On the Argentinian football team cancelling their ‘friendly’ game with Israel and the links between politics, power and sport in the region and beyond.

As the world prepares for a carnival of football to begin in Russia next week, the Argentinian national team has been flung into the media spotlight. Heeding the calls of the Palestinian BDS movement, they have cancelled their ‘friendly’ game with Israel, scheduled to take place at the ‘Teddy stadium’ in Jerusalem on Saturday.

Home to the Beitar Jerusalem football team (incidentally the only team in the Israeli league not to employ an Arab player and thus regularly accused of racism), the stadium is located on land that was once a Palestinian village subsequently destroyed in 1948.

The decision by the Argentinian Football Association — endorsed by high profile players such as Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi — is a strong message to the Netanyahu government. Whereas momentum for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS)💬 has been gaining amongst the cultural and academic sectors, sport has been relatively late to the party. For the Argentinian superstars, playing the match against the backdrop of the ongoing murder of Palestinian protestors in the West Bank and much maligned Gaza Strip was a bridge too far.

Across the region, football is sacrosanct; with Real Madrid and Barcelona the most widely followed teams. In Palestine, the two most high profile players, Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s talismanic forward, Lionel Messi are revered. Thus, the decision to play the game in Jerusalem disillusioned many in Palestine who viewed the move by their hero as an act of betrayal.

The Palestinian FA chairman, Jibril Rajoub, had called on Palestinians to show their disdain by burning Argentina tops and pictures of Messi. However, the reversal of the decision will have allowed Messi and co. to retain their deified status in the region.

Whereas the Israeli national football team enjoys the fruits of FIFA and UEFA membership, being invited to take part in European competitions and competing on the global stage, Palestinian footballers aren’t afforded this luxury. In fact, Palestinian footballers have regularly been subject to Israeli Defence Force brutality. In 2014 Jawhar Nasser Jawhar (age 19), and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, (age 17) had their feet riddled with IDF bullets as they approached a checkpoint in the Occupied territories before being attacked by police dogs so as to ensure their dreams of making it as a professional were over.

Most recently Mohammed Khalil — a footballer who plays in the Gaza Strip — had his career brought to a premature end by an Israeli sniper. In addition, as has been noted by Amnesty International amongst others, Palestinian footballers from Gaza who have been selected to represent their national team are routinely refused a visa by the Israeli authorities to do so.

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Sport and politics

The intersection between sport and politics is a powerful one. The sporting stage is often used as a way to stage peaceful protest. Few will forget the iconic sight of Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their Black Panther salute at the 1968 Olympic games. Or, in more recent times, the Colin Kaepernik ‘taking a knee’ in protest against police brutality in the United States.

Sporting arenas too have long been used to call on the upholding of Palestinian rights. High profile campaigns such as that held by the famous ‘Green Brigade’ — Glasgow Celtic’s Ultras — revealed the power of this particular platform. Despite being fined by UEFA for displaying ‘political symbols’, the Celtic supporters launched a highly successful crowd funding campaign calling on supporters to, ‘Match the fine for Palestine’. Subsequently, over £130,000 was raised to help support local Palestinian youth organisations Such was the impact of this campaign that several Celtic affiliated teams have been formed in the West Bank, including ‘Aida Celtic’, a team based in the Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem.

Argentina have form and have used the football platform as a political stage before, most recently when they declared their support for their governments most recent attempt to reclaim control over Los Malvinas (Falkland Islands) and held up a banner as such.

In Ireland, a country with a long history in supporting the Palestinian call for BDS, the Gaelic Athletic Association — Ireland’s leading sporting body — recently attempted to curb the flying of Palestinian flags at local matches, a call that was subsequently ignored.

Football United?

On other occasions, football event have provided the ideal opportunity to publicly display a sense of sporting ‘togetherness’. Again, Ireland represents a good example when, at the recent 2016 European Championships held in France, much was made of the ability of supporters from the north and south of Ireland to come together and encourage each other despite longstanding animosity.

The grossly asymmetrical power dynamics, the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestine and the seemingly never-ending attacks on peaceful protestors in the Gaza Strip, would suggest that soft displays of ‘togetherness’ will not yield fruit. The move by the Argentinian football team to display solidarity with the people of Palestine is a powerful one and perhaps signals a tide changing in terms of unopposed sporting support for Israel.🔷

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(This piece is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com)

(Cover: Dreamstime/Sain Alizada - Argentina national football team captain Lionel Messi, in Moscow, Russia - 11 November 2017.)