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Toxic Zionism poisons the beautiful game

The 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final played at Wembley has produced misty-eyed memories for a number of us old enough to recall that certain football match between the then West Germany and England. Soccer legend Bobby Moore and his men lifted the golden Jules Rimet trophy earning each England player a £1,000 bonus; that was a huge amount of money for players whose average wage in English football all those years ago was £44 per week.

Today's England captain, Wayne Rooney, is paid around £260,000 a week by his club Manchester United and he also rakes in around a million pounds a year for wearing a certain brand of boot on the pitch. The sporting elite of today bear little or no resemblance to the England heroes of 1966, who would probably have gone on to the Wembley pitch for the World Cup Final simply for the honour of it all.

In that, Sir Alf Ramsey's squad in 1966 was probably no different in their passion and love of the game to the young Palestinian men selected to play for the Shabab Khan Younis team. The Palestinians were probably not aware that their own cup final was scheduled to be played on the 50th anniversary of the England World Cup victory, but I guarantee that every single one of them was determined to be a winner purely for the glory involved.

However, it was not to be. The Palestine Cup Final was cancelled by the Palestinian Football Association after Israel scuppered their chances of fielding a full team by barring a number of Gazan players from crossing a checkpoint to reach the West Bank town of Hebron, where the game was scheduled to be played.

PFA head Jibril Rajoub informed FIFA and asked the sport's world governing body to intervene so that all eight players and professional staff could be granted free passage to the West Bank. Unless all the players are allowed to participate the game will be cancelled permanently, he warned, after the Israeli authorities would only allow 10 players through. Six of their teammates — including the goalkeeper — as well as a coach and the team's spokesperson were barred from leaving Gaza.

Not content with wrecking the cup final, the occupying military forces also humiliated the Palestinian players from Gaza as they waited at the Erez Border Crossing to get into Israel. The PFA says that this is nothing new; Palestinian players are often delayed at checkpoints while attempting to travel from Gaza to the West Bank.

The game between Hebron-based Ahly Al-Khalil and Gaza's Shabab Khan Younis was an important match; the Palestine Cup Final. Imagine if any authority or border force prevented an international squad from travelling to a final; it is inconceivable, and the outrage would reverberate around the world.

"This behaviour is embarrassing," Ragoub told journalists. "The players arrived at the checkpoint and were forced to wait 12 hours and to undergo interrogations and checks that have no relationship to security. I heard that they were asked about their neighbours and about all kinds of things in Gaza that have no connection to security."

The PFA official believes that the humiliating procedure was designed to "wear them down for hours upon hours in the burning heat, and in the end to allow only part of the team to pass the checkpoint and reach Hebron."

"After investigating," a spokesman for Shin Bet — Israel's internal security agency — told the media, "a decision was made to bar entry to some members of the team due to damaging security information and in light of the security situation." Of course, no specific details were forthcoming.

Previously, the PFA board members have displayed no backbone when needing to confront Israel over the Zionist state's determination to disrupt and ruin football fixtures between Palestinian clubs. The association capitulated recently on a threat to call for Israel to be suspended after similar disruptions to important football matches. Ragoub now needs to stand up and demand that FIFA must take direct action against Israel for preventing the cup final from going ahead.

It is not as if the international body has no inkling of the barriers placed in the way of Palestinian footballers by Israel. Indeed, earlier in July the head of a special FIFA committee aiming to improve football links between Israel and the Palestinians visited Gaza to see for himself the extent of the problem. Panel chairman Tokyo Sexwale from South Africa said most of the issues were "political". He was appointed to head the committee last year after the Palestinians backed down on the request for the FIFA Congress to vote on suspending Israel.

During his two-day visit to the region, Sexwale held meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian politicians. The Palestinians told him that Israel imposed security restrictions limiting the movement of their players and visiting teams. Israel cited its ubiquitous security concerns, especially regarding the movement of Palestinian players in and out of Gaza.

While touring the war-ravaged domain of the Palestinian Football Association in Gaza, Sexwale told a news conference that the region needed a dialogue for peace, which could emerge through football. He even said that his visit to Gaza was aimed at opening the way for a future trip by FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

It is quite clear from the weekend's events, though, that Israel has no real love for the game and even less for the Palestinians. Respect for FIFA must also rank very low in its list of priorities. Our beautiful game — which is still, despite the huge amounts of money involved, the people's game — is being undermined by the leaders of a brutal military occupation which has shown it cares little for a sport which is revered internationally by young and old, rich and poor alike. Football is a game which transcends race, nationality and culture everywhere in the world; except, it seems, in Zionist Israel, where the passions and dreams of young Palestinian men are kicked into touch by the burning hatred of the occupying forces.

Like most other things that it touches, the toxic ideology of Zionism is poisoning football. If the sport's ruling body is serious about kicking out racism, then it must kick out Israel before it can do any more damage to Palestine's sporting aspirations.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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