Uniter or Divider? Identity Politics and Football in Jordan

Curtis R. Ryan, Appalachian State University


The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is host to one of the fiercest and most politicized sports rivalries in global football, the routine clashes between the (mainly Palestinian) al-Wehdat and (mainly East Bank Jordanian) al-Faisaly. These two teams have long dominated Jordan’s top football league, are intense rivals, and have had legendary battles both on and off the pitch, often featuring stadium chants by their respective fans that would cross regime red lines in any other setting. This essay examines not only the politics of the Wehdat-Faisaly rivalry, but also the role of football as both uniter and divider in Jordan’s identity debates and national politics. Football, I argue, has at times been emblematic of, and a contributor to, both unity and disunity in Jordanian public life.

 Al-Faisaly v. al-Wehdat

In April 2022 something unusual happened in Jordanian football: al-Ramtha won Jordan’s Super Cup for the first time in 32 years. The surprise here was not just that al-Ramtha defeated Jordan’s most successful team, al-Faisaly, but also that this was one of the few championships in Jordan that was not won by either al-Faisaly or their arch-rival al-Wehdat. Between them, these two clubs had won a combined 31 Super Cup championships out of the previous 39. The two have tended to dominate Jordanian football, are fierce rivals, and have left a seemingly indelible imprint on Jordanian identity politics. As such, they are sometimes seen as a barometer of ethnic identity tensions within the Hashemite Kingdom.

The al-Faisaly football club was founded in 1932, even before Jordanian independence, and was named after the former Hashemite King of Syria and later Iraq. Known as the Blue Eagles, the club is the oldest and most successful in Jordanian history, claiming 35 titles in Jordan’s Premier League, 21 wins in Jordan’s annual FA Cup tournament, and 17 Super Cup championships (the Super Cup pits the winners of Jordan’s Premier League against the winners of its FA cup).

Al-Faisaly’s long-term rival, al-Wehdat, was founded in 1956 in the Palestinian refugee camp of the same name. Known as the Green Giant, Wehdat are fitted out in the Palestinian national colors, but known especially for their green jerseys, in contrast to the blue of Faisaly. Like their opponents, Wehdat have dominated Jordanian football, winning the Premier League 17 times, the FA Cup 11 times, and the Super Cup 14 times.

While both teams are known for their excellence on the field, and their many victories and championships, they are perhaps known even more for the zeal of their fans and for the strong ethnic identity politics underpinning their sports loyalties. The Wehdat fanbase is overwhelmingly made up of Palestinian Jordanians or West Bankers, while Faisaly’s fans are mainly East Bankers or tribal Transjordanians. Some in this community refer to themselves simply as “Jordanian Jordanians” or will say mi’a bil mi’a (one hundred percent) to indicate just how Jordanian they feel themselves to be. The most politicized of these see Faisaly and East Jordanian identity as almost inseparable, and hence see themselves as authentic Jordanians, in contrast to how they view the Palestinian support base for Wehdat—who are descendants of the many waves of Palestinian refugees into Jordan from 1948 onward, following the establishment of the State of Israel.

Some Faisaly fans view their Wehdat rivals, and Palestinian Jordanians in general, as temporary residents, refugees, disloyal outsiders, or simply foreigners. Some Wehdat fans, in contrast, are just as likely to stereotype their opponents—in this case as allegedly tribalistic and backward—and both fan bases often make negative references regarding their opponents that sometime touch on the Hashemite monarchy itself.

Meetings between the two teams amount to a national derby so intense that World Soccer dubbed it one of 50 greatest rivalries in football worldwide.[i] In the sports sense, their clashes are akin to rivalries like Real Madrid versus Barcelona in Spain, or Arsenal versus Tottenham in the United Kingdom. But their political clashes have been more alarming, and have at times resulted in severe violence. Their fans can therefore perhaps be compared to the Ultras associated with Egyptian or Moroccan clubs, or the hooligans sometimes associated with English and Dutch club teams or national squads.

In 2010, for example, violence erupted at the Wehdat stadium following a victory over Faisaly. Fans of the latter were accused of hurling rocks at Wehdat fans, who rioted, but were confronted by rows of police blocking the exits. Two-hundred and fifty people were injured, filling up area hospitals, and adding yet another grim chapter to a longstanding rivalry.[ii]

Performative Politics and an Instrumental Rivalry

In addition to their mutual sports hostility, the fanbases of both clubs are also known for political chants and ethnic slurs against their opponents, and these sometimes expand to include scathing chants about the monarchy itself—a redline that is usually uncrossable, but which is sometimes tolerated only in this setting. In 2009, a Faisaly–Wehdat game was halted mid-play due to the specific political chants of the crowds. A U.S. diplomatic cable at the time noted that the match was cancelled after Faisaly fans began chanting “anti-Palestinian hooliganism and slogans denigrating the Palestinian origins of both the Queen and the Crown Prince.”[iii]

In these instances, zealous fans have bypassed the opposing team entirely, and instead focus on denigrating their fans—and what they perceive as a rival community in Jordan—and often cross redlines about Queen Rania or the heir to the throne, Prince Hussein.[iv] In 2017, apparently fed up with the rivalry and even more so with the derogatory chants about the monarchy, the Jordan Football Association went so far as to levy fines against both clubs and to declare that their games would be played without fans in the stadiums.

In his book on the politics of football in the Middle East, James Dorsey sees something instrumental in the Faisaly–Wehdat rivalry, and suggests that it may help the Jordanian state by perpetuating an East Bank–West Bank divide within the kingdom.[v] There is something of a historical shadow hanging over Jordan in this regard, and that is the legacy of what is sometimes called Black September or the Jordanian civil war. Both terms are contested, as are the historical events themselves. But suffice it to say, at least, that Jordan’s political tensions boiled over in September 1970, featuring armed clashes between guerilla forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Jordanian armed forces. The violence ended the following summer, with royalist forces triumphing over the guerillas, ultimately expelling them to Lebanon, but at the cost of a high death toll and fighting that had at times included the shelling of camps and urban neighborhoods.

Even more than fifty years after the most significant internal conflict in Jordanian history, it remains difficult to talk about or research—and it is a very sensitive topic within Jordanian politics. The paradox is that Jordanian textbooks and education rarely address this key event, and yet some see the Jordanian state as having an interest in keeping this memory alive, vague though it is to most Jordanians, in part to maintain a social divide. Dag Tuastad, for example, has argued that “to avoid democratization, the memory of the civil war must be sustained.” He continues: “Jordan has had a history of ethnic-based football riots. These are reminders of the threats to stability, security and national unity. But as long as they are contained at the football stadiums, they serve the interests of political forces wanting to preserve power and political status quo.”[vi]

Wehdat also has a support base far beyond Jordan itself. Many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, for example, support the club and see it as an exemplar of Palestinian identity. Indeed, despite the intensity of the Wehdat–Faisaly rivalry, many Faisaly fans (and certainly most Jordanians in general) support Palestinian aims of an independent state, and hence both fan bases also have pro-Palestine chants (despite their insults to each other). In addition, most Palestinian Jordanians see themselves as Jordanians of Palestinian background, and hence as Jordanians—not as a distinct nationality.

It is also important to note that many Jordanians have no interest in football or in this particular football rivalry, or indeed in intra-ethnic identity divisions—whether real or imagined. In fact, many Jordanians see the recurring idea of a Palestinian–Jordanian divide as a manufactured mirage. Some see it a divisive strategy invoked and utilized to prevent reform or change. Many of Jordan’s protest movements in the era of the Arab Spring and after, for example, eschewed these artificial divisions and instead projected a more inclusive vision of Jordanian national identity.[vii]

Jordanian artists in particular have (carefully) addressed this, challenging and even mocking the supposed identity rift. As James Dorsey has also noted, the popular Jordanian play “Neither East nor West,” for example, found the humor and artificiality in this divide by focusing on a newlywed couple, an East Jordanian husband and Palestinian Jordanian wife—inter-marriage is a common and relatable topic in the country. The humor dwells on their divided sports loyalties—Faisaly and Wedhat, of course—with differences over blue or green football clothing and gear, different colored keffiyas, and even differences over the ethnic identities of key foods. The play includes, for example, a humorous disagreement over what is the national dish—mansaf (sometimes seen as a tribal and East Jordanian classic) or mulūkhīya (sometimes seen as Palestinian).[viii] As Dag Tuastad has noted, these traditional dishes even became part of stadium chants, including as blatantly as “we are mansaf, you are mulūkhīya,” among others.[ix]

Hisham Bustani, one of Jordan’s most famous and award-winning writers, generated considerable controversy and no shortage of state consternation with what is now considered one of his great and classic short stories: “Faisaly and Wehdat.” The story examines the tragedy and utter pointlessness of the zeal and mutual hostility of two fans—the “green man” and the “blue man”—who, following their own violent and deadly clash, are ultimately indistinguishable from one another.[x] The story also underscores the toxic masculinity as well as the artificial identity politics that underpins this rivalry—a rivalry that is clearly about more than just sports.

When I interviewed Hisham Bustani for Middle East Report, we discussed this very story, and how it almost led to a book ban by the Jordanian state. He noted: “This story was the result of a bewilderment I had and still have about how a relatively new set of fabricated identities are taken for granted at face value among many sectors of society, despite all the contrary historical, societal, economic and even political facts that are still evident and alive today. These identities are the direct product of colonialist division of the region following World War I, which were then adopted and fiercely promoted by corrupt, subordinate regimes as part of their legitimizing propaganda and pseudo-historical narratives.”[xi] In his essay, “A Bouquet of Subversive Ideas, Dedicated to Censorship,” Bustani notes that “the story brings up the explosive subject of the sociopolitical and identitarian crisis linked to origins—origins east or west of the Jordan River, i.e., Jordanian or Palestinian. […] The two names mentioned in the title refer to the two main local football teams in which all this divisiveness becomes concentrated.”[xii] 

An-Nashama, an-Nashmiyyat, and Za‘atari

And yet, for all this intensity of ethnic division, there are moments when football in Jordan is not about divisiveness at all, but rather about unity. Those moments do not happen when Faisaly and Wehdat play, but they do happen when the national teams take the field to represent Jordan—all of Jordan—and not just West Bank or East Bank Jordanian identity. Faisaly–Wehdat matches are indeed politically polarizing for some Jordanians but, for many more, the country comes back together in its collective love for both the men’s and women’s national teams—the Nashama and the Nashmiyyat. The men’s national team, perhaps ironically, often relies heavily on players from the kingdom’s two historically dominant clubs: Faisaly and Wehdat.

Both the Nashama and Nashmiyyat also represent a true cross-section of Jordanian society. Their players include both West and East Bank communities in their make-up as well as both Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Circassians, and players from every region and community in the country. In the last ten years or so, both teams have been experiencing something of a resurgence. In June 2013, for example, the women’s national team—the Nashmiyyat—played so well that they qualified for the Asia Football Cup for the first time.

The Jordanian men’s national team also had a banner year in 2013, looking to secure a spot in the World Cup for the first time. The Nashama had to beat Oman in order to stay in contention for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The game was tight and hard fought, and had captured the attention of much of Jordanian society, with the Nashama eventually pulling away with a 1–0 win. As the stadium crowd in Amman exploded in joy, the television audience was treated to a nearly-hysterical announcer declaring that the Nashama had brought life back to the Dead Sea.

The team then had one last hurdle: a final game to determine which of two teams would advance to the World Cup—Jordan or Uruguay. Sadly for the Nashama, and for their many Jordanian fans, they came up one game short, with Uruguay advancing to the World Cup in Brazil. But the journey that year of both the Nashama and Nashmiyyat had captivated the attention of much of the nation, providing unifying national moments separate from in-country club rivalries, ethnic identity rifts, or struggles over Jordan’s politics and policies. As I wrote at the time, “in June—despite difficult economic conditions, intense debates over reform and the danger of spillover from the Syrian war—the Nashama and Nashmiyyat, regardless of background, were the unquestioned favorite sons and daughters of all Jordanians.”[xiii]

Yet, in the years that followed, Jordan’s economy has continued to struggle, and the country has certainly been deeply affected by the disaster of the Syrian civil war. In the post-Arab Spring era, in fact, Jordan’s economy, society, and politics have been challenged by the addition of yet another community: 1.3 million Syrian refugees. While Syrian refugees are not part of the Jordanian teams, football has nonetheless played a key role, even in the refugee camps and in nearby—and often poor—Jordanian host communities, especially those in the north near the Syrian border.

As the refugee crisis unfolded, the Asia Football Development Program (AFDP) was led by Prince Ali Ibn Hussein, who was also Vice President of FIFA and head of the Jordan Football Association—and it was the AFDP that focused on bringing football to Syrian refugees. “Food, water, and housing are all priorities,” noted the prince in a discussion we had in 2014, “but kids also have to have something to do. And sport can build a community spirit.” Football in particular has been the main activity for children in the camps, in nearby towns, and in Jordan’s urban centers, often with the active support of the AFDP in terms of clinics, training, free football balls, and so on. “Football is not an elitist sport, it’s a game for everyone,” said Prince Ali, “And it can help promote the health and well-being of girls and boys.”[xiv]

The football programs are important because they are as grassroots as efforts can get, including on the gravel football pitches of Za‘atari, where there is no grass at all. Such programs may be especially important because they are among the few good things in an otherwise dire set of circumstances. Amid Jordan’s already tense identity politics, Jordanian society and the Jordanian state are not inclined to extend citizenship to Syrians, even more than a decade after the Syrian refugee crisis began. Football cannot solve that, but it is the bare minimum supplier of temporary happiness to many children in the kingdom, Syrians and Jordanians alike. 


Football seems to be connected to many of Jordan’s key challenges. At times, it underscores the kingdom’s deepest ethnic fissures and may even be used by some to widen the gaps in Jordanian society. Jordanian football—and not just its most intense rivalry—can be both emblematic of, and also a contributor to, Jordan’s identity divisions. But at other times it is the great unifier, bringing Jordanians of all classes, religions, and ethnic backgrounds together, at least temporarily. Football has even been a key positive force in otherwise dark circumstances—from Syrian refugee camps to Jordan’s many poor villages and urban neighborhoods. Football both reflects and adds to Jordan’s most intense moments of unity and disunity, and it can provide at least one window to understanding the sometimes complex national identity politics of the Hashemite Kin

[i] James Montague, “Football’s Greatest Rivalries: Al Faisaly v Al Wehdat,” World Soccer, December 26, 2015, www.worldsoccer.com/features/footballs-greatest-rivalries-al-faisaly-v-al-wehdat-366655.

[ii] Suleiman al-Khalidi, “Jordanian Soccer Violence Leaves 250 Hurt,” Reuters, December 10, 2010 www.reuters.com/article/jordan-soccer-riot/jordanian-soccer-violence-leaves-250-hurt-idUKLDE6B91ZH20101211.

[iii] Montague, “Football’s Greatest Rivalries.”

[iv] Mohammad Ersan, “Jordanian Soccer Teams’ Ugly Rivalry Reveals a Deeper Divide,” Al-Monitor, July 4, 2017, www.al-monitor.com/originals/2017/07/jordan-teams-identity-fights.html.

[v] James M. Dorsey, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 43–46.

[vi] Dag Tuastad, “‘A Threat to National Unity’ – Football in Jordan: Ethnic Divisive or a Political Tool for the Regime?” The International Journal of the History of Sport 31, no. 14 (2014): 1774–1788.

[vii] For a more thorough discussion of this complex topic, see Curtis R. Ryan, Jordan and the Arab Uprisings: Regime Survival and Politics Beyond the State (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 90–113.

[viii] Dorsey, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 46.

[ix] Dag Tuastad, “We are Mansaf, You are Mulūkhīya: Symbols and Meanings of Football in Jordan,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 51 (2019): 427–474.

[x] For an English language translation of the short story, see: Hisham Bustani, “Faisaly and Wehdat,” trans. Maia Tabet, Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism and Translation 1, no. 1 (Spring 2018), http://barricadejournal.org/vol1issue1/faisaly-and-wehdat.

[xi] Hisham Bustani, Curtis Ryan, “Not Lost in Translation—An Interview with Jordanian Author and Activist Hisham Bustani,” Middle East Report Online, April 6, 2022, https://merip.org/2022/04/not-lost-in-translation-an-interview-with-jordanian-author-and-activist-hisham-bustani.

[xii] Hisham Bustani, “A Bouquet of Subversive Ideas, Dedicated to Censorship,” trans. Emily Sibley, Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism and Translation 1, no. 1 (Spring 2018), http://barricadejournal.org/vol1issue1/a-bouquet-of-subversive-ideas.


[xiii] Curtis R. Ryan, “Football Matters in Jordan,” Middle East Report Online, June 24, 2013, https://merip.org/2013/06/football-matters-in-jordan.


[xiv] Curtis R. Ryan, “The Most Important Soccer is not being Played in Brazil but in Refugee Camps in Jordan,” Washington Post, June 20, 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/06/20/the-most-important-soccer-is-not-being-played-in-brazil-but-in-refugee-camps-in-jordan.