Critic’s Notebook: In Soccer, Power’s Always in Play

PARIS — On the pitch, soccer is a cipher for war, with uniforms, formations, victory and defeat. Beyond the pitch, soccer is power, with owners seemingly using their teams as much for the corollary benefits as for any love of the game.

Sports in general, but especially soccer — given its global appeal — are an ideal way for tycoons to purchase prestige and for countries to burnish their reputations, particularly when governments have unsavory associations with issues such as human rights abuse, gender inequality or antidemocratic politics.

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Soccer players in Syria and Lebanon in the 1920s and ’30s.CreditEl-Nimer Collection, via Institute of the Arab World

Soccer and the Arab World: The Revolution of the Round Ball,” an exhibition at the Arab World Institute in Paris that runs through July 21, surveys the modern history of the sport in Africa and the Middle East, charting changes in gender and racial politics, government and finance, through the lens of the game.

Viewing the Arab world from the French perspective, the show ranges from midcentury events like the rise of the first Algerian national team, whose players broke away from France even though Algeria was still a colony, to more recent ones, like the purchase in 2011 of the French soccer team, Paris St.-Germain, by a Qatari state-run company.

Binding the show together is an exploration of political clout: using soccer to explore the increasing reach of some Arab nations, while France’s global influence is decreasing — seen in the cultural legitimacy that the sport provides.

France has won the men’s soccer World Cup twice, in 1998 and 2018. The trophies are on loan to the Arab World Institute for the exhibition.CreditThierry Rambaud, via Institute of the Arab World

“New Arab countries are in the game,” said the show’s curator, Aurélie Clemente-Ruiz, on a recent tour of the exhibition. “It’s not only North Africa or the Middle East but all of these countries from the Arabian Peninsula — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates — that are very involved in soccer, and it’s a way for them to exist in an international point of view. It’s a real soft power and, to them, very useful.”

At the root is the ability of sports to shape perceptions. For the likes of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, being associated with global soccer can help divert attention from the international indignation at the killing of a dissident. For Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates, his ownership and lavish spending on the English team Manchester City automatically buys a certain fame and influence. Similar reasons inform Qatar’s control of Paris St.-Germain and the country’s efforts to win the right to host the men’s World Cup in 2022.

The exhibition begins by looking at how soccer reflected relations between France and Arab nations over nearly a century, including in former French colonies: It touches on the Nejmeh Sporting Club in Lebanon, a team historically known for its players’ mixed ethnicities; and on Larbi Benbarek, a Moroccan midfielder born in Casablanca who played for the French national team and is regarded as the first great Arab soccer player in Europe. (When Morocco won its independence in 1956, Mr. Benbarek became the national team’s first coach.)

A model of one of the stadiums in Qatar that will host the 2022 World Cup.Creditvia Institute of the Arab World

The show in Paris also focuses on soccer as a way for people on the outskirts of society to gain mainstream recognition: It explores the rise of Arab women’s teams and the shifting views on race in France between the country’s World Cup victories in 1998 and 2018. Ms. Clemente-Ruiz said that the de facto slogan of the 1998 French national team, “black-blanc-beur,” or “black-white-Arab,” gave way in 2018 to “blue-white-red,” the colors of the French flag. She said the implication was that the French players were no longer defined by skin color but by their shared nationality.

“Soccer is the first place many people will begin to accept immigration, to see those of other colors as one of their own,” Ms. Clemente-Ruiz said.

Given the subject matter, at least one of the exhibition’s backers was of interest: Qatar’s tourist board is an official sponsor. So are FIFA and the French Football Federation, which lent a number of archival objects to the exhibition, including both of France’s World Cup trophies. (A private Lebanese collection also provided numerous loans, including the oldest known photographs of Arabs playing soccer, from 1929.)

The Indian designer Manish Malhotra, known for costume design in Bollywood films, has reworked the jerseys of some of France’s biggest soccer stars.CreditThierry Rambaud, via Institute of the Arab World

The show does not kowtow to the sponsors, however. In fact, sometimes it borders on mocking Qatari influence on soccer. In the penultimate room of the exhibition, the uniforms of Paris St.-Germain’s superstars, including Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, are studded with fake jewels, the usual dark blues and blacks of the jerseys transformed into shocks of outlandish rainbow colors. Created by the Indian designer Manish Malhotra, known for costume design in Bollywood films, the outfits drip with nouveau-riche taste. Here, soccer is about the confluence of money, prestige, and a polished global image.

Jack Lang, the president of the Arab World Institute and a former culture minister of France, said in an interview that he conceived of the exhibition in 2016 as way to expand the institute’s sometimes-narrow focus on North Africa and its relationship to France. Ms. Clemente-Ruiz said that she had been committed to maintaining political neutrality, presenting the facts of Arab influence on soccer while withholding any significant judgments.

Yet there are times when the exhibition does take a political side, such as a section on the Palestinian national team that is penned in by high, metal fences, or in a room of eight models of Qatar’s World Cup stadiums, which feature no mention of complaints about working conditions for the thousands of migrant workers who built them.

A section on the Palestinian national team is penned in by high, metal fences.CreditThierry Rambaud, via Institute of the Arab World

The show is composed mostly of documents, videos, archival photographs and objects, but there are some artworks, too. One of them, a two-channel video installation, follows Zinedine Zidane, a French former midfielder of Algerian descent, as he plays for Real Madrid in a 2005 match against Villarreal — a study of near-monastic focus and intensity. Splicing together footage from 17 cameras trained on the player, “Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait,” created by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, is a worshipful portrait of one of the most talented French players of all time, ultimately placing an Arab-descended individual at the center of French history and celebrity.

The video brings a spiritual aspect to a sport that is increasingly defined by money and politics. Mr. Zidane was a player whose rare talent largely kept him from being used as a political pawn, the child of immigrants who moved to France while Algeria was under colonial rule. After the World Cup win in 1998, Jacques Chirac, then the president of France, called him a man that “the whole country is extremely proud of.”

Mr. Zidane’s influence binds past and present, transcending the tensions between the Arab world and France, and epitomizing the possibilities that soccer presents.

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