Walking through some of the most miserable camps on earth where people have sought refuge after fleeing wars or natural disasters is always a humbling experience. However, it’s not usually the wretched and squalid conditions which catch my breath, it is the sound of children at play. Trails of dust and the unmistakable sound of a bare foot hitting a ball reveal that football is the sport of the poor and dispossessed just as much as the status symbol of corporate fat cats, oligarchs and oil-rich shaikhs.
The attraction of the Beautiful Game is that you don’t need a leather football or even a pitch with goalposts to enjoy it; I’ve seen kids kicking tightly bound plastic shopping bags or rags held together by elastic bands and string. Piles of discarded clothes or mounds of earth mark the goalposts and the pitch is often only limited by the size of the land available for the match.
A quarter of a billion people around the world – possibly many more – have experienced the joy of kicking a ball for their team while billions more have sat and watched from makeshift touchlines to corporate boxes in super stadiums.
My late father introduced me to the joy of the Beautiful Game at St James’ Park, a stadium in the heart of Newcastle which was supposed to be a theatre of dreams but more often than not produces nightmare situations because of antics on and off the pitch. We (because Newcastle United Football Club belongs to me and every other Geordie who enjoys the game) are facing abject humiliation by dropping out of the English Premier League this weekend unless we can pluck a victory from the jaws of defeat on Sunday.
Hardened Newcastle United fans are used to such high drama and it’s a long time since we had a hint of glory, but the “Toon Army” will always live in hope or live off the glory days; yes, there have been some. I remember when we played the mighty Liverpool at Wembley in 1974 and were publicly humiliated (again) by a 3-0 thrashing. Kevin Keegan scored two of the goals. Through the tears, I and every other Newcastle supporter thought about what might have been when the Liverpool fans roared as their legendary manager Bill Shankly got his hands on the highly-prized FA Cup.
Although we didn’t know it, that was Shankly’s last game in charge of Liverpool FC; he is still loved and revered in the city in equal measure. Despite the drubbing we received at Wembley, Shanks (as he was affectionately known) was universally respected and if we are honest it was probably a fitting farewell for what he had given to the game. Coming from a Scottish mining community where poverty went hand in hand with humanitarian socialism, football was regarded as an escape from the harsh reality of the daily grind and Shankly never forgot his humble roots.
It was against this backdrop that he emerged as a talented footballer and went on to become one of the greatest managers in the world with a trophy cabinet to prove it. He had a passion for the game and once said, without a hint of irony: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death; I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
So I think we can all guess what the godfather of football would make of Israel’s stifling of Palestinians’ attempts to enjoy the Beautiful Game. That the Zionist state has tried relentlessly to stop, at every turn, Palestinians trying to kick a ball is almost beyond comprehension; that, though, is more or less what Israel has done.
Most of the world has looked the other way while Israel has attempted to hijack and manipulate “our” Beautiful Game; this is nothing short of an outrage. It has used every trick in the book, from imprisoning Palestinian footballers to preventing them from travelling to matches and even banning games from taking place at all.
Trying to stop a game of football is like trying to stop people from taking oxygen; kicking a ball whether it’s in a stadium or down a back street is one of the few undeniable rights of the poorest of the poor. No one knows this better than Nouredine Ouldali, who manages the Palestinian national football team, but he faces challenges not even the mighty Shanks could have comprehended. His players are frequently subjected to travel bans, unable to pass beyond Israeli military checkpoints whether they live in the occupied West Bank or the besieged Gaza Strip.
Imagine if Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi were apprehended on a match day by the authorities and prevented from playing because of nothing more than malicious spite? There would be rioting in the streets from Rio to Barcelona, Manchester to Madrid.
This, though, is the reality if you are talented enough to make the Palestinian national team. Last November one footballer was arrested for having a chat with a member of Hamas after playing an away game in Qatar. Unbelievably, Israel is spying on the lives of Palestinian footballers on and off the pitch.
Players in Gaza are prevented from training with the national side in the West Bank and it would be inconceivable for West Bank players to train with their teammates in Gaza because of Israel’s intransigence. Israel even blocks essential imported sports equipment from reaching the players for whom it is intended.
As someone who has stood on the terraces and windswept sidelines to cheer on players whether they’re top professionals or kids in a refugee camp, I would go so far as to say that Israel has no great love for the game. In what is supposed to be a democracy, the state authorities turn a blind eye to the extreme racism from the terraces directed at Arab and Muslim players.
The exasperated head of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, has now filed a motion to suspend Israel from world football’s governing body. FIFA’s controversial President, Sepp Blatter, has been forced to intervene before a crucial conference on 29 May where the motion is on the agenda.
Suspending Israel from FIFA would bar its national team from prestigious international games, including the World Cup and the European Championship. Rajoub spoke to reporters in El-Bireh, at a soccer school named for Sepp Blatter and inaugurated in 2013. On display were large photographs of Israeli troops decked out in riot gear storming a Palestinian match. To his left were photos of the late Mohammed Al-Qatari, a Palestinian player who was killed with a single shot fired into his chest by an Israel sniper on 8 August last year. The promising young player was near his home in the Al-Amari refugee camp outside Ramallah when he was murdered.
It remains to be seen if Blatter will do the right – and courageous – thing by recommending that Israel be suspended. He has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah in an effort to find a compromise, while he is under fire himself for trying to win a fifth term as FIFA president.
He knows that for Israel to be suspended 75 per cent of FIFA’s 209 members must vote in favour of the Palestinian motion. “If there is a vote,” said Blatter, “there will be a lose-lose-lose situation for everybody.” This was a reference to Israelis, Palestinians and the international community, all of whom will, he claims, be damaged by Israel’s suspension from the football body. I disagree. His words are a thinly-veiled plea for the world to allow the disgraceful status quo to continue.
Naturally, Israel has reacted to the Palestinian motion with its usual trademark fury. “The thing that could destroy the football association is politicising it,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “You politicise it once with Israel, then you politicise it for everyone, and it will cause the deterioration of a great institution.”
He has a nerve. Speaking as someone who has a passion for the game, I suggest that he has soiled and infected the Beautiful Game with his toxic policies against the Palestinians. For that, if nothing else, millions of football fans around the world who have a genuine love for the game will not forgive him.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once described the Taliban as being “evil” because they would not allow children to fly kites in Afghanistan. The so-called Middle East Peace Envoy is silent about a state which, by his own yardstick, must also be evil because it wants to deny an entire nation the joys and passion that football provides. Blair’s silence speaks volumes.
I think we all know what the great man Shanks would say. “The trouble with referees,” he once opined, “is that they know the rules, but they don’t know the game.” And that is exactly the problem with those who think that they can meddle with and manipulate the world’s greatest sport to serve their own selfish interests, whether for financial gain or out of pure, self-serving, Zionist spite.
Suspending Israel is the right thing to do if justice is to prevail and Palestinians are to be allowed to play a full role within the international football community. However, it remains to be seen if the usually spineless, craven, corrupt officials who are part of FIFA take this seriously and act courageously against the Israelis. FIFA, its credibility hanging by a thread, has already sold out to private interests from the uber-rich and dodgy merchants who want to catch some of the prestige and stardust that falls from football’s world stage.
They need to be reminded that stardust comes from the very essence of the game, from the street kids who can play out their dreams for a few hours kicking a ball around a makeshift pitch, to those of us long-suffering fans who cheer, sigh and despair through the rollercoaster seasons our clubs put us through. Football will certainly never belong to the likes of the Old Boys’ club that is FIFA or the toxic politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu who think that they can deny the simplest of joys to dispossessed kids.
The Beautiful Game does not belong to FIFA and it will certainly never, ever belong to murderous killjoys like the Israeli prime minister. The game is not theirs; it belongs to you and me and the street kids; and the refugees and those who dare to dream.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.