Eoin Hallissey gives us an insight into the struggles of Palestine football, as off-field matters continue to dominate the troubled landscape.
Sport and politics do not mix. This is the official stance of the world’s sporting bodies, FIFA and the IOC foremost amongst them. The lack of self-awareness from these essentially political bodies is astounding if not surprising. International sport, by its very nature, is political.
The Olympics, the World Cup, and sundry other tournaments are based upon a sense of nationalism, the most basic of all political ideals. The IOC charter prohibits any “political or commercial influence” upon events. Disregarding the fact that an organisation whose website states that “the Olympic Games are one of the most effective international marketing platforms in the world” can claim to find commercial influence distasteful, the entire process of athletes competing with one another beneath their national banner, is itself inherently political.
Despite Sepp Blatter taking his seat at the World Cup final beside Jacob Zuma and Vladimir Putin, the controversial presidents of South Africa and Russia, respectively, FIFA fail to see any problem with them claiming to be wholly apolitical. FIFA may condemn Argentinian players making political statements, and ban Nigerian teams for all of five days as a result of congressional interference, but they can never escape the fact that politics and football are wholly intertwined.
A soccer team is often a nation’s greatest expression of their being. From Brazil to Bahrain, the national team gives people pride, to support it is to be of that nation. In some nations, both recognised and unrecognised, political circumstances are such that to support and even play for the national team is wrought with enhanced difficulty. This is certainly the case in Palestine.
The Palestinian Football Association was granted official FIFA status in 1998. The past year has seen them rapidly rise through the FIFA rankings, owing to their success in the Asian Football Confederations Cup in July 2014. They swept all before them, beating the Philippines by a goal to nil in their final game, with a free kick from top scorer Ashraf Nu’man proving decisive. They also possessed a formidable defence, managing to not concede a goal throughout the tournament.
Most significantly, this victory has earned them a place in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, which will take place in Australia. They reached 85th position in the post-World Cup rankings of July 2014, just 14 places below the Republic of Ireland.
Despite this recent success, the Palestinian national team has suffered a difficult existence since its 1998 recognition, for obvious reasons. It took ten years after their formal recognition before they hosted their first official home match on Palestinian soil. In 2008, they played Jordan in the Faisal Al-Husseini stadium in the West Bank.
They took the lead through a historic goal from Ahmed Kashkash, the first on Palestinian soil, before eventually drawing 1-1. Even during this momentous occasion, the constant difficulties faced by the team could be seen. Six players from Gaza were denied permission to travel to the game, including the team’s captain, Saed Jundiyah, leaving them severely depleted. It goes without saying that fans who reside in the Gaza Strip were prevented from making the journey.
The struggle for the PFA to actually ensure that players can make it to matches is constant, with travel from inside Gaza, especially, extremely restricted. The difficulties produced by the split between the two territories also manifests itself in the organisation of training. The team has trained in Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, which has proved expensive. Increasingly strained relations between the Gaza Strip and Egypt have only added to their problems. The team has often had to rely on the talents of the diaspora, with Chile to the fore in providing players.
These travel restrictions stunted what appeared to be a promising qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup in South Africa. Palestine started out with an 8-0 victory over Chinese Taipei and were due to face Uzbekistan in the second game. Countless players from Gaza and the West Bank were refused permission to travel, however, with Palestine only being able to field ten players, and losing by three goals to nil. This heavy defeat ground their qualifying attempts to an abrupt halt.
Like the vast majority of citizens of the Palestinian territories, the players have not escaped the violence and struggles which have become a fact of life there. Three players, Ayman Alkura, Shadi Sbakhev and Wajeh Moshtake were killed in 2008/2009’s Operation Cast Lead offensive, which saw Israel heavily shell the Gaza Strip. This offensive also saw the Rafah Stadium razed.
Mahmoud Sarsak, a star player, was arrested in July 2009, accused of being a member of Islamic Jihad. He was eventually released after three years in incarceration, following a hunger strike and international pressure, with Blatter himself calling for his release.
An incident in early 2014 saw questions being asked of Israeli treatment of Palestinian sportspeople. Two teenage players, travelling home from training, nineteen-year-old Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, and seventeen-year-old Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, came under fire when approaching an Israeli checkpoint.
The Israeli Defence Forces claim that the teenagers were attempting to throw a bomb at the checkpoint, a claim which Israeli paper Hareetz says the players deny. Regardless of where the blame lies, the injuries they sustained proved to be career ending.
Jawhar was shot seven times in the left foot, three times in the right, and once in his left hand. Halabiya was shot once in each foot. Hareetz reported they were unlikely to walk again, let alone play football. The apparent targeting of their feet saw many question whether they were targeted as sportsmen.
FIFA have attempted to mediate between the PFA and the Israeli authorities, with little success. There have been calls to expel Israel from UEFA in response to the arrest of Sursak, but Michel Platini rejected this, seeing it as interference in political affairs, with Blatter backing his position.
A PFA delegation were due to travel to FIFA Congress in Sao Paolo in advance of the 2014 World Cup, where the treatment of Palestinian players and their safe passage was due to be discussed. Their Deputy General Secretary was denied a travel visa, placing the talks in jeopardy.
It is plain clear that the Palestinian national team has struggled to advance their cause in the wake of the political situation in which they exist. Their recent success has been made in spite of their general existence.
Undoubtedly, the latest escalation of hostility will affect the players, especially those who live in the Gaza Strip. There is a plain risk to their lives, and the trouble with travel will undoubtedly worsen. We can only hope that it will not deny them their chance to compete in Australia in 2015, a chance which they have earned despite the constant obstacles, both physical and political, placed in their way.
Eoin Hallissey, Pundit Arena.