Al Faisaly, arguably Jordan’s most successful ever club, was established in 1932 and is named after King Faisal I, the King of Syria and Iraq in the 1920’s and 30’s. The club, considered the country’s national sporting icon, is controlled by the prominent East Bank Udwan tribe and have won the Jordanian league 31 times. Al Faisaly is mainly supported by East Bankers (‘Original’ Jordanians - tribes who inhabited Jordan before the arrival of Palestinians in 1948) or in others words –‘full-blooded’ ethnic Jordanians - due to the club’s affiliation to, and being controlled by, an East Bank tribe. Al Faisaly are not only successful domestically, but also continentally where they’ve won the AFC Cup twice - the only club in Jordan to gain continental success in recent times.
Al Wihdat was founded in 1956 and is named after the refugee camp of the same name, which was established a year earlier - seven years after Israel’s occupation of Palestine in 1948. The camp hosts some 50,000 refugees who fled from the occupation and hostilities in their homeland, seeking life in a safer environment in Jordan. Al Wihdat is a club that represents the Palestinian refugees, or Palestinian-Jordanians, and their shirt includes the red, green, black and white of the Palestinian flag.
When Al Wihdat first won the league in 1980, huge celebrations erupted not just in Jordan, but also in Palestine where players were compared to guerrilla fighters or ‘fedayyi’. The club’s Palestinian identity was displayed when they refused to play against an Israeli side in Israel in 1996. Al Wihdat agreed to play the match in Hebron, where the players were met by some 40,000 fans screaming and crying their name. The club is headed by Tariq Khoury, a member of Palestine’s parliament. Al Wihdat are the second most successful club in Jordan with twelve titles, some way behind their fierce rivals, but have been more competitive in recent times with the club winning three of the last four league championships.
In July 2009, as Al Wihdat and Al Faisaly were about to meet in a Jordanian Shield match, riots erupted in the city of Zarqa and anti-riot police had to step in to stop the violence. It continued to the stadium where players from both sides refused to play and walked off the pitch. Players are not immune to the intensity, ferocity and hostile nature of this derby. An example of this was displayed during an AFC Cup match between the two sides in 2007. In that encounter, Al Wihdat’s Ra’fat Ali made an obscene gesture towards Al Faisali supporters after scoring, leading to a brawl between directors of both clubs in the VIP section. Later in that match, another Al Wihdat player - Amer Shafi - punched Al Faisaly striker Seraj Al Tal, leading to a full blown fight between both squads which carried on to the streets after the match ended.
These events have worried Jordan’s football association, who stepped in and applied stricter policies for spectators, including charging those who abuse or lash out against an opposing team. The fan violence between the two sides was so bad during the 1980’s that Al Wihdat were forced to change their name to ‘Al Daftain’ (the two banks club) as a sign of ‘unity’ between Jordanians and Palestinians. It didn’t last long and the name was changed back three years later.
This rivalry, Jordan’s ‘El Clasico’, not only displays the ferocious competition between the two sides as the two biggest clubs in the country, but also highlights the political divide and social disconnection in Jordan. The chants, slogans, taunts, riots and violence are all ways of displaying displeasure and voicing opinion where it’s almost forbidden to publicly speak out against the government. This match and football in general, provides that opportunity.
Despite the major concerns and incidents, this derby is still worth watching, in which some of Jordan’s best players, including the recently retired Hassouna Al Sheikh, participate. Players and fans, from both sides, somewhat perversely, maintain a good relationship despite the antagonism and ferocity of this heated rivalry.
Check out the next Jordanian “Clasico” on May 3, where Al Faisaly are currently in the ascendency ahead of the third placed Al Wihdat. It’s always a match that’s worth watching, a game that gets a whole nation on their feet.