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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Olivia Katrandjian

MIDDLE EAST: Soccer fans galore but few winning teams in the Arab world


This year, 32 countries are competing in the most widely viewed sporting event in the world. 

But only one -- Algeria -- is from the Arab world, and in 80 years of World Cup tournaments, only one Middle Eastern country -- Turkey -- has made it to the quarterfinals.

The Middle East is wild about soccer. So why don't more of their national teams make it to the big time?

Some say governments of the region don't contribute enough to the sport.

“In Italy, every kilometer there is another soccer field,” said Davit Manoyan, a player for the Armenian national team. “Here, we have maybe 10 fields in the whole country. It’s a big problem.”

Yet others say facilities don't matter: 

“Football is a lifestyle, it’s a culture,” said Gabriel Meghruni, a former player for the Argentine club, River Plate.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a field or not," he said. "You build a field to play, in the schools, squares, parks, wherever you have enough space and something to kick – that’s all you need. Imagine,  I used to play in the street with a cork. In South America, it is that way: first family, then football. If you don’t play, others discriminate against you. It’s serious.”

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IRAN, ARMENIA: Booze and relative freedom lure Iranians to Christian enclave to the north

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Landlocked and still recovering from the decades of Soviet rule and a war with Azerbaijan that quickly followed, Armenia may not be the world's most attractive vacation destination.

But for those living in the neighboring Islamic Republic, it's a kind of earthly paradise.

Iranians purchasing souvenirs In March, 27, 600 Iranians spent Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. 

But late spring and summer -- when the weather is comfortable, delicious fruits are harvested and outdoor events are numerous -- tourists also come in droves. 

An Armenian community leader in Tehran said up to 80% of Iran's Armenians, speculated to be as many as 500,000, travel to Armenia at least once a year.

The visitors can enjoy Armenian shish kebab and rice pilaf with a bottle of pomegranate wine or homemade liquor, or pick up a lahmajoun, an Armenian thin-crust meat pizza, on the street.

"Iranians are looking for reasons to leave their country so they can experience some freedoms," said Vanoohi Googasian, a Persian Armenian tour guide living in Yerevan.

"It's not about the specific holiday," she said. "It's about Iranians finding an excuse to leave their country to party."

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