Foul bid to blow up bridges built by football

It's not surprising that the crazed "Soldiers of the Caliphate" terrorists selected the France-Germany football match at the Stade de France as the central target in their assault on Paris.

For starters, the match was a high-profile attraction bringing together 80,000 fans, including French President Francois Hollande.

Indeed, the Stade de France was the one target last Friday night where the terrorists must have known they'd encounter a level of security they might not (and ultimately did not, thankfully) overcome. Still they deemed it a worthwhile attempt. At least one and possibly up to three suicide bombers sought to enter the stadium. The first bomber detonated his vest upon being stopped at a security perimeter. Two other suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the stadium; the thwarted bombers took the life of only one victim. The gruesome plan probably entailed sequencing the explosions inside the stadium in such a way that would have killed not only people seated nearby, but also thousands more in an ensuing panicked stampede.

There is another reason why Islamist fanatics intent on a war between civilisations would target a major football match: the sport's singular role in bridging Western culture and Muslim youth.

Football is one form of global pop culture not driven by the United States. And it is an obsession throughout the Muslim world.

The game offers the most prominent example of successful cross-cultural assimilation within Europe. Some of the most prominent French and German stars in recent years - Germany's Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira; France's Karim Benzema and Bacary Sagna - are Muslim celebrities of immigrant backgrounds.

The success of so many Muslim and immigrant players in the English, Spanish, French and German leagues provides a constant counter-narrative to terrorists' claims of immutable estrangement and alienation between West and East.

The impressive diversity of Europe's football leagues and national teams has long been a potent force for disarming xenophobia and racism across Europe. North African immigrants have never felt more welcome in France than when the entire nation rallied around Zinedine Zidane, the captain of the French squad that won the World Cup in 1998.

But the converse often gets overlooked: the impact of immigrant players on the mindsets of football fans across the Middle East and North Africa.

Across the Middle East, football has been a galvanising force in the debates over whether girls should be allowed to play sports. Look at photos of large crowds anywhere in the region - whether at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan or an upscale mall in Dubai - and you will invariably see people sporting Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Manchester United jerseys.

European games are avidly watched across the region, courtesy of Qatari-owned beIN Sports, the same TV network broadcasting Spanish and French games to US audiences. The success of so many Muslim and immigrant players in the English, Spanish, French and German leagues provides a constant counter-narrative to terrorists' claims of immutable estrangement and alienation between West and East. And business interests from Muslim countries (most prominently the airlines from the Gulf states) so closely brand themselves through the sport that people in the Middle East feel certain fabled European clubs belong to them.


Children playing football in Syria. Across the Middle East, football has been a galvanising force, and the sport's singular role in bridging Western culture and Muslim youth is seen as one reason the terrorists targeted the France-Germany soccer match last Friday night. - PHOTO: REUTERS

And in some cases, they literally do. Paris' own iconic team, Paris Saint-Germain FC, is now owned by Qataris.

The targeting of football by militants fighting modernity should only intensify as the game's influence continues to expand in the Muslim world. When you look at the calendar of major tournaments - with the next two World Cups slated for Russia and Qatar, and next summer's Euro Championship hosted by France, kicking off in the targeted Stade de France - security forces everywhere, not to mention lovers of the game, should consider last Friday night a declaration of war by the terrorists against the world's most beloved sport.


•The writer is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, Arizona State University.


•This article was written for Zocalo Public Square, a project of the Centre for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and a not-for-profit "ideas exchange" that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'Foul bid to blow up bridges built by football'. Print Edition | Subscribe