Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Crossing The Jordah. Heading To Amman For World Cup Qualifier

I love these moments. When you look at a fixture list and think you know what, I can make a few of them. I am referring of course to the World Cup Qualifiers and my plan all those months ago was to catch Kuwait play Laos, hopefully in Kuwait City. I say hopefully, the Blues played an earlier qualifier in Doha so you never know. But yes, Kuwait v Laos, what self respecting football fan would want to miss that tie? Ok perhaps I’m a little biased but my old mate Steve Darby was coaching the Lao national side and it would have been good to have caught up with him.

Then Kuwait went and got themselves suspended by FIFA over some law or other. Things got murky for a while, Kuwait were fined and had points deducted for not playing a qualifying tie, they were disqualified how does that work, and then at the end of March FIFA made a decision. With the group stages all but over the gnomes of Zurich decreed Kuwait would, finally, be suspended from the World Cup on account of the suspension. Why had it taken so long to come to that decision? I don’t know and I’m guessing those who do know will keep that secret in their smoky rooms.

Whatever and why ever I was left with a free day and some free time. Where to go? I went to the best on line resource to check out the fixtures and soon saw I was spoilt for choice, so I was.

Bahrain v Yemen. UAE v Palestine. Oman v Guam. Syria v Cambodia (played in Oman). Qatar v Hong Kong. Jordan v Bangladesh. Saudi Arabia v Malaysia.

Qatar of course were to host the World Cup in 2022. Surely that was the place to go. With migrant workers dying building the stadiums for the event and a side built on foreign players who had become naturalised Qataris it surely was the pick of the ties from a newsworthy viewpoint as well as a football viewpoint. And what were Hong Kong but a team filled with naturalised players punching above their weight. In effect they were Qatar with chopsticks. But budget airlines have yet to take hold in the gulf and flights to Doha were at crazy prices so I nixxed that idea. Well, I don’t get the expenses, that is my excuse and one I will stick to.

Given the amount of time I have spent travelling to and from Malaysia over the years watching football it is a shame that a trip to Jeddah was always going to be a non starter. The Saudis are not keen on having foreigners come on casual visits and you can just imagine the funny looks I would have got at their embassy had I fronted up and said yep, I wanna visit your beautiful country for 36 hours to see a football match. They would never have given me a visa and neither FIFA nor the AFC seem to fussed about a member association reluctant to let travelling fans darken their border posts.

UAE hosted Palestine in Abu Dhabi and in contrast to Dubai flights there are also in the region of stupid. Likewise Bahrain. ‘Tis little more than a six hour drive from Kuwait to Qatar say those who have done it but the airlines don’t see it that way and again overland means going through Saudi and they don’t really want me period.

I decided to go to Jordan primarily because the flights were cheaper That they had also appointed Harry Redknapp for a couple of games was neither here nor there. The last time I had been in the same stadium as him was way back in 1989 when he was still managing Bournemouth in an FA Cup replay against Hartlepool United. Since then of course he went on to manage West Ham United, the club he played for, Portsmouth, Southampton, Tottenham and Queens Park Rangers. Since then he has gone on to be everyone’s favourite London manager with his ‘triffics’ and interviews through an open car window giving him a fame and status none of us present at Dean Court that January evening could have imagined.

In keeping with the Bournemouth connection, have you walked to their ground from the station, getting from Kuwait to Amman took me round the houses with a transit in Dubai and an upgrade to business class for the second leg of the my journey which began inauspiciously when I and the other gilded elite sitting at the front of the plane were told we couldn’t board until after cattle class had boarded first. Oh how we tittered as we frustratingly fingered out boarding passes and watched the lower orders pass us by. Why did we titter so? Well for me I thought the guy who stopped us from boarding looked like a fawn. With his pointy ears, pointy beard and pointy chin and not to mention his unfeasibly large feet he looked like Tumnus from the Lion, the With and the Wardrobe. Trouble is, unlike his literary lookalike, when Lucy needed his help he wasn’t there...a young girl fell down the escalator and Tumnus took the opportunity to show his lift operating skills elsewhere.

We finally boarded the bus and after a 20 minute drive we fronted up at the plane. It has always bugged me how airlines are quite happy to land in remote parts of the airport and ferry passengers on buses, standing room only, yet they spend so much time before take off telling us to sit down and buckle up. A mystery of air travel indeed. Not for the business class passengers of course,they get to sit on a bus! Mind, it’s swings and roundabouts. When planes crash it is the front that usually suffers the worst of the impact and all those frequent flyer points and a choice of red or white wines are no help then. Anyway, this bus took us to the wrong plane. I changed my mind. It wasn’t Tumnus and we were all extras in an episode of Mr Bean.

The flight was uneventful, I slept through my upgrade, and we landed in Amman on time. Immigration was quick and painless though at 40 quid a visa the wallet took a hit. 40 quid for 24 hours in country?!  And what kind of customer service do you get for your 40 notes? Immigration staff changing shift, that’s what you get. Throughout the region the passport stampers seem to be a very sociable lot. With each other at least. One of their colleagues is always passing and the one at the desk will always stop what he is doing to have a kiss and an embrace with his peer, discuss whatever pally immigration chaps discuss before returning almost reluctantly to the matter at hand and protecting their nation’s borders. For some of them it seems less like work and more like an extension to their social life while for those of us waiting their beck and call there is sod all we can do but grin and bear it.

Some countries are worse than others. At one the immigration are uniformly miserable and hide themselves from the sheer mundanity of their work by plugging ear phones into their i-phones and frowning their way through their duties. Pesky foreigners and beckoned forward with a cursory flick of the wrist, the fingers tap across the keyboard and we are stamped in and sent on our way with contempt as the next arrival is called forth. Locals, unschooled in the fine art of queuing, effortlessly breeze to the front of the queue no matter how long or how deep and suddenly the official shows some level animation as he stamps his countryman back into the nation’s loving embrace.

Anyway I got through painlessly and was met out front by a driver from the cheap hotel I was staying in. I never did find out his name and I never got to use him again on the trip but I did like that guy. He was surprised to learn that no, I didn’t have any interest in visiting Petra or the Dead Sea. So what was I doing here he asked politely in heavily accented but near perfect English. Football, he exclaimed! ‘Is there a game on?’ he then asked if I was a referee!

His story was far more interesting than mine. Interesting in a tragic sense. He was born in Jerusalem in 1962 but was forced to leave in 1968 during the war when Israelis felt they needed his family home more than a six year old child and his family did. Nearly half a century later did the resentment linger? Were his children growing up with the realisation daddy’s childhood had been ripped from him? I never asked. I was too scared. Here we were beetling down the highway into Amman and it seemed like this chap was unburdening his life story to me, a total stranger. There was no animosity in his voice, no sense of blame. I guess after almost half a century time heals. Or does it?

His family moved to Kuwait, then a newly independent nation coming to terms with the black gold that bubbled under its sands. He went to school there, university. Then 1990. Iraq invaded and for the second time his family faced an occupier. Some of the family moved, this time to Jordan where almost half the population were Palestinian. Some of his family stayed in Kuwait and awaited liberation. Twice in his life his family has been torn asunder by the actions of men in suits and uniforms. Twice. And here I am with the biggest decision I have had to face in recent weeks...which bloody football match should I go to.

I wonder if Harry Redknapp gets the opportunity to sit down and listen to the stories of the people who surround him or will he just focus on the next game? We had hit traffic on the outskirts of Amman and I realised in the cars, in the offices and on the streets there were hundreds of other stories like my taxi drivers unknown to us in the west. A terrorist attack on the street of Europe and we can’t wait to rush to Twitter and hashtag our support for those we deem to be under attack while seizing on an image that can be deemed the iconic snapshot of such and such a disaster. We can relate to them, it’s Europe and we are all European, EU notwithstanding and we can use social media to show our sympathy.

I grew up during the years the IRA were doing their best to bomb the British Army out of Ulster. Now they were terrorists we could relate to. We could identify with their lovely murals that lit up terraced houses, their lovely ditties that could be played on a tin whistle and a banjo and of course those we forever associated with that hapless Irish builder in Fawlty Towers. The IRA may have been very efficient in the art of terrorizing but it was very difficult for us to fear them; we had grown up telling Irish jokes, drinking Irish beer, listening to Irish bands and supporting football teams with Irish players. We had Irish mates who wanted nothing more than a united Ireland and a beer with their Brit mates at the football.

And of course we didn’t have social media where anonymous keyboard warriors with heads like eggs according to their avatar would devote their free time to creating memes that targetted a single community in the hope of attracting a few followers or likes. We couldn’t lose ourselves in our made up on line world where we could compete with other people with made up lives in expressing our outrage at the latest terrorist atrocity. And no, we didn’t have Katie Hopkins either. No reality TV in them days.

With 24/7 news coverage we are immune to the troubles of the Middle East. Another bomb, another riot, another child killed. It has been going on so long it  no longer make headlines, we see it as a norm. It’s bollocks of course and all them back slapping, back stabbing politicians in their fine suits with their MBAs and fine education should look at themselves in the mirror and vomit at what they see. United Nations my arse. That we are looking at two, three generations of unrest over the Palestine question brings nothing less than shame on all those suits and their so called diplomacy. In the 21st century how can we allow families be broken up time and time again because leaders just ain’t fit for the job.

Not three days earlier a Palestinian was shaking as he described to me the humiliating journey he has to undertake everytime he wants to go and see his wife and children from Kuwait. The checkpoints, the barbed wire. ‘I miss my wife,’ he almost choked as he struggled to get the words out. To support his family he has done what I have done and gone abroad. But for him, unlike me, returning home is no easy way as he faces the wrath and scorn of men in uniforms who have been brought up to at worst hate, at best mistrust him and his kind. I miss my wife and my son but the only obstacle I face is a 12 hour journey. Is it any wonder people are bitter?

Jordan is peopled with the victims of politicians and generals and their failed ideas of bullets and brawn. Jordan, a country steeped in history and significance is having to deal with the overspill of conflict in Israel and now Syria and Iraq and I guess luckily for the rest of us there is no Jordanian equivalent of UKIP or Donald Trump to whip up hysteria against those who are suffering. Because so many have suffered themselves, I guess it is easier to offer the hand of friendship. For us in the west a thousand stories remain untold because we have been conditioned to believe in a single narrative, a tale where taking a land and oppressing the original inhabitants of that land is seen as a good thing because those original inhabitants are different to us. The native Americans, the Maoris, the indigenous Australians, we have form and we are sticking to that form.

As you can probably tell I have been deeply moved by my chat with the taxi driver. I wanted to hire him later to go to the football but alas and alack it was not to be. I had so many questions to ask and sorry to say the next driver wasn’t up to it. He was Palestinian but was born in Jordan and stayed there all his life. From my point of view his story was boring because it was so ordinary. The first driver, he had tragedy to tell and I wanted to listen. The second? He turned down my offer of a meal at McDonald’s and was happy to play with his smart phone.

I wanted to know about the Jordanian and the Palestinian and how it affected football. I really wanted to talk to someone about the Jordan Derby between Al Faisaly and Al Wehdat. In 2010 crowd trouble at a game between the two sides saw 250 injured when a fence collapsed and fans spilled on to the pitch. Later Al Wehdat fans accused security forces of heavy handedness against them while treating the opposing fans less harshly, accusations the government denied. Meanwhile a year earlier the game had been cancelled over fears of trouble. Al Wehdat, supported by the Palestinian community clinging to the memory of the land on the other side of the river and Al Faisaly drawing their support from local Bedouin Jordanians. In fact the sides had met some three weeks before my arrival, playing at the same Amman International Stadium I was due to visit with Al Wehdat taking the honours thanks to Wagsley’s goal with some 19 minutes on the clock. No doubt the fans would have filed out of the stadium savouring their victory  and filling the air with their ever so slightly nationalistic chant Allah, Wihdat, Al Quds Arabi(God, Wihat, Jerusalem [for the] Arabs)’. The first game of the season had ended 1-0 in favour of Al Faisaly at the same venue and I was burning to ask someone about the games and the rivalry.

Now, muggins old me would have though the Palestinian community would have been grateful to Jordan and the way the country has allowed so many to settle in the country but nope, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1998 the Palestine Football Association was finally recognised by FIFA and started to compete in competitions under its umbrella but for 10 years were forced to play their home games away. If you know what I mean. Finally in 2008 they were allowed to host a home game and it seemed only right they should choose Jordan to open their Faisal Al Husseini Stadium.
Jibril Rajoub was president of the FA at the time. ‘From the first moment I was elected as president I started organising to have a match here between our first national team with any team that would play us,’ he explained in an interview in When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone by James Montague.
"In my first meeting with [Fifa president] Sepp Blatter in May, I asked him and the process began. He said OK and would sponsor such a match and then the deputy president [of the FA] of Jordan approached us.
"But to be fair many, many teams approached us to be the first team to play in Palestine but our brothers in Jordan insisted and they deserve to be the first one to play the match because they have helped us so much and contributed to where we are today."
Despite that goodwill gesture, it seems some Palestinians resent a perceived glass ceiling that prevents them from getting top posts in the government while for their part the Jordanians feel the Palestinians aren’t totally committed to the country. And as we have seen they feel they are treated differently by the security forces in relation to those who traced their roots to the east bank of the Jordan river.

After checking into the hotel a second driver took me to the Amman International Stadium and then the fun really began. I couldn’t see any ticket office and when I asked a couple of guys wearing those Local Organising Committee badges around their neck they were of no help. Despite holding wedges of tickets in their hands they beckoned for a tout and with reluctance I handed over my 4 Jordanian Dinar for a 3 JD ticket.

Not for the first time in the Middle East I had problems entering the stadium. I dunno, I guess in the past they must have had serious problems from single middle aged Englishmen watching football matches because the search I went through at the turnstile was far stricter than any I had experienced for many a moon. Bags, pockets. It didn’t help matters, in their eyes at least, that I was carrying my laptop and a point and shoot camera that would probably been seen as retro these days. They confiscated my bottle of water and said nope, you can’t come in before one protestations of innocence started to have an effect and they took me to the VIP enclosure.

Here I was searched again and a guy from the FA came over and said nope, I cannot enter the stadium because I was carrying a laptop and a camera and under no circumstance could I take pictures in the stadium. So I looked at him and explained for the nth time that I had flown from Kuwait to see the game, I had just come from the airport blah blah. Apparently it was a rule. No cameras inside the stadiums, only press photographers. It was like Dubai all over again. I didn’t ask where the rules were written because I didn’t want to rile them but there was certainly nothing written on the tickets.

Common sense, or boredom, kicked in and I was finally allowed inside the stadium only after promising I would not talk pictures. They let me in the VIP section, my second upgrade of the day, and what do you know? Around me people were taking pictures and drinking from plastic bottles of water and cans of coke.why was I singled out like this? I have no idea. To be fair it was never scary or intimidating and I think in the end they just thought what the hell but what was it all about? Perhaps it was all a charade. People doing their job and passing me along the line because they didn’t want to be the one to carry the can should I enter the stadium and I don’t know, use my laptop as an offensive weapon or take a photograph of a floodlight. Looking back it seems clear I was steadily passed along the chain of command until someone with the right amount of sway, or just the balls to make a decision, said yep, go for it. Common sense did prevail and once I was in the ground no one took a blind bit of notice of me. Nor the small group of Bangladesh supporters who spent the 90 minutes taking selfies and filling SnapChat with videos while necking from plastic bottles of water.

I say Bangladesh supporters. Half of that is correct. They were Bangladeshis but I don’t think they were hardcore passionate supporters who had travelled from cities like Khulna, Syhlet and Barisal to cheer on their team. Yes they had the green Bangladesh flag with the slightly off centre red circle representing the blood spilled fighting for the independence of a lush, fertile land but these were locally based Bangladeshis; expats with jobs to do in Amman nipping out of the office or the warehouse for a few hours to chill with their homies. They were not there to support their team, they would not have known their number one from their number seven (probably something they had in common with newly arrived Jordanian coach Redknapp) they were there as an act of unity with their country. The 90 minutes was a social event with 11 of their countryman playing on a field and getting the bejesus walloped out of them was neither here nor there. It was selfie time and apps like SnapChat and Twitter must have been buzzing with activity from a few square feet in downtown Amman.

Safely ensconced in the main covered stand just feet from a raucous grouping of Jordanian fans, the Bangladeshis were genuinely oblivious to their surroundings and once some of the home fans became aware of their presence the visitors responded with smiles, waves and of course more pictures. As the goals flew in good natured hand signals and smiles continued to be swapped between the rival fans. Had it been England fans there? The more literate would be standing arms spread wide yelling ‘come on then, who fucking wants it’ while those who struggle to put words into meaningful sentences would be climbing the fences, faces screwed up in anguish and angst, getting hard at the prospect of agro in an exotic land.

The game itself was over after 45 minutes with Jordan leading 5-0. They went on to win 8-0 but the second half was a non event. Honestly, I think I touched the ball more times than the Jordan goalkeeper so one sided was the game. You could imagine Harry Redknapp in the car park after the game being stopped and saying ‘triffic, love this international coaching lark...told you I could have done a job for England.’

Hamza Al Dardour hit a first half hat trick for Jordan as the home side set about Bangladesh with gay abandon. Defensively the Bangleadeshis were a shambles with no shape or discipline and it soon became clear the only thing in doubt was how many goals Jordan would score. Al Dardour, who plays for Kuwait SC, looked a threat all game and thoroughly deserved his hat trick and aged just 24 looks to have a bright future ahead of him if a team from a bigger league can pick up on his talents in the penalty area.

His first came from a break on seven minutes when a lovely first touch took him ahead of the statuesque Bangladeshi defence and he finished coolly, passing the ball almost under the onrushing keeper. His second came on 23 minutes showing a predatory instinct to get in front of the defender to finish with a little dink over the keeper before completing his hat trick on 40 minutes taking advantage of a ricochet off a defender to finish calmly. The other goals came from Abdallah Deeb, from the spot half way through the first half, Al Rawashdeh, Bahaa Faisal, Al Naber and a last minute penalty from Samir.

Actually one interview Redknapp did after the game caught the attention of the wise old hacks in England. Redknapp looking dapper in his Jordan FA sweatshirt was stopped by a local journalist who bore more than a striking similarity to Goerge Costanza out of that awful US sitcom Seinfeld and asked a couple of questions. Redknapp said everything was wonderful, there were some good players in Jordan and Prince Ali loved football. That was about it and like Seinfeld it was an interview about nothing and Redknapp, brought up on English journos and their inane questions like how do you feel batted away the questions effortlessly. However the English media picked up on the interview with one describing it as ‘cringeworthy’.

I’m not sure what they felt was cringeworthy about the interview but I got the feeling they were being condescending to their Jordanian colleague and his bumbling attempts at speaking English as well as at one stage him turning Redknapp to face the camera. Because of course the English hacks are well known for being multi-lingual aren’t they? You can just imagine Richard Keys and Andy Gray discussing the Qatar Stars League with their Qatari colleagues in their Doha studio using their famed Arabic language skills? Or newspaper journos switching effortlessly between English and German following England’s surprising 3-2 victory in a friendly in Berlin a couple of days later.

What was cringeworthy was the coach of the national team didn’t seem to know any of his players’ names. Yes he had only been in Jordan a couple of days but come on. Never heard of Wikipedia? Research? What if a foreign manager had arrived in England and given an interview without naming any of his players? You can imagine the fire and brimstone that would be targeted his way. Jordan had won 8-0, one of his players had hit a hat trick and his goalie hadn’t broken into sweat. Surely it couldn’t have been too hard to make a note of a name or two, wily old media campaigner that Redknapp is.

As Redknapp and the guy from Seinfeld exchanged comments pitchside I made my way back to the car and driver I had hired and we headed off to my second port of call, edging our way through the crowds of home fans celebrating the big win. Next stop was The Rovers Return, an English pub in the upmarket suburb of Sweifieh. I ordered a pint as one does in these types of hostelries and as I settled down to watch Qatar play Hong Kong on one of the wall mounted TV screens it dawned on me I had just paid 8.50 for a pint of Dutch lager.

Shocked? I was so bloody shocked I soon necked that first beer and ordered a second just to make sure I hadn’t been ‘ripped off’ as opposed to just ripped off. But low and behold the second beer also cost 8.50 and to compound the lunacy I bought a third hoping to put an end to the fallacy once and for all I am a stingy git when it comes to buy beers, a stingy git with short arms and long deep pockets. Feeling light headed and dizzy at seeing 25 quid disappear so casually and effortlessly into the pockets of some invisible landlord I decided enough was enough. I had been to the football and I had been to the pub. My Jordan trip was effectively over; all that remained was a good night’s kip and a return trip to the airport. 

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