David Beckham revolutionised football in North America. Attendances at Major League Soccer games were trebled in his time in the United States and the franchise further expanded into Canada with the arrival of the Vancouver Whitecaps last season.
A few days ago, British newspaper The Sun broke news of a bumper 20 million dollar offer on the table from the Qatar Stars League. The deal will see Beckham – should he choose to accept it – play for two years in the fossil fuel-rich emirate with there being the possibility of him being named brand ambassador for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
If Beckham could generate so much interest in the United States, stir up so much hoopla as a member of the Galacticos at Real Madrid and attract so much stardom while at Manchester United, the trend would point at him being a resounding success in the Persian Gulf as well.
Having spent a majority of my life in the Middle East, I can surely vouch for the fact that David Beckham is loved and adored in the Arab world. Showrooms still stock Real Madrid jerseys bearing his iconic number 23, his world-famous England number seven shirt (in both white and red), his Milanese number 32 and even his long-sleeved Los Angeles Galaxy top.
Football is a religion here. Arab channels regularly screen matches not just from the Premier League, but the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1. Not for nothing has the phrase ‘habibi shuf hada fi goal’ (with ‘goal’ really stretched) an internet sensation.
But while Al Jazeera has over 10 dedicated TV channels to telecast European and North and South American football, few of them telecast football from the Arab leagues.
With good reason.
The quality of Arab football is way below par in comparison to European football, which can be seen here on both English and Arabic channels. Games in the Qatar Stars League, the Saudi Professional League or any other league are poorly attended with a significant number of seats empty. The exception to this rule, however, can be seen in Egypt and Iran, where local games are often packed.
But that is slowly changing.
With the massive investment that the Arab world has pumped into development courtesy the vast reserves of oil and gas they all possess, several professional footballers have had stints in the various professional football leagues in the Gulf.
Asamoah Gyan joined Al Ahli in the UAE because of the astronomical wages they offered him. Italy legend Fabio Cannavaro was with them as well, David Trezeguet played for Baniyas SC in Abu Dhabi, Brazilian free-kick specialist Juninho had a spell at Al-Rayyan in Qatar and Colombian fox-in-the-box Carlos Tenorio has played with both Al Sadd in Qatar and Al-Nasr in Saudi Arabia.
The reverse has also been witnessed in the last few years. Omani goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi plays for Wigan Athletic and is the first Arab player to join a European side, which he did in 2003 when he joined Norwegian outfit Lyn Oslo.
Though not considered part of the Arab world proper, Iran have contributed several players to Europe, including Javad Nekounam, Masoud Shojaei and the legendary duo of Ali Karimi and Ali Daei. A clutch of Egyptian players, Essam Al-Hadary, Amr Zaki, Hossam Ahmed Mido, Hossam Ghaly, Ahmed el Mohamady, Mohammed Zidan and Mohamed Salah play or have played across Europe.
Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al-Deayea is the world’s most capped goalkeeper at international level in the history of the game with 178 caps to his name.
The World Cup has always been a bridge too far for Arab nations to cross. In the past, all the Arab nations (with the exception of Qatar) have qualified for the world’s most prestigious tournament, though some of them did withdraw. Those that did show up at the World Cup didn’t make it past the Group Stage, with the exception of Saudi Arabia who made it to the Round of 16 in 1994.
Iran have qualified for three World Cups, while the Saudis have made it to four.
The tournament most Arabs look forward to is the Gulf Cup of Nations, which takes place every two years in the month of January. That’s right, it’s happening right now.
Kuwait are the most successful team in the Gulf Cup with 10 titles to their name, while both Iraq and Saudi Arabia have won one each since the tournament was first introduced in 1970. Both the UAE and Oman have won it once.
Teams that win the Gulf Cup are usually lavishly rewarded, and their supporters feel some of the splash. When Oman won in 2009, the government declared a holiday in order for everybody to join in the celebrations.
Football in the Arab World is a matter of pride, of respect, of dignity, of honour.
In 2006, when Iraq beat hosts Qatar in the Asian Games, and 2007, when they won the Asian Cup, beating Saudi Arabia 1-0, the brought glory to a nation that for years had suffered under the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein and were a lawless society when the United States invaded them in 2003.
This, more than any other factor, has helped in attempting to unite a nation wracked by insurgency and communalism.
If David Beckham could revolutionise football in the United States, imagine what he would do in Arabia. Qatar are planning on building four world-class stadia for the 2022 World Cup. Filling them during the tournament won’t be a problem. Filling them afterwards will.
Beckham might just help them do that.