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By James M. Dorsey
Middle Eastern nations are competing to stack up successful bids to host major soccer events in an effort to position themselves as sports leaders as well as the region as a sports hub.
The United Arab Emirates, not one to remain in the shadow of Qatar, the winner of the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and is current host of the Asian Cup, is bidding for three of the five upcoming competitions that will be decided by FIFA’s Executive Committee on March 2 and 3. Ghana is the UAE’s only competition for the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2013; Turkey and Uzbekistan are gunning alongside the UAE for the U-20 World Cup 2013 and in the case of the U-17 Women’s World Cup 2014, the UAE is up against Costa Rica, Ghana, Macedonia, Russia, and Uzbekistan.
Tunisia is hoping to host in 2015 both the U-17 and U-20 World Cups, but its chances against Chile, Russia and Wales for the U-17 and New Zealand, Peru and Wales for U-20 World Cup are likely to have been significantly diminished by chaos and instability in the country in the wake of mass protests that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Turkey is a regional soccer powerhouse even though it competes in Europe rather than the Middle East and is hosting the 2012 UEFA Euro Cup.
The UAE bids constitute an effort by the emirates to muscle their way into soccer after Dubai established itself as a venue for international tennis, golf and equestrian tournaments and Abu Dhabi became part of the F-1 Grand Prix Circuit. Abu Dhabi hosted in December the FIFA Club World Cup.
Soccer ranks high on the to-do list of cash-rich oil Sheikhs seeking glory for themselves and political and economic status for their fiefdoms. It is part of a strategy to drive tourism to a soccer-crazy, conservative part of the world that suffers high temperatures in the summer, but is employing sports and culture to diversify its economy and establish itself as a popular tourism destination.
Of all the bids, a UAE success in clinching U-17 Women’s World Cup would perhaps be the most significant. It would boost women’s soccer in a chauvinist, male dominated part of the world in which women’s soccer is considered by many at best controversial and at worst blasphemous.
The struggle for women’s soccer in the Middle East is one that is fought in the bedroom against husbands who prefer to keep their womenfolk at home, in parliaments that denounce women players for competing in international tournaments and against clerics who condemn women’s soccer as corrupting and satanic and warn that running and jumping can damage a woman's hymen and ruin her chances of getting married.