Is ‘Palestinian soccer alive and kicking its way to the FIFA World Cup’?

Sports and culture are important elements of their nation-building project, the Palestinians affirm. In the biggest match in Palestinian history, the national football team faces Afghanistan on June 29 and July 3 in first-round Asian qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

In this Oct. 26, 2008, file photo, players of the Palestinian soccer team are seen on the field prior a match with Jordan at a stadium in the West Bank town of Aram, near Jerusalem.

EDITOR’S COMMENT: The story reproduced below has immense appeal. It combines a world icon which has the power to move and inspire people with “conflict resolution.” But as one reads between the lines of the article, a “reality check” is in order. It was published in the Israeli press (Haaretz. June 17, 2011), but written by an American for that ‘neutral’ and ‘fair’ Associated Press – on the upsurge of Palestinian soccer.

Here is one of its central theses: “As a policy, Israel is allowing football players from Gaza to play in the West Bank in the internal league, and also to play for the Palestinian national team and go abroad for official games … security issues sometimes prevent travel.” Isn’t that white of them! The very force responsible for suppression of a people is letting them play soccer and affirm their national identity! The shameless disinformation reminds me of the famous story of the 1942 soccer game during WWII by the people’s champions, Start FC (mainly ex-Dynamo Kiev players) against the German Luftwaffe. After they were humiliated 5-3 by the heroic Ukrainians, the Hitlerites assassinated most of the team.

Missing: the bias implicit in the absent. The Israel invasion, Operation Cast Lead in winter 2008-09 levelled large swathes of Gaza including the Rafah National Stadium, and killed three football players – Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshate – as well as over 1,400 other Gazans, a huge loss. Palestinian National Team member Mahmoud Kamel As-Sarsak is one of over 10,000 Palestinians held without trial or indeed public explanation for their arrest. Since then, the team has dropped twenty places in FIFA rankings.

FIFA’s policy is Eurocentric and anti-Palestinian. Yes, Palestine is a member of FIFA but without the legitimate rights of any national or sovereign member. According to the article,

“In 2007, FIFA forced the Palestinians to forfeit a World Cup qualifier to Singapore because they failed to field a full team after Israel denied permits to 18 players and officials from Gaza. Rajoub said the restrictions persist. ‘To this moment, no is the rule, yes is the exception,’ he said.”

In this context, recall the hypocritical hype surrounding the 18th World Cup in Germany in 2006, advertised from the start as the first global championship sports tournament consciously organized under the banners of anti-racism. Captains read prepared messages to packed stadiums. Banners were furled. Medics rushing onto the pitch to treat players bore kit bags with the inscription, “My Game is Fair Play!” The final game was pretentiously staged in “Hitler’s stadium” – renovated and modernized. Revanchist Germany basked in the cosmos of the “new integration” and the explosion of “national pride.”

Robert Witzig notes in his book, The Global Art of Soccer, that FIFA has placed Israel in the European group (UEFA) while Palestine is placed in Asia (AFC) – even though some land governed by the Palestinian Authority (the Gaza Strip) is actually west of any Israeli territory (p. 67). The placement originates from decades ago, which Witzig overlooks, when the Arab states would not allow Israeli to be part of the Western Asia group. Perhaps it should have been put in CONCAF.

More important, for the American audience, to whom the AP report is aimed, is what is missing from the coverage: the fact of how U.S. foreign and military policy in the region renders impossible the role of the U.S., the patron, as so-called “honest broker”, ultimately keeping the peace process at war with itself. – TONY SEED

Palestinian soccer is alive and kicking its way to the FIFA World Cup

(June 17, 2011) The Associated Press – FOR YEARS, Palestinian football was disorganized, underfunded and hindered so much by Israeli travel restrictions that games were often forfeited because players couldn’t arrive for the kickoff.

But the sport is now growing, with new stadiums rising across the West Bank, the local football federation hosting international competitions, and the Palestinians set to host their first ever World Cup qualifying match next month. Players say boosting the game is about more than sports: It’s a mission to build an independent nation.

“When teams come play on our land, it’s a way of recognizing the Palestinian state,” said player Murad Ismael, 26. That benefits the Palestinian cause, not just Palestinian sports.

The Palestinian Olympic team plays Bahrain on Sunday and on June 23 in the second preliminary round of Asian qualifiers for the 2012 London Games. And in the biggest match in Palestinian history, the main national team faces Afghanistan on June 29 and July 3 in first-round Asian qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The improved football program jibes with the plans of political leaders, who have been trying to build the foundations of statehood outside the moribund peace process with Israel.

Leading the charge is an unlikely man, Jibril Rajoub, a gruff former West Bank security chief who spent 17 years in Israeli prisons. Rajoub left politics in 2006 and was appointed head of the Palestinian Football Federation and Olympic Committee two years later.

Palestinian fans celebrated the first official match by the Palestinian national soccer team in Palestinian territory on March 9, 2011 against Thailand. The match was played in Faisal Husseini stadium, named after a leading member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in the al-Ram locality, near Jerusalem.

Sitting in his Ramallah office, where players greet him with kisses and he summons aid for a people seeking independence. The Palestinians lost in a penalty shootout to Thailand, but advanced to Sunday’s qualifying round because Thailand fielded an ineligible player.

The national team played its first home game in the same stadium in 2008, with FIFA President Sepp Blatter in the stands. They previously played home games in Jordan or Qatar. In May, Blatter returned for the Palestinians’ first international club tournament, scheduled around the commemoration of Israel’s founding – which Palestinians call the catastrophe (Nakba). Sixteen teams from Senegal, Hungary, Jordan and elsewhere participated.

Blatter promised to help Palestinian players and coaches with their most common complaint: Israeli travel restrictions. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge is also working with both sides to improve the travel situation.

Palestinian athletes need Israeli permits for most travel, either to cross Israel from Gaza or to enter or leave the West Bank – a hurdle that has often kept players from key matches.

In 2007, FIFA forced the Palestinians to forfeit a World Cup qualifier to Singapore because they failed to field a full team after Israel denied permits to 18 players and officials from Gaza.

‘To this moment, no is the rule, yes is the exception,’ he said.

Rajoub said the restrictions persist. “To this moment, no is the rule, yes is the exception,” he said.

But a number of players said the situation has improved from when it was common for players to get stranded abroad for months or stuck in Gaza with no way out.

Efraim Zinger, head of the Israel Olympic Committee, said he has tried to facilitate movement for Palestinian athletes, and military spokesman Guy Inbar said Israeli authorities decided in late 2010 to ease restrictions on athletes as a gesture to the Palestinian Authority (sic).

As a policy, Israel is allowing football players from Gaza to play in the West Bank in the internal league, and also to play for the Palestinian national team and go abroad for official games, he said. [See Reality Check, below – Editor] Still, he added, security issues sometimes prevent travel.

Palestinian national team player Hossam Wadi walks in the offices of the Palestinian Football Federation in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Player Hossam Wadi, 25, hasn’t left the West Bank for his native Gaza since 2008, he said – even when he got engaged last year. He said he worries Israel won’t let him leave Gaza again, jeopardizing his team’s prospects.

“It’s a chance to play in the World Cup,” he said of his team’s match against Afghanistan to be played in Tajikistan on June 29. “We have to make sacrifices.”

The match is considered a home game for Afghanistan, which must play in a neutral location because of security issues. On July 3, the eagerly awaited second leg is set to take place in the West Bank – if Israel permits the Afghan athletes to enter.

The team remains a long-shot to make it all the way to Brazil. Ranked No. 171 in the world by FIFA last month, the Palestinians would need to make it through a second preliminary round to even be included among the 20 Asian teams which get entered into the main draw for World Cup qualifying on July 30. When all qualifying rounds are over in 2013, four Asian teams will earn direct spots to the World Cup in Brazil, while a fifth advances to a playoff against a team from another continent.

Many see sport aiding the cause, even if the Palestinians don’t win.

“Palestinians can’t just be known as militants or for throwing rocks and burning tires or for shooting at Israelis,” said the federation’s technical director Mazin Khatib. “We have to struggle too in sports to prove that we deserve to be an independent, sovereign state – that we love life and that we love to play football.”

RELATED READING

Reality check: Three Palestinian soccer players killed in aggression against Gaza, January 14, 2009

HISTORICAL NOTE

The last time an international athletic competition took place in what are now the Occupied Palestinian territories was in 1934. That game was played in east Jerusalem, part of British Mandatory Palestine prior to Israeli independence in 1948. The history behind the game is unclear, but it is believed a British team comprising of both Arabs and Jews lost 4-1 to an Egyptian team.

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