Football is a beautiful game; full of passion, it is a sport which has ingrained itself in many national cultures bringing out the very best in human nature, and sometimes the worst.
As I write this article I’m reminded of another aspect of the beautiful game because I’m looking down on the magnificent architecture that is the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha. This is where the 2022 FIFA World Cup Final will be played.
In a few hours’ time there will be an inauguration ceremony before local rivals Al-Rayyan and Al-Sadd compete in the final of the Emir’s Cup. No doubt the great and the good from FIFA will turn up to marvel at the truly spectacular venue while feasting on lavish Qatari hospitality.
Like everything in Qatar, the views of the stadium are breathtaking from every angle, but I suspect that no one will be moved to tears in the Friday night match in the same way that I cried last year when I saw the Algerian crowd cheering a Palestinian national side which, against all the odds, had beaten the home team in a friendly. The extraordinary Arab love for Palestine erupted when the Palestinian Olympic team beat Algeria 1-0. The fans at the game in Algiers took the opportunity not only to give rousing cheers to the other side, but also filled the 5 Juillet 1962 Stadium with Palestinian flags.
That showed the spirit of football, a game which unites players, spectators and nations, rich and poor alike. At least it can, and should, but there is also an ugly side, and we can see an example of this courtesy of the Zionist State of Israel.
The status of Israeli settlement-colonies across the occupied West Bank is very clear; they are illegal, and the people who live work and, yes, play football there, do so illegally. Nevertheless, six Israeli teams of players drawn from the settlements built on stolen Palestinian land are allowed to qualify for and play in FIFA tournaments; they should not be allowed to do so because of their unlawful status.
However, at a recent meeting, the FIFA Congress delayed a proposal to suspend Israel’s rogue settlement clubs from international competitions despite widespread support for the Palestinians. In fact, officials from football’s world governing body deliberately blocked the Palestinian Football Association’s motion which demanded that the Israel FA should abide by FIFA statutes and exclude football clubs based in illegal settlements built in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Like his disgraced predecessor Sepp Blatter, FIFA president Gianni Infantino appeared to back down in the face of Israel’s bully-boy tactics by preventing a vote on the motion. Perhaps he needs to be reminded that all settlements, whether or not formally authorised by the Israeli government, are illegal under international law because they contravene Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer by the occupying power of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.
Maybe he also needs to read up and discover just how many Israeli settlers are determined to make the lives of Palestinians hell on earth by disrupting their education, farming, planting of olive groves and tending of crops, and generally causing misery wherever they can against their Arab neighbours, including armed assault and arson. Given that his wife is Lebanese, I am surprised that he is not already au fait with all of this; her family will know all about Israel’s similar atrocities against its northern neighbour.
Calls for Israel’s total expulsion from international sporting bodies came out of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. The Palestine Football Association has also been campaigning for suspension of Israel’s FIFA membership. As in other areas of international life, though, Israel seems to have undue influence in football’s corridors of power.
Take the incident of Glasgow Celtic Football Club, for example. Just like that crowd in Algiers, supporters of Scottish champions Celtic proudly waved Palestinian flags during the first leg of their Champions League play-off match against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva last August. European football’s governing body UEFA warned in advance that it would fine the Glasgow club if the flags were waved, but the fans’ magnificent response was to raise more than $220,000 for two Palestinian charities. The donation was crowdfunded as a reaction to UEFA’s $10,700 fine.
In 2014, Celtic FC was also fined around $20,000 because its fans waved Palestinian flags in a match against Icelandic outfit KR Reykjavik to protest against the wanton slaughter of 2,104 Palestinians — including 495 children and 253 women — during Israel’s seven-week military offensive in Gaza. Information fliers and flags were distributed ahead of kick-off and a banner was displayed which urged everyone to, “Fly the flag for Palestine, for Celtic, for Justice”.
According to UEFA, politics should not be involved in football — and this is FIFA’s view too — but I can think of no better place than a football ground for fans with a conscience to gather and express their solidarity with a just cause en masse. I was reminded of this recently when it was pointed out that courageous fans had risked their lives by displaying the Catalan flag during the fascist era of General Franco in Spain. Today, one of the few safe spaces where Catalans can fly their flag freely is in FC Barcelona’s Nou Camp Stadium. The club embraces the Catalan identity with pride.
Football is never just about kicking a ball around; there’s always far more at stake on the terraces and pitches. Glasgow Celtic FC is a prime example of this too. A Scottish friend of mine gave me a history lesson on the importance of the club’s famous ground. Founded in 1887, Celtic used its first game the following year to raise money for the impoverished Irish migrants who had gathered in the East End of Glasgow. When they arrived in the city their situation was desperate, but it was alleviated every time Celtic played a game and the crowds came together to raise funds as an antidote to the resentment, discrimination and squalor that the Catholic Irish had to endure.
FIFA, which is desperate to shake off its own shameful history of corruption and dishonesty, needs to take a serious look at the scandal of allowing teams from illegal settlements to play in competitions under its auspices. The settlements are not located in “disputed” territory; they are in territory subjected to a brutal military occupation by the state of Israel, and that is an entirely different scenario. Furthermore, the Israel FA and Palestine FA are both FIFA members; under its own rules, a national football association can only operate clubs in the territory of another national association with the express consent of the second body. The Palestine FA has never given such consent; if the truth is known, it has probably never even been asked for it.
The status of the settlement clubs was one of a number of issues highlighted by the Palestine FA and BDS activists in previous calls to suspend Israel from FIFA. Yet it appears to have developed into something of a stand-alone issue.
There have been calls before for Israel’s suspension and there is a precedent for it. South Africa was suspended during the Apartheid regime era back in 1976, and the apartheid parallels between the two states — drawn by US presidents as well as millions of others around the world — are not new.
Israel wants to be seen and accepted as a normal country; it complains that it is the victim of “bias” from international organisations such as the UN. However, this is a smokescreen. If the Zionist state were to be suspended by FIFA — as it should be, according to FIFA’s own rules, remember, let alone international law — then that would place a huge question mark over attempts to normalise Israel’s gross injustices against the people and land of Palestine.
Change is coming; not only from football fans around the world but also from players. When Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and Portugal refused to exchange his shirt with an Israeli player after a match it made headlines and many politically indifferent fans made it their business to find out why he took such a stand. Ronaldo’s action converted many fans to the Palestinian struggle when they discovered the reality of the situation.
So far more than one hundred sports and human rights associations representing millions of people around the world have called on FIFA to force the Israel FA to ban the teams from the illegal settlements. If the Israeli body refuses, they believe that it should be suspended until it complies with the laws governing human rights and the laws of the game.
If FIFA and UEFA actually listened to the fans the organisations would realise that Palestinian human rights are valued and supported just as passionately as the same fans support football and fair play. Teams based in illegal settlements where human rights are violated daily simply have no place in the beautiful game, anywhere.
At the moment, FIFA seems to be getting away with supporting Apartheid Israel and all the racism, bigotry and violence it has come to represent. As far as own goals are concerned, this is in a class of its own.
It’s time for football’s ruling bodies to listen to the fans, from the terraces at Celtic Park through to Barcelona’s Nou Camp and Algeria’s 5 Juillet Stadium and beyond. This is much bigger than the game itself. It’s about the people who play; the people who pay to watch and cheer their heroes; and the people who fly their flags for justice.
So back to Qatar. I doubt that we’ll see any Palestinian flags flying in the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha tonight, but perhaps there will be some lobbying of the visiting FIFA officials. For the sake and reputation of the game that I and countless millions like me love and enjoy, I hope so.