Sport rivalry and abuse on social media
When people talk about fanaticism and abuse in sports, it is most often football and its fans that come to mind.
It is the fans that sports authorities target in awareness-raising campaigns.
As the UK Parliament culture, media, and sport select committee said in a report in 2012, “the atmosphere experienced by those attending football matches has changed hugely since the 70s and 80s, when racial and other forms of abuse were common.”
The situation was similar in Saudi Arabia, but strict controls on social media have prevented abusive fans from expressing their anger freely.
A few days ago, however, the Saudi Swimming Federation (SSF) came under fire on social media because of a water polo finals match between Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad.
The final was won by Al-Ittihad because of uneven number of players of opposing sides (Ittihad 7 Ahli 4). Everything was done by the book, according to the rules and regulations of the SSF. However, some fans came across an official tweet by the federation and overreacted by accusing the federation and the ministry of bias.
How did it get to that point? The matter was cleared up with both teams prior to the finals, but some angry fans waded in, treating it like a football match, and added their share of abuse on social media.
Why do some fans jump to conclusions without looking more carefully into the story? I had to look it up myself to understand it better.
When I contacted SSF President Ahmad Al-Kudmani, he said that during the semifinal, Al-Ahli played Al-Safa and won, despite an incomplete lineup after eight players tested positive for COVID-19 (water polo requires six players plus a goalkeeper on each side).
In the final against Al-Ittihad, it was confirmed that more players had tested positive and Al-Ahli could only field four players including the goalkeeper against their opponents’ full team of seven.
Under the extreme circumstances the federation’s water polo committee conferred with Nasser Al-Deghaither, water polo technical committee member at FINA, the International Swimming Federation, who confirmed that the Saudi federation is authorized to act on games if there is an issue.
The water polo committee also consulted international referees who confirmed that similar cases of lack of players had occurred where teams suffer from depleted lineups.
The matter was discussed with the managing directors of both clubs, the referees, and the water polo committee at the federation in advance of the game. They all agreed that the final should go ahead. Al-Ittihad was declared winner against an Al-Ahli side that had only four players, and was for that reason unable to play.
The option of delaying was seen as untenable due to the uncertainty of the situation recurring with other clubs in the future.
The delay would need to be at least a month (to account for 10 to 14 days isolation, then a period to regain strength) and the start of the next season is near, while there is still another competition remaining in this season’s schedule.
This decision also provided a way for Al-Ahli not to have to forfeit both games and with that have their ranking drop to the bottom with all points taken away. The other option was to cancel the tournament, but that would deprive clubs the financial support of the Ministry of Sport’s Clubs Support Program for Various Sports.
The federation also offered Al-Ahli the option of filling their first team with members from their junior team, but the club decided against it. Al-Ahli stuck by their four players to forfeit and finish the tournament as runners-up.
Al-Ahli formally requested the postponement before the match when two of their players tested positive for COVID-19. This request was rejected for the reasons mentioned above. Then, following the first semifinal match between Al-Qadisiyya and Al-Ittihad, the federation received another request for postponement from Al-Ahli after the detection of more positive cases. Again the request was also rejected.
This issue raises several questions: What to do about the intense club loyalty of fans when it gets out of hand? How can the media play a more positive role in understanding before stoking the flames of fan loyalty? How can clubs capitalize on the tremendous support provided by the Ministry of Sports support program, by boosting the number of players in sports like water polo?
I truly believe all three questions are crucial and require new strategies to answer.
Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to affect sports.
The Saudi Handball Federation informed its clubs that COVID-19 cases will not be considered justification for postponing a game. Al-Wihda football club in the UAE withdrew from the Asian Champions League because of coronavirus cases in its team, meaning they were in a similar situation to Al-Ahli water polo club, yet the SSF did not ask Al-Ahli to withdraw.
Al Hilal football club encountered a similar problem and asked to have their matches postponed, to no avail.
SSF President Al-Kudmani told me that the pandemic has caused “several challenges, but we are happy to return to the activities and competition under safety protocols established by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Sports.”
He added: “We will always have another game scheduled, another season to kick off … we can’t delay every time something like this happens. It’s a universal norm and happened many times before. Some athletes may feel sorry for missing a game. But others who are ready, healthy and prepared will feel sorry as well, and it’s unjust to delay it given the uncertainty the future holds. We at the federation keep the safety of all as the priority, but also seek to uphold the interests of the athletes and the clubs too to the best of our capacity.”
• Dr. Razan Baker is a director of international communication at the Saudi Olympic Committee, member board of directors, Saudi Bowling Federation; media and marketing committee member, Saudi Arabia Olympic Committee; specialist in corporate social responsibility in sports, and a sports columnist/journalist.