A Brief History of Time – Middle east and North Africa

By Daniel Andruczyk

Another article I wrote for Rugby League Review. Rugby League over the last 5 – 10 years has enjoyed a real growth spurt. Like a child entering adolescence and teenage years the sport has grown and along the way had its teething problems. One of the largest growth spurts has been in the Middle East. From humble beginnings, with no rugby league having had been played in anger before 2002, the regions now boasts seven nations playing the sport in some form.

I’ll give a brief history of the sport in the region and focus on some of the nations that have really come into their own in the last few years. In 2000 Lebanon participated in the World Cup. It was basically all Australians that played. There was much criticism that this was not a true Lebanon team – despite official sanction from the LOC in Beirut – but what is important is that it was the beginning for something bigger back in the homeland. In 2002 work began on developing the sport in Lebanon itself. A domestic competition was set up and has been running ever since, enduring a maelstrom of political upheavals, including two wars. The success of the Lebanese Rugby League in 2006 partly contributed to the creation of the Euro-Mediterranean Department in the RLEF, covering not only the Middle East but also North Africa and the Mediterranean nations in Europe. Up to this point though Morocco and Lebanon were the only Arabic nations playing Rugby League. Morocco has strong links to the sport mainly through the participation of players in the French Elite competitions. In 2007 work began in Qatar amongst schools as well as development work beginning in the United Arab Emirates – triggered by another student of Lebanese RL, Sol Mokdad. In 2008 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia took its first tentative steps into the sport, while the Palestinians made their first contact before this year played their first full matches at the junior level.

I have been fortunate enough to speak with a few of the movers and shakers in the Middle East and find out not just where things are going but more importantly how they got started with the sport. I spoke with Danny Kazandjian, Chris Ratcliffe and Rabie El Masri.

Lebanon

I start with Lebanon and Danny Kazandjian. Danny is the RLEF development officer for the Middle East and has his pulse on all things going on in the region. The Lebanese domestic competition, the Bank of Beirut Rugby League Championship, runs from November through to May and from 2002-2006 started with 4 teams, 2007-2009 increased to 5 teams and this season has seen a further increase to 7 teams (with Tripoli RLFC and a second division / feeder competition pencilled in for next season).

Rugby League in Lebanon has steadily increasing backing from the government and politicians and gets excellent press coverage with all major national newspapers carrying results, stories and photos. As Danny says “Rugby league in Lebanon arguably gets better coverage in the newspapers than it does in England.”

Recently the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) group has been launched, though not a formal federation as such it is on the agenda. I asked Danny about this: “There is a working collective combining Morocco, UAE, Lebanon, KSA, Palestine and Qatar. All have had some input at greatly varying levels in the last few months, and all are consulted regarding the direction and planning. Again, the status of the game in the countries varies, as does the status of any governing body, but we’re at the beginning of a long road and there is a will on the ground to work together.”

Tournaments in the regions have a distinctly local flavour with the insistence that a third of the players are locals in any youth tournament that is played. In the senior divisions a few countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE can have full squads but tend to be very expatriate. “I don’t have an interest in frantically searching for senior squads in new countries as it can be disingenuous as to the strength of the sport in the country. The good thing about the MENA project is that we already have a number of different development models that are proving successful so the experiences are there for any new – and existing it must be said – members to benefit from.” said Danny

In the UAE and Morocco, domestic championships are the priority, but a dramatic progress is not expected, “rather a slow burn if we make the right moves” described by Danny. “KSA has the ability to form clubs once we obtain a governing body, as the simple fact is they have a maturing player base who will need to play their footy somewhere.”

Saudi Arabia

clip_image002Saudi Arabia has three schools playing in Jeddah on the west coast: Jeddah Prep & Grammar School, British International School Jeddah and American International School Jeddah. They have been playing for three years now and have teams at U12, U14, U16 and U18. Chris Ratcliffe, manager of KSARL says ”We have at least 80 boys each actively playing RL every week. At least another 100 boys have sampled it in the first two years and moved on to new pastures abroad.”

But is this just a game played by the ex-pats in Saudi Arabia? Chris says no. “Most of our boys are Arab/Muslim. There are no lads playing who have previously played Rugby League. Boys playing the game include Saudi royalty (The Al Sauds), other Saudis, Lebanese, Egyptian, British, Gambian, Taiwanese, Syrian, Argentinean, South African, Jordanian, Palestinian, Emirati, Yemeni, Moroccan, Venezuelan, American and Korean. So as you can see, we are not an ex-pat organization.”

The JPGS and BISJ have dominated all the tournaments so far but AISJ are improving rapidly with their U12s starting to show great promise. Rugby League started off being played 8 or 9 a side only, now the U14s are playing 11 a side and soon will be moving to full 13 a side.

Last year, all three schools took their U16s teams to Al Khor, Qatar, for a 9s competition which was won by a more experienced Al Khor International School team. BISJ finished 3rd, JPGS 4th and AISJ 8th.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing however with Chris last year setting up a national side. “Last year, I set up the Saudi Select national team at U16 level. Due to unforeseen circumstances, like the H1N1 virus, we where under prepared for our 1st competition which was held in Tripoli in October. We played the Lebanese U16s in a curtain raiser before the Lebanon vs. Italy European Cup game, which we lost 24-0.”

However this year the Saudis finally saw success. With extra planning and training, a new squad was selected for last month’s first Middle East North Africa (MENA) U16s Championship held at the American University Beirut. The squad included six Saudi nationals and came away victorious, beating Palestine 20-0 and drawing 14-14 with the hosts. “Lebanon’s 16-6 victory meant we won the cup on point difference. Currently all three schools are preparing to take the U14 Schools teams to Lebanon again in May for the first Schools U14 9s competition”, one of three tournaments the regional partners aim to make annual and established parts of the calendar.

Future plans are currently being put together for Chris to possibly become the first RL Development Manager for KSA. This is being discussed at the moment and is a vital development for the game to progress throughout KSA and get in to the Saudi Schools.

Palestine

Palestine is the newest of all the Middle Eastern organisations. Rabie El Masri, a Palestinian refugee whose family hails from Jaffa in Israel, and who began playing RL in the Lebanese Rugby League comp for AUST, runs Palestinian Rugby League. He has some experience in Rugby League as he tells me: “I did a BA in AUST and played in their Rugby League team. I did my coaching certificate with the Lebanese Rugby League Federation and I went to France to continue my education. I played in France with the professional Rugby League division 2 in nates treize.”

Palestinain Rugby League came about as a project Rabie did for his graduation thesis, titled ‘Development of Rugby Business in the North of France’. As Rabie explains, “I was thinking of developing Palestinian Rugby League at the same time. I came back to Lebanon. My brother was selected as the best player in his position in Lebanon and was selected to play in the Lebanese national team. That was a plus that encouraged me to start my project, creation of Palestinian Rugby League.”

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Rabie first discussed the project with Kazandjian in 2008. Danny being responsible for the development of the sport in the Middle East discussed if it was possible, with special consideration being made due to Palestine’s complicated political status. “I started with a strategic plan, working on three subjects: sponsorship, administration and national team and the sports technical side by looking for players and starting training”. Because Palestine is not a separate country –although Palestine is an Official Observer of the UN and in sporting terms is recognised as independent by both the IOC and Fifa – as such and it’s very hard to get sponsorship and Rugby League is not a widely known sport within the Arabic countries. Palestinian banks have been contacted and Rabie is working on having the Palestinian Olympic Committee give legal and administrative support.

The UN has recently joined forces with the RLEF and the PRL, with the sport being encouraged in UNRWA schools. UN officials are also liaising closely with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to obtain a federation.

With the support of the UN and the RLEF and already playing international games officially the sport is set to grow and the players are already waiting to start the new sport but Rabie eventually wants to bring all Palestinian players together “My goal is to gather Palestinian Rugby League players from around the world. I would love to have Palestinian players in Australia or England make contact with me. They would be a big help”.

The Middle East certainly has enjoyed some amazing growth in the sport over the years. Who would have thought that in 10 years the sport would come such a long way. If anyone would like more info on Saudi Arabian, Palestinian or Middle Eastern Rugby League then they can contact Chris Ratcliffe at cjr1976@hotmail.co.uk, Rabie El Masri at rabiemasri@yahoo.com and Danny Kazandjian at dannyk@lebrl.com

Daniel Andruczyk’s email: daniel@rugbyleagueinternationalscores.com
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3 Responses to “A Brief History of Time – Middle east and North Africa”

  1. GCCowboy says:

    This is great stuff. I especially like the fact the UN is involved in Palestine, for all there bumbling bureacracy it is good to hear them on the ground ecouraging and supporting activities for the youth of Palestine. It would be good if one of the footy shows actually did a piece on this stuff

    • druzik says:

      Look when I was covering the games in Europe, I sent stories, Photos and footage of the games to the Footy show, Boots and all. Both in Australia and England. I think occasionally the Poms shoed something, or mentioned it but the Aussies just have no interest.

      That is the uphill battle that International RL has, RL has become such a club dominated sport that IRL takes a long back seat to the NRL/ESL and State of Origin. The solution is to change the perception of the fans. Once you do that and there is a demand from the fans, then you will get the shows to cover it.

      How to do it? well one way is like what I do, get the results and footage out there, tell everyone I know even if the don’t care about the sport… write blogs, talk to players and administrators etc… just spread the word…

      … and having a consistent international calendar over a 4 year period is imperative.

  2. C.T.SANDERS says:

    I remember your mate gus gould showing a game of kids russian rugby league played in the snow on the sunday footy show some years ago.I think dino vikas sent the tape to gus and remember the canberra v west tigers game that was played in the snow at canberra stadium in 2000.

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