the king, Prince Faisal bin Turki, had to escape an angry crowd of football supporters of the club he owned during a match in Riyadh, forcing him out of the club. Saudi authorities, observing the unrest in the region at the time of the Arab Spring, feared the consequences of not giving in to fan power. “The Saudis are extremely worried. Soccer clubs rather than the mosque are likely to be the center of the revolution,” said Ali al-Ahmad, an expert on Saudi Arabia from the Gulf Institute in Washington.[17]

For their part, Saudi women have used football as an arena to struggle for freedom and equality. Since formal education was established for girls in 1960, physical education, playing football, or watching games in stadiums had been banned.[18] More recently, after 2011, a form of underground resistance developed, with young women organizing their own football league.[19] Meanwhile, female Saudi spectators made headlines by going to neighboring countries to see the football they were denied at home.[20]

When King Salman and his Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), came to power after the death of King Abdullah II in 2015, they embarked on dramatic reforms centered around alienated Saudi youth. MBS sensed that the gap between the norms and values of the kingdom’s young population and the ones enforced by the moral police was so large that it was politically threatening, and instigated a cultural revolution from above.[21] Opposition to the changes, including from the traditional religious elite, was met with imprisonment and suppression. Sports were given an historic new role as both entertainment and education in the “Vision 2030” state policy, which notes that “Opportunities for sports have been limited. We will enable citizens to engage in a variety of sports and leisure pursuits.”[22] The changes were unprecedented in the kingdom’s modern history. Women’s football, their physical education, and their ability to attend stadiums went from being abolished to being encouraged by Saudi authorities. The popularity of football peaked. By 2019, several clubs in the Saudi league had an average attendance of more than 20,000 per match. Attendance further increased after the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with Saudi Arabia sensationally beating Argentina during one of the matches and with Cristiano Ronaldo, widely considered one of the greatest football players of all time, signing for the Riyadh club Al Nassr FC in December 2022. “Everything is changed now,” a Saudi football supporter told the author in Doha during the 2022 World Cup, adding: “The prince understands the youth.”

Saudi Arabia thus moved away from the Wahhabi-Salafism, that had constituted the religious legitimacy of the Saud dynasty, and closer to wasatism, mainstream Sunni Islam. Ironically, wasatism characterized the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which Saudi Arabia named a terrorist organization in 2015.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Impact of Qatar

Historically, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), did not oppose football as a sports activity, regarding it as strengthening both the health and spirit of the practicing Muslim, and as a fertile ground for recruiting youth.[23] By 1946, the MB scouts organized their own football league, running 99 clubs across Egypt. Football and other sports activities were in fact essential for the MB’s ability to recruit young men into the movement.[24]

It was different, however, regarding football as a spectator sport. Gender mixing and spectators losing their self-control were resented by the MB.[25] Under the Mubarak military dictatorship (1981–2011), the MB’s resentment further increased as the Egyptian government blatantly attached itself to the success of the country’s national football team, contributing to what Rommel refers to as the Egyptian “football bubble.”[26] On important match days, TV broadcasted 24 hours a day, playing hyperbolic ultranationalist pop songs, “I Love you Egypt” and the like, amid TV series and movies hailing Egyptian football success, all topped by Mubarak calling the national team before the match to “raise their spirit.”[27]

In 2011, the Ultras, who frequently engaged in violence against their opponents and the police, became the unexpected bedfellows of the MB when they helped protect protestors in Tahrir Square.[28] In an apparent revenge attack for their role in the revolution, 72 Ultras of the Cairo club Al Ahly were massacred by armed thugs during a football match in Port Said in 2012, while police stood by and did nothing.[29] After the counterrevolution in 2013, the military regime declared MB and the Ultras alike to be terrorists. More than 60,000 people, mostly MB members but also some Ultras, were jailed. Some from the MB managed to escape, many finding refuge in Qatar.[30]

The MB congratulated Qatar on how the 2022 World Cup had been used to “to confirm our Islamic identity and highlight our culture in which the dimension of our humanity, morality and value system has occupied the forefront,leading to the strengthening of Muslims’ confidence in themselves and their eternal civilization.”[31] The Qatar World Cup “came to raise the morale of Muslims in all parts of the earth” and had been “a message of glory and pride for all Arabs and Muslims.” One interpretation of these statements is that it could be lip service to pay back the Brotherhood’s debt to Qatar, which had long supported the organization, had resisted pressure from Saudi Arabia to treat the MB as terrorists, and had opened its doors for them as they were fleeing persecution in Egypt after the military coup. Yet, the experience from the Egyptian revolution should not be underestimated. There was always tension within the Egyptian MB. The old conservative, more introverted wing, had developed their ideas in prisons and were suspicious of people from outside their movement.[32] The other wing of younger activists, more sensitive to the grassroots and youth trends, would instinctively look for possibilities within football, ones that the older MB generation ignored. The crisis following the coup in Egypt and the 2022 World Cup ostensibly triggered substantive changes in the MB’s relationship to football.

Hezbollah’s Appropriation of Football

The only Islamist group to fully endorse football is Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi‘a Islamic movement. Considered the most powerful armed nonstate group in the world, it has been designated as a terrorist organization by several countries, including the EU and the US.[33] Yet, Hezbollah also has another face. The spiritual guide of Hezbollah, Muhammad Fadlallah, saw the organization as not only a tool of resistance but of social change, geared towards building institutions and helping people. In the suburbs of Beirut, once referred to as the Shi‘a “misery-belt,”[34] Hezbollah built hospitals, orphanages, schools, construction companies, and charities for the poor.[35] Moreover, entrepreneurs supporting Hezbollah assisted in building the best training facilities in Lebanon for their football club, Al Ahed. Hezbollah used football to recruit and shape Lebanese youth in the Shi‘a community, establishing 150 football schools all over Lebanon, with more than 10,000 participants. Muhammad Yassin, leader of Hezbollah’s Sports Unit, noted that the schools aimed “to create a new sports culture,” adding that “Young men involved in sports have a high physical fitness that qualifies them to further develop their military capabilities.”[36]

In 2019, Al Ahed won the Asian Cup for club teams, the biggest success in the history of Lebanese football. As supporters from al-Dahiya, a Shi‘a suburb of Beirut, celebrated the team on their return to Lebanon, they waved banners bearing the image of the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as well as the legendary Al Ahed player, Qassam Shamkha, who was also an armed Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria in a 2016 military operation. Since Shamkha’s death, before the first match of the season, Al Ahed players go to his grave to commemorate him.[37] Martyrdom and football have thus been blended into one. For Hezbollah, football is a cultural field that is shaped according to its own symbols and meaning.

While Hezbollah is different from the other cases discussed here, endorsing football from the outset, I would argue that this is related to the group’s experience of politicizing popular ritual. When poor rural Shi‘a migrated to the city in the 1950s and 1960s, they found refuge in the Ashura ritual, memorializing the massacre of Imam Husayn, which occurred some 1,300 years ago. The ritual created a common identity and belonging for the uprooted migrants. Yet, for Hezbollah, Ashura was more than public mourning, it was a vehicle for mobilization. Football was similar in the sense that it created belonging, purpose, and excitement, ready to be appropriated by Hezbollah. Those who could not be recruited through ordinary religious channels were reached through football.[38]

Iran Changing Tactics

Iran pursued a completely different path than its ally Hezbollah when it comes to football. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, the regime engaged in an antifootball campaign. This included discursive attacks, labeling the sport an “imperialist” and “a colonialist plot,” appropriating the football field of Tehran University to hold Friday prayers, and banning women from playing or attending football matches, among other restrictive measures.[39] It took a decade for football matches to be broadcast on TV in the Islamic Republic, while the ban on women’s football activity was revoked in 2007, nearly 30 years after the revolution.[40] Male football was never forbidden; revolutionary leaders realized that banning the game would be self-defeating and would antagonize the popular classes, upon whose support the regime depended.[41]

Ironically, the regime’s general antifootball stance turned the game into a symbol of people’s struggle against the government.[42] After the national team returned from the 1998 World Cup, 100,000 Iranians celebrated the homecoming, among them 5,000 women who removed their headscarves in a blatant violation of the Islamist dress code. In 2001, when Iran failed to win an “easy” World Cup qualification game against Bahrain, riots broke out, lasting for four days. The protestors yelled “Death to the mullahs,” as they reportedly thought the national team had been ordered by the authorities to lose.[43] Nearly two decades later, in 2019, Sahar Khodayari, a 29-year-old football fan, set herself on fire outside the Islamic Revolutionary Court, protesting the ban on female football spectators and becoming a global symbol for the fight against injustice.[44]

Realizing the failure of their antifootball politics, the Iranian authorities have gradually changed course in recent years by infiltrating the game. The hard-line Islamic Revolution Guard (IRC) has reportedly taken control of the boards of Iran’s major clubs, and has also infiltrated their supporter groups.[45] Allegations have been made that the IRC has instigated unrest in order to “other” spectators, thus reducing the political weight of expressions of discontent. Ahead of the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi invited the national team to take a photo with him in an attempt to de-link the players from the ongoing street protests, which were triggered by the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amina by Iran’s moral police.[46] In protest, an activist in Tehran said “This is not my national team […] it is the mullahs’ team,”[47] and many Iranians wore Amina’s name on their shirt. When Iran beat Wales during the tournament, however, Iranian spectators celebrated wildly, despite the earlier criticism of the team serving as regime pawns. When Iran lost to the USA and was sent out of the World Cup, many inside Iran celebrated the defeat in the streets, and one man was shot and killed by police for honking his car.[48] When Iran won, it was the victory of the nation, but, when the team lost, it was the defeat of the state.

In Iran, as elsewhere in the Middle East, football as an emotional trigger converted people’s grievances into popular protests.[49] Over the years, Iran’s religious-political leaders changed course regarding football, from ideological opposition to pragmatic adaptation.[50] Even for the Islamic Republic, the antifootball campaign proved to be untenable.


Football has served as a site of tensions between the more conservative and practical politics in the Middle East. Throughout the various antifootball campaigns waged by some Islamic groups, there were always other Islamic scholars who regarded obstructing peoples’ access to football as a violation. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar reinforced the latter,[51] demonstrating the benefits of being in a position to control and enforce moral norms within the football sphere, and, at the same time, exhibit public joy and pleasure within a Muslim framework. Today, the main forces of Islamism have largely adjusted to and increasingly endorsed the game.

[1] Asef Bayat,  Life as Politics: How Ordinary People change the Middle East (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[2] Dag Tuastad, “The Politics and Passion of Middle Eastern Football Spectator Cultures,” in Routledge Handbook of Sport in the Middle East,  eds. Danyel Reiche  and Paul Michael Brannagan (London: Routledge, 2022), 208.

[3] Will A. Mason, “The ‘Global Game’ in the Middle East: An Exploration of Islamic Opposition to the Sport of Football” (master’s thesis, Utrecht University, 2018), 4.

[4] Mason, “The ‘Global Game’ in the Middle East,” 15.

[5] Imran Mulla and Peter Osborne, “Why Qatar’s World Cup has been a Magnificent Success,” Middle East Eye, December 22, 2022,; IslamOnline “Embracing the Local Arab and Islamic Culture in FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022,” 2022,; IslamOnline, “Football is Not Just a Game,” 2022,

[6] Bjørn Olav Utvik, Islamismen (Oslo: Fagbokforlaget, 2020).

[7] Mason, “The ‘Global Game’ in the Middle East,” 4.

[8] James M. Dorsey, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer (London: Hurst, 2016), 101.

[9] Terdman M., “Deliberations over Global Football among Radical Muslim ‘Fundamentalists,’” in Fundamentalism in the Modern World, eds. Ulrika Mårtensson, Jennifer Bailey, Priscilla Ringrose, and Asbjorn Dyrendal, vol. 2 (London: I.B. Taurus, 2011), 314.

[10] Abdullah Fatta, “History of Sport in Saudi Arabia and Current Situation” (master’s thesis, Michigan State University, 2013).

[11] Pascal Menoret, Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[12] Dominic Bossi, “Western Sydney Wanderers Facing Football in the Kingdom,” The Sydney Morning Herald, October 31, 2014,

[13] Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, General Authority for Statistics, 2020,

[14] M. Al-Slimani et al., “A Study for the Phenomenon of Sports Violence in Saudi Arabia” (Riyadh: Leadership Development Institution, 1999); R. Al-Sulami, “Sports Fanaticism and Effect of New Information Means” (paper presented at the University of Prince Naïf for Security Sciences, 2014); Abdullah Alshehri, “The Effect of Increasing Awareness about the Use of Social Media on Sport Fanaticism for Saudi Soccer Fans” (PhD diss., Middle Tennessee State University, 2016).

[15] Saad Al-Dosari, “Football Hooliganism in Saudi Arabia,” Albawaba, May 18, 2015.

[16] Dorsey, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

[17] Dorsey, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 23.

[18] Haya Saad Al Rawaf  and Cyril Simmons, “The Education of Women in Saudi Arabia,” Comparative Education 27, no. 3 (1991): 287.

[19] Charlotte Lysa, “Fighting for the Right to Play: Women’s Football and Regime-Loyal Resistance in Saudi Arabia,” Third World Quarterly 41, no. 5 (2020): 842–859.

[20] “#BBCtrending: The Female Football Fan Causing Outrage in Saudi Arabia,” BBC, October 8, 2014,

[21] Ben Hubbard, MBS: The Rise and Power of Mohammed Bin Salman (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2020).

[22] Kingdgom of Saudi Arabia, “Vision 2030,”

[23] Utvik, Islamismen, 3.

[24] Nina Björkman, “A Pure Mind and a Healthy Body: An Islamic Perspective,” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 24, “Post-secular Religious Practices” (2012): 19.

[25] Uriya Shavit and Ofir Winter, “Sports in Contemporary Islamic Law,” Islamic Law and Society 18, no. 2 (2011): 250–280.

[26] Carl Rommel, “Revolution, Play and Feeling: Assembling Emotionality, National Subjectivity and Football in Cairo, 1990–2013” (PhD diss., SOAS University of London, 2015), 70; Carl Rommel, Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, Masculinity and Uneasy Politics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021).

[27] Rommel, “Revolution, Play and Feeling,” 83; Rommel, Egypt’s Football Revolution.

[28] Dag Tuastad, “From Football Riot to Revolution: The Political Role of Football in the Arab World,” Soccer & Society 15, no. 3 (2014): 377.

[29] Abdullah Al-Arian, “Introduction,” in Football in the Middle East: State, Society, and the Beautiful Game, ed.  Abdullah Al-Arian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 4; See Close’s article in this volume.

[30] Abigail Hauslohner, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Finds Havens Abroad,” Washington Post, November 6, 2013,

[31] Ikwanweb, 2022,

[32] Robert F. Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).

[33] James Kanter and Jodi Rudoren, “European Union Adds Military Wing of Hezbollah to List of Terrorist Organizations,” New York Times, July 22, 2013,

[34] Muzna Al-Masri, “Political Theatre: Football and Contestation in Beirut” (PhD diss., University of London, 2016), 104.

[35] Augustus Richard Norton, Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2014).

[36] Yousef Jaber, “Hezbollah In Sports: A Standard Brilliance And A New Vision,” Alahed News, 2022,

[37] Al-Dosari, “Football Hooliganism in Saudi Arabia.”

[38] Dag Tuastad, Why Hizbollah Loves Football: Praying on the Pitch (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming, 2023).

[39] H.E. Chehabi, “A Political History of Football in Iran,” Iranian Studies 35, no. 4 (2022): 96.

[40] See Shahrokni’s article in this volume.

[41] Mason, “The ‘Global Game’ in the Middle East,” 14; Chehabi, “A Political History of Football in Iran,” 90.

[42] Bayat,  Life as Politics.

[43] Anders Jakobsen, “Fotball, mellom stat og samfunn i Iran 1979–2006” [Football, between state and society in Iran 1979–2006] (master’s thesis, University of Bergen, 2008), 68–69.

[44] Michael Safi, “Iranian Female Football Fan Who Self-Immolated Outside Court Dies,” The Guardian, September 10, 2019,

[45] Ali Alfoneh, “In Iran, Soccer Becomes a Political Football as Guards Take Over,” The Arab Weekly, October 23, 2015,

[46] “Iran Football Delegation Meets President Raisi Before Travelling to Doha,” Tehran Times, November 14, 2022,

[47] Helen Sullivan, “Anti-Regime Iranians Celebrate World Cup Exit to US in Solidarity with Protests,” The Guardian, November 30, 2022,

[48] Helen Sullivan, “Iranian Man, 27, Shot Dead for Celebrating Team’s World Cup Exit,” The Guardian, November 30, 2022,

[49] Eva Bellin, “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring,” Comparative Politics 44, no. 2 (2012): 127–149; Tuastad, “The Politics and Passion of Middle Eastern Football Spectator Cultures.”

[50] Mason, “The ‘Global Game’ in the Middle East,” 16.

[51] IslamOnline “Embracing the Local Arab and Islamic Culture in FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022,” IslamOnline, “Football is Not Just a Game.”