Friday, August 26, 2016

As surveillance tightens, Islamic State returns to soccer for recruitment

Coming under under increased military pressure in Syria and Iraq and desperate to project a degree of normalcy in areas it still controls, the the Islamic State (IS) appears to be turning to sports and football in particular. According to Dr James M Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, IS attitudes towards soccer are complicated by the fact that many jihadist and militant Islamist leaders are either former football players or soccer fans:

ABU OTAIBA, THE nom du guerre of a self-taught imam and Islamic State (IS) recruiter in Jordan, uses soccer to attract recruits. "We take them to farms, or private homes. There we discuss and we organize soccer games to bring them closer to us,” Abu Otaiba told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview.

Abu Otaiba said he was recruiting outside of mosques because they “are filled with intelligence officials.” Mosques serve him these days as a venue to identify potential recruits whom he approaches elsewhere.

A similar development is evident in Jordanian universities where sports clubs and dormitories have become favoured IS hunting grounds because they so far don’t figure prominently on Jordanian intelligence’s radar.

IS’ use of soccer reflects anthropologist Scott Atran’s observation that suicide bombers often emerge from groups with an action-oriented activity. It also is symptomatic of jihadists’ convoluted relationship to a sport that they on the one hand view as an invention of infidels designed to distract the faithful from their religious obligations and on the other hand see as a useful tool to draw in new recruits.

Attitudes towards soccer are complicated by the fact that many jihadist and militant Islamist leaders are either former players or soccer fans. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a fervent soccer player while in USA prison in Iraq where he earned the nickname Maradona after Argentinian superstar Diego Maradona.

Osama Bin Laden was believed to be an Arsenal FC fan who had his own mini-World Cup during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Teams formed by foreign fighters based on nationality played against one another in downtime. While in exile in Sudan, Mr. Bin Laden had two squads that trained three times a week and play on Fridays after midday prayers.

Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah manages clubs in Lebanon while Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, a former player has organized tournaments in Gaza.

An online review conducted in 2014 by Vocativ of jihadist and militant Islamist Facebook pages showed that their owners often were soccer fans. However, jihadist empathy for the sport does not stop them from targeting local games in a geography stretching from Iraq to Nigeria as well as big ticket European and World Cup matches whose live broadcasts hold out the promise of a worldwide audience.
New book by James M Dorsey:
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer
A IS suicide bomber blew himself up in March in a soccer stadium south of the Iraqi capital, killing 29 people and wounding 60. The bomber chose a match in a small stadium in the city of Iskanderiya, 30 miles from Baghdad. The London-based Quilliam Foundation reported at about the same time that boys in IS military training were instructed to kick decapitated heads as soccer balls.

Crowds in IS’ Syrian capital of Raqqa were forced in July to attend the public execution of four players of the city’s disbanded Al Shabab SC soccer team -- Osama Abu Kuwait, Ihsan Al Shuwaikh, Nehad Al Hussein and Ahmed Ahawakh -- on charges that they had been spies for the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish militia that is in the frontline of confronting IS on the ground in Syria.

Yet, Breaking with its past muddled banning of soccer despite its use of the sport as a recruiting tool, IS has urged boys in various towns including Raqqa in Syria and Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq to participate in what it dubbed the Jihad Olympics.

Boys, despite a ban on soccer jerseys and the execution of 13 kids in early 2015 for watching an Asian Cup match on television, play soccer or tug of war during the events and are awarded sweets and balloons if their team is victorious. The boys’ families are invited to watch the games.

IS appears to have been struggling with the notion of using soccer as a way of placating its population and projecting normalcy for some time. The group authorized the showing of the FC Barcelona and Real Madrid derby a week after the attacks in November 2015 in Paris that targeted a major soccer match among others, but at kick-off rescinded the permission and closed down cafes and venues broadcasting the match because of a minute’s silence at the beginning of the game in the Madrid stadium in honour of the victims of the attacks in the French capital.

A precursor to IS’ Jihad Olympics was an exemption of children from the ban on soccer as well as video clips showing fighters in a town square kicking a ball with kids. Confusion within the group about its policy towards soccer is reflected in the fact that age limits for the exemption vary from town to town. In Manbij, a town near Aleppo recently conquered by US-backed militias, children older than 12 were forbidden to play the game while in Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor in eastern Syria the age limit is believed to be 15.

Similarly, foreign fighters have been allowed to own decoders for sports channels and watch matches in the privacy of their homes.

“IS policy towards soccer is driven by opportunism and impulse. The group fundamentally despises the game, yet can’t deny that it is popular in its ranks and in territory it governs,” said a former Raqqa resident.

Dr James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of W├╝rzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

European football: meet soccer's 'hot money' new club owners from China

China’s goal to create a domestic sports economy worth $850 billion by 2025 means that football is fast becoming a vital component of an emerging industrial sector. Now Chinese businesses are showing an "intense interest" in acquiring European soccer clubs. Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester, examines who they are, and what their motives are when buying a club.

IF RECENT REPORTS ARE to be believed, we are a matter of days away from AC Milan finally revealing who its new owners will be. The club announced some weeks ago that it has been sold to Chinese investors, even though there is still some mystery surrounding the club’s acquisition price.

This mystery is symptomatic of stories that have swirled around the Rossoneri for months. Reports have variously identified search engine Baidu, alcohol brand Maotai, and conglomerate Alibaba as being the prospective buyers of one of Italy’s best-known and most iconic clubs.

At the same time, rumour and counter-rumour have left fans of English clubs West Bromwich Albion (of the Premier League) and Wolverhampton Wanderers (of the Championship, the tier below the Premier League) bewildered by the array of possible new owners reportedly seeking to buy their clubs. 

Over the last week, Liverpool has joined this list, with some reports suggesting that art dealer and entrepreneur Liu Yigian will buy the club, and in doing so make The Reds China’s biggest English purchase yet.

At the time of writing, Albion fans remained enthralled by the prospect that Wang Jianlin, owner of the Wanda Corporation and one of China’s richest men, could be the club’s new owner, while Wolves fans have been on tenterhooks, faced with the possibility that Robin Li of Baidu is their club’s Chinese purchaser.

At the same time, Chinese retailer Suning has recently followed-up its earlier acquisition of Jiangsu of the Chinese Super League, with the purchase of a 70% stake in AC Milan’s cross-city rivals Inter Milan.

I have previously detailed China’s football goals and why it is perhaps no surprise that we have seen several European football clubs being acquired by Chinese investors. However, in the more specific cases noted above, one is still left to ask who these people and organisations are, and what their motives are when buying a club.

A recent report by the BBC highlighted the composition of club owners in the Chinese Super League. 

All 16 CSL clubs are owned by businesses from these sectors (Source: Simon Chadwick)
The predominance of real estate investment in Chinese domestic football is significant, especially as we have seen little evidence of such investments in overseas clubs. Arguably the most significant reason for this is that real estate and property companies are effectively dependent upon the state for planning permission. At the same time, in China there is intense competition for land, particularly in urban areas.

Being seen to publicly support the state’s pursuit of its football goals is therefore one way of navigating through the red tape, thereby easing the route towards successfully securing planning permission. It also provides a competitive advantage when companies are bidding to secure use of land. It is surely no coincidence that Chinese football’s most successful recent club (Guangzhou Evergrande) is owned by a real estate corporation.

Real estate management is much less of an issue for Chinese investors in overseas clubs, which explains why other types of corporations have been in the vanguard of recent European acquisitions. Upon securing a 20% stake in Atletico Madrid, Wanda owner Wang explained how Madrid would become a hub in a global entertainment axis stretching from Beijing through the Spanish capital to Los Angeles.

Wanda now owns AMC, the cinema business, as well as Legendary Studios in Hollywood, while recent rumours suggest the company is also considering a bid for Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. Given Wanda’s additional ownership of Infront Sports and Media, and Ironman Triathlon, it becomes clearer that Wang sees football as an entertainment product, part of a vertically integrated global business empire.

There are some similarities between Wanda, and Baidu and Alibaba, albeit that the latter two have core businesses that operate in digital spaces. Baidu is best known as a search engine, while Alibaba started out as an e-commerce company. Given the voracious appetite of new Chinese consumers for online consumption and social media, it is inevitable that both need content to drive their business models. Football provides this content and is a proven point of engagement for users.

Aside from Alibaba’s ownership stake in China’s Guangzhou Evergrande, it remains to be seen whether either company will acquire a European club. This contrasts with Chinese electrical retailer Suning, which owns both the Chinese Super League’s Jiangsu club and Italian Serie A’s Inter Milan. Stories continue to circulate as well that Suning is bidding to acquire player agency Stellar (which, among others, represents Real Madrid’s Wales star Gareth Bale).

Suning’s ownership of two clubs and, potentially, an agency that could represent players moving between them poses some interesting ethical and governance issues. That aside though, one is left to ask why a high-street store chain seems intent on creating an integrated football supply-chain business?

The answer is: probably for the same reasons as Wanda, Baidu and Alibaba. is one of China’s largest e-commerce platforms, while its stores sell electrical items such as computers, televisions and so forth. Strategically, Suning’s rapid, decisive moves into football indicate that the business seems intent on creating and managing the content that fans and consumers can access via the equipment they can buy in Suning stores.

Intense interest in Europe

China Media Capital (CMC) is probably best known in football for its £265 (USD $350) million purchase of a 13% stake in English club Manchester City. City’s existing ownership structure (the club was bought by Abu Dhabi’s ruling family in 2008) implies that Chinese investment in the club has a geopolitical and strategic dimension to it. Given Abu Dhabi’s oil reserves, which China presumably wants access to, the tie-up seems logical.

The relationship seems even more logical given that CMC is a state-backed firm, effectively an organisation that represents China’s investment interests abroad. At one level, CMC is therefore something akin to a sports sovereign wealth fund, which has been set up to engage in long-term, revenue-generating investment opportunities. At another level, the firm appears to have been tasked with identifying properties in which to invest that are likely to have a significant impact upon the development of football in China.

Beyond the politics, and China’s corporate juggernauts, other Chinese businesses are taking an increasingly intense interest in European football. Several weeks ago, Tony Xia and the Recon Group acquired Aston Villa, a club recently relegated from the English Premier League. Xia joins the likes of Hui Wang and United Vansen International Sports at Den Haag in the Netherlands, and Li Wing-Sang of Ledus at Sochaux in France, in acquiring a European football club.

The peculiarities of running a business in China means that such companies and their owners are likely to benefit from them contributing to the national football effort. One might call this corporate or state-level guanxi. Investor intentions, though, are not always political or indirectly commercial, as there are likely to be other motives too for their sudden engagement in football.

One reason is that, given China’s goal to create a domestic sports economy worth $850 billion by 2025, football is fast becoming a vital component of an emerging industrial sector. However, at the same time, the financial value of sports properties in China is booming, something that concerns investors. As such, what has been termed by some observers as ‘hot money’ is being invested offshore to mitigate risk in the event of the Chinese sports market over-heating.

Critics might interpret the phrase ‘hot money’ as being a euphemism for something more unsavoury. In this respect, the case of Carson Yeung, who bought English club Birmingham City in 2009, is proving to be unhelpful to the new wave of Chinese investors.

Indeed, with Yeung in mind, the response of Europeans to the likes of Xia has been polarised. While some fans see the promise of Chinese Yuan being a saviour for their clubs, others adopt a rather more literal interpretation of ‘hot money’. 

Suspicions in Europe remain that Chinese investment is the vehicle for something which, at the very least, could be unethical.

Simon Chadwick is ‘Class of 92’ Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University, Manchester in the UK, where he is also a member of the Centre for Sports Business. First published in The Asia and the Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum. Read the original article.

See also: China’s push for FIFA World Cup victory (through taking over the world game) (19 June 2016); Chinese football and future power: not simply in the sport to play the game (23 Apr 2016); China's clear signal to the global football game: the centre of power is shifting (10 Feb 2016); Do Chinese fans prefer traditional football clubs? (9 Jan 2007); Report: Still a market for ManU tours to China (29 Sep 2005)