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The Jordanian Derby - Political Divides

Between them, Al-Faisaly and Al-Wihdat are two of the most successful clubs in the history of the Jordanian league. As in the case of any country, there is also a heated rivalry between the leading clubs, but in Jordan, the rivalry between the two goes much deeper than a mere sporting contest.

Al-Faisaly, named after the Hashemite King Faisal, is well supported by ‘native’ Jordanians, with a large following amongst King Abdullah’s power base. Its president, Sheikh Sultan al-Adwan, is a prominent landowner and a powerful elder of the Adwan tribe. Conversely, Al-Wihdat is named after the Palestinian refugee camp where it was formed, and is controlled by politican, Tareq Khoury, who has used his power within the club for political purposes in support of the Palestinians within Jordan.

Al-Faisaly and Al-Wihdat are bitter rivals, separated along cultural divides

These political differences mean that encounters between the two, and relations between the two sets of fans are heated. Many Al-Faisaly fans believe that they are superior to the Al-Wihdat supporters as they are original Jordanians, while the Al-Wihdat fans feel persecuted by the police and opposition fans due to their heritage.

The football field may seem a strange place for these political issues to be aired, but in Jordan, where speaking out against the government is generally prohibited, it has become a key arena in which these differences are most clearly seen.

However, these issues have caused tensions to boil over several times in recent times. The most recent incident came in December 2010 when an estimated 12 people were killed and over 250 were injured after riots broke out after the match.

Hundreds of fans were injured when riots broke out in December 2010

After a 1-0 victory for Al-Wihdat, a few Al-Faisaly fans outside the ground threw rocks at the Al-Wihdat supporters, leading to the police getting involved. When the stadium police attempted to physically force the Al-Wihdat fans from the stadium, many of the fans panicked and a stampede broke out. The collapse of a fence separating the crowd from the pitch caused further chaos and many fans were trampled in the carnage.

This was one of the most extreme incidents between the two, but certainly not the only. Only 18 months before the riot, the police had stepped in to stop a match after the Al-Faisaly fans began cursing Queen Rania and the heirs to the Jordanian throne, demanding that King Abdullah divorce his Palestinian wife.

Back in 2000 during the days of the Palestinian Intifada, Al-Faisaly supporters led chants in support of Benjamin Netanyahu as a way of mocking the Al-Wihdat fans. They also chanted against the mothers of Palestinian martyrs, leading to players on both sides walking off the pitch in protest.

It led to the Jordanian Football Federation banning supporters from attending a crucial cup match between the two for the first time in over 30 years, citing the chanting as ‘imposing a threat to the national unity of Jordan.’

The two clubs have made efforts in the past to end the political rivalry. In the 1990s, on the advice of Jordanian sporting officials, Al-Wihdat changed their name to ‘El Daften’, meaning ‘the Two Banks club’, in an attempt to bring unity between the Jordanians and the Palestinians. However, the change affected little, and they reinstated the old name.

Hopefully these scenes will not be seen this weekend in the derby
At the end of the day, the problem cannot be solved purely in the footballing arena. The trouble between the two sets of supporters is merely a symptom of a greater problem in the country as a whole.  People merely use the football as a means of representing their political stance.

The relations between Jordanians and Palestinians are much improved from the ‘Black September’ in 1970, when a Palestinian revolt was crushed by the Jordanian army – a conflict in which thousands of people were killed. Indeed, the football field is now one of the few places where the issue is still obvious.

The two sides meet this weekend in a contest that hopefully will be a fiercely fought derby on the pitch, but peaceful off it. However, it is an excellent example of where football has been used as a tool for airing political grievances that have nothing to do with the game itself.

The sport may receive criticism for the actions of minority groups of the two sets of fans, but it is impossible for the clubs or the Jordanian FA to resolve. It is an issue that needs to be addressed in the country as a whole, and until this is achieved, the Amman international stadium will continue to be one of the flashpoints for this cultural conflict.

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