Saturday, 16 February 2013

In Search of Jordanian Football

"You want to watch football?" asks the hostel receptionist, plainly more accustomed to handling questions about overnight trips to Petra's rock-cut World Heritage sites or Madaba's Christian mosaics.  "Football?" he repeats, shaking his head. "Later. I'll have to check the internet." With the national side playing a friendly in Tehran, both Soccerway and the Jordan Football Association website come up blank for league fixtures.  "Is that the football stadium?" I ask a taxi driver, gesturing towards a distant floodlight pylon. "Yes," he replies, "big stadium." "And is there a game there today?" He laughs, spreads his arms wide, and shrugs apologetically.

  A contemporary Amman mosque kickaround sees Cristiano Ronaldo defending a lamppost.

Football arrived in Amman in 1922 along with two Iraqi-Kurd brothers who'd picked up the game at school in British-controlled Jerusalem.  Four years later the city's first team played an exhibition match against a side made up of soldiers from the British Army garrison at nearby Markah.  The first organised club side, Al Faisaly - named in honour of the Emir of Transjordan's younger brother, the pan-Arabist King of Iraq - were founded in 1932, though it wasn't until the mid-1940s that the ruling family began to take a serious interest in the burgeoning game.  In 1944, twenty-two years after football came to Amman, an annual league competition was set up under the auspices of King Abdullah, whose driver was among the founding members of what would go on to become one of Jordan's most successful clubs. "You are my family (Ahl)," the king is said to have told his chauffeur, "so call it Ahli club."  Unsurprisingly, Al-Ahli and Al-Faisaly dominated the early years of Jordanian football, winning all but four of the league championships played between 1944 and 1981.

Many of the league's early stars were Palestinians, born in the West Bank territories annexed by Jordan in April 1950. Among them were Abd al-Rahman al-Habbab, a title winner with Jaffa's Islamic Sports Club in 1945, and Jabra Al-Zarqa, who had been offered a contract with Arsenal after his starring role in a victory over a British Army team in Haifa the same year. Matches took place in school playgrounds around the capital or in the grounds of the Al Husseini Mosque until the mid-1960s when the country's first purpose-built football ground, the Amman International Stadium, opened with a friendly between Jordan and Egypt which the visiting side won by six goals to one.

The view from the Royal Box at the Amman International Stadium

Affectionately dubbed Al-Nashama (the Courageous), the national team didn't manage to qualify for a major tournament until the 2004 Asian Cup when, coached by Mahmoud El-Gohary, the Kingdom's footballers shocked everybody by holding South Korea in the group stage and taking Japan to penalties in the quarter final.  El-Gohary, who'd previously taken Egypt to the 1990 World Cup and an African Nations title eight years later, subsequently took up a position as technical director of the JFA.  Adnan Hamad, five-time coach of his native Iraq,  matched his predecessor's Asian Cup record by making the quarter final in 2011 and has more recently overseen the elimination of Nepal, Singapore and China to reach the fourth and final round of qualifying for Brazil 2014, where the Jordanians pulled off a 2-1 upset of Australia in Amman. That win was sandwiched by losses to Japan and Oman, and November's single goal defeat in Iraq leaves Jordan bottom of the five-team group with the Blue Samurai the next visitors and Hamad's side now down to 95th in the FIFA rankings, wedged between the Dominican Republic and El Salvador and three places above Northern Ireland.

 The new Petra Stadium, home to Al-Baqa'a SC

The respective merits of their international footballers isn't the last of the similarities between Belfast and Amman.  National identity remains a thorny issue for Jordan, an independent sovereign state for fewer than eighty years and a country in which one third of its population is comprised of refugees.  Al-Wihdat, the favoured team of the Palestinian minority, was formed in 1956 in a UN refugee camp which still houses over 50,000 people on the outskirts of Amman.  One of the six capital-based clubs in the twelve-team Jordanian Pro League, Wihdat lifted the first of their twelve national championships in 1980 and now rival thirty-two time champions Al-Faisaly as the country's dominant force. "99% of our fans are Palestinian," former club president Tareq Khoury told the English journalist James Montague. "You won't find any Jordanian fans of Wihdat...It's the same with Rangers and Celtic or Barcelona and Madrid. Here it is between two countries, Palestinians and Jordanians."  "I'm for Faisaly," a Jordanian student at the British Council tells me. "My English team is Manchester United. In Spain, Real Madrid."  "We support any team playing against Faisaly," says a Wihdat fan. "They hate us and we hate them."

 Three generations of the ruling dynasty.

A leaked US diplomatic cable in the wake of crowd violence at a 2009 cup game between Faisaly and Wihdat laid bare "the uncomfortable gap between East Bankers and Palestinian-origin Jordanians - one that most would rather keep hidden for the sake of political stability".  After Faisaly fans mocked the half-Palestinian Queen Rania with chants of "Divorce her and we'll marry you to two of ours", the teams walked off the pitch and the JFA ordered a subsequent cup game to be played behind closed doors, labelling the chants "a threat to the national unity of Jordan".  The following year a group of Faisaly supporters began hurling stones at Al-Wihdat fans, who broke through a metal fence as they attempted to escape.  When the police belatedly responded, 250 people were injured. "(They) started to beat people left and right," a witness told the AFP news agency. Khoury, who used his Wihdat presidency as a springboard to a seat in the Jordanian parliament, accused the authorities of committing "a massacre" and was later threatened with a two-year jail term for threatening behaviour towards a police officer after an earlier game between the two clubs. While recent games have passed off peacefully, the animosity between the two communities shows few signs of diminishing. "Football has always been and remains the most popular sport in Jordan," says Prince Ali Bin-Hussein, a member of the ruling family and the youngest ever member of FIFA's executive committee. "It's a celebration of our culture, our beliefs and our connection to the global community." In a country in which "it's almost forbidden to publicly speak out against the government", the national game is also one of the few places where it's possible to express open dissent. 

The Petra Stadium, part of Amman's Youth City Complex.

Third last season as Al-Faisaly lifted their thirty-second league title, Al-Wihdat, who play their home games at the King Abdullah II Stadium in south-east Amman, are currently three points behind leaders Shabab al Ordon in the 2012-13 Jordan Premier League. Faisaly, fourth behind Irbid's Al Arabi club, travel to Wihdat at the end of March having lost October's first league meeting to a goal from Raf'at Ali goal, a Jordanian international of Palestinian descent who's scored more than 120 times in seventeen seasons and two spells at Wihdat. "We will fiercely challenge for the title," Ali recently promised the club's supporters.  Shabab, coached by the Romanian Florin Motroc, won 2-1 at Wihdat last weekend and host Al Faisaly at the beginning of March.

The Amman International Stadium, Hussein Youth City.  There are separate entrances for right and left VIPs, Journalist's (sic) and the Royal Court.  A taxi from the Third Circle should cost around 1JD (double from downtown Amman)


The Jordanian football season ends on the first weekend of May with Shabab (Jordan Youth Club) looking to break the Faisaly-Wihdat duopoly and pick up a second championship after their league and cup double in 2006.  Aside from Shabab and Faisaly home games, the Amman International Stadium also hosts international fixtures against Japan in late-March and Oman in mid-June.  If you're planning a Jordanian football weekend, EasyJet fly to Amman from Gatwick on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. The Hisham Hotel is in the capital city's embassy district a few hundred metres from the Third Circle and has Amman's oldest pub in its grounds. For those on a tighter budget, the Jordan Tower Hostel has shared bathrooms with hot water in the mornings and a rooftop with a view of the citadel and Roman amphitheatre in the middle of the city centre.