I grew up watching Washington football with my father and brother so I have a deep, fulfilling, unshakeable hatred for the Dallas Cowboys. Later, when I moved to Boston, I watched the Patriots pursue a perfect season and the Redsox chase the World Series, so I thought I knew all about being a sports fan and supporting the home team. Then I moved to a small city in the Middle East.
I teach literature at a new university and one of the best ways to create links with my students is to connect what we are reading with their culture. And since ‘football’ (soccer) is a major part of their lives, I pull sports metaphors into my literature classes, explaining Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada in terms of offense and defense, comparing the queen protecting her country to the famous Omani goal-keeper Ali al Habsi.
But I have gradually realized that soccer here is quite different than in the States. My sister’s children play soccer in Vermont. They have uniforms, scheduled practices, a coach, fields with clipped grass and painted white lines, goals with a net to catch the ball. And that ball is white, fully-inflated and regulation-sized. There is organization. There is a season with a beginning, an end, and a referee with a whistle. The kids wear cleats and matching shirts. The parents car-pool, have phone-trees, stand on the side-lines and watch. Everyone knows who, what, when, where. The ‘why’ is for the kids to enjoy themselves, get some exercise, and learn to be part of a team.
In Salalah, football is a group of boys or men who feel like playing. They gather in loose-knit teams every afternoon and whoever shows up plays, sometimes 20 players on one side. They play on the beach or gravel lots, usually barefoot, with rocks to mark the goal. The side lines are either lines drawn in the sand, quickly obliterated by scuffling for the ball, or a line of small rocks. The ball is whatever color, size and shape happens to be around. And when the kids play, there are no adults anywhere near.
I got my second lesson in Omani-style sports when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met in the capital city of Muscat. The meeting of the government leaders was enlivened by the Gulf Cup, a football (i.e. soccer) tournament. I first realized something was odd when the DJs on the English-language radio station seemed weirdly humble. “Of course all the teams will play well,” they would declare. “We are rooting for all the teams!” “We wish everyone good luck!”
This is team-spirit? I asked myself. This is the battle cry? During a call-in show, one DJ asked the listener to predict the score of the first game (Oman vs. Kuwait). “Oman will win!” chirped the guest, “1-0.” 1-0? What kind of score is that? What happened to annihilating the enemy? Crushing them in devastating defeat? Humiliation! 24-0! I remembered the public buses in Boston during World Series frenzy displaying “Go Sox” instead of the route number. Everyone in the city had blood lust.
But, this is Oman. Public displays of bravado are not encouraged; the culture supports working together. I should have known better than to expect the whole ‘who’s your daddy’ insult-fest. I once heard a 27 year-old Omani officer in the military, fluent in English, trying to find a way to convey his disgust, hated and utter contempt for a group of people. After puzzling over the most biting words to show his disdain, he announced, “they do not love their mothers.” That’s about as bad as it gets in Oman.
When I watched the end of the Saudi-Kuwait game, as the camera panned the stadium full of fans from both sides calmly standing and applauding, it was hard to tell which side won. Sedate appreciation is the expectation. When a player falls on the field, it is normal to offer him a hand; but in the GCC Cup, a fallen player is grabbed from behind and scooped up onto his feet. Players arguing with the referee are quietly talked down by members of both teams.
Not that there isn’t deep emotion attached to the sports teams. A few members of the national team came to visit the University for a Pep Rally and the entire auditorium was packed. My students, male and female, wore their Omani football scarves to class during the tournament. Many young men decorated their cars with the Omani flag or striped in the Omani colors (red, green and white). After every Omani victory, guys would drive around the city honking and singing. There was even a spontaneous parade near the old souq.
But the celebrations were positive and family-friendly. Of course, in a Muslim country, there was no public drunkenness, but there was also no vandalism, no need for extra police, not the slightest trace of ‘hooligan’ behavior. And when Oman ended up winning the championship game, the leader, Sultan Qaboos, declared a public holiday – all schools, offices and government offices were closed for a day. Sportsman-like behavior!