January 14, 2024
Palestine and Football – Fans Vs Clubs

R Arun Kumar

THE flames from Israel’s war on Palestine are continuing their all round destruction. Now there is a real danger of their spreading further. The list of dead is growing every day and so is that of those who are injured. The purpose of this write-up is to highlight one aspect of this destruction that largely remains uncovered – the destruction of sports. The attack on sporting infrastructure in Palestine is not simply a collateral of the overall destruction, but is a deliberate and targeted destruction. By targeting sports, Israel not only wants to snuff out the life of Palestinians, but also their hope.

According to Jibril Rajub, president of the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) Israel’s war on Gaza ‘wreaked havoc on sports and youth’. The PFA had recently brought a report cataloging Israel’s sports violations. Quoting from the report, Rajub revealed that 85 Palestinian athletes, including 55 football players, have been killed since the beginning of the war. These figures include 18 children and 37 teenagers. He accused Israeli forces of ‘targeting Palestinian sports clubs…in flagrant violation of the Olympic charter’. Substantiating his point, he mentioned the destruction of Yarmouk football stadium in Gaza and its conversion into a detention centre. He specifically talked about the horrible images that emerged from the Yarmouk football stadium where Palestinians were detained for interrogation and men were made to strip in front of women and children. Neither the International Olympic Committee (IOC), nor the FIFA responded positively to the demand for an “urgent international probe into (Israeli) occupation crimes against sports and athletes in Palestine”.

Yarmouk stadium, built in 1939, is one of the oldest sporting facilities in Palestine. This is not the first time that Israel has targeted this stadium. During the major Israeli bombardment of Gaza in November 2012, both the Palestine and Yarmouk stadiums in Gaza were badly damaged. After it was rebuilt, it was once again targeted in 2019 and destroyed. Palestinians rebuilt it again with international help. Once again it was destroyed in November 2023.

Yarmouk is not the only sporting facility that was targeted by Israel. In 2012, the office of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee in Gaza, Palestine stadium and Palestine Sports building were fully destroyed. These were facilities used by the Palestinian athletes who were maimed in Israeli attacks, who continue to pursue their love for sports and train. In 2019, the stadium in the Beit Hanoun area was targeted in an airstrike. Numerous football players in Gaza were wounded during the Great March of Return – weekly protests held in 2018 and 2019.

In February 2023, Israeli forces demolished part of the Jenin Football Club during its raids. On 30th March 2023, they fired teargas shells and assaulted football players and spectators who were watching a club final match between Markaz Balata, from Nablus, and Jabal Al-Mukaber from Jerusalem. This attack was carried during the halftime break. Both players and spectators were injured, but the match continued after the Israeli forces left, showcasing the grit and resilience of the Palestinians. In order to punish such resilient spirit, Tariq Al-Araj, a player in the Palestine national team was arrested at a military checkpoint in Jenin and sentenced to four years in prison.

In order to make us all realise the brutality of Israel’s attacks, Khalil Jadallah, a Palestinian football commentator and analyst, put together a starting XI of Palestinian football players who have died due to Israeli violence. Braving all these attacks, Palestine football team is now preparing for the 2026 World Cup qualification tournament that starts in November. And much before that they are staring at another major challenge. The Asian Football Cup tournament is being held from January 12 to February 10 in Qatar and Palestine will play its opening game on January 14 against Iran.

Manager of the team Makram Daboub recently spoke about the players. “Everyone is glued to the news, before and after training, be it on the bus or at the hotel…The players have a constant feeling of anxiety for their families…We have physical, technical and tactical problems due to the suspension of the tournament…as well as psychological issues”, said Daboub.

The occupation also forced the PFA to organise two separate leagues for Palestine as Israel does not allow interaction between West Bank and Gaza. National players cannot train together in Palestine as they need permits from Israel, which are invariably denied. This denies many Gaza players the opportunity to represent their country. Even for those in West Bank, to travel from one village to another they need permits, so it is extremely difficult for them to train as a team in Palestine.

Palestine has a long history of football and the PFA itself is nearly hundred years old (it was established in 1928). PFA was a member of FIFA since then. After the formation of Israel, the PFA was captured by the Israeli State and Palestine lost its football association, along with its homeland. It is only in 1998 that PFA was again re-established and admitted back into the FIFA. This is important for us to understand Israel’s stranglehold over international bodies and their failure to standby the interests of Palestine. FIFA’s refusal to move out the under-21 UEFA European championship tournament from Israel in 2019, when it was bombing and destroying Palestinian sporting infrastructure, is another example that buttresses this point.

In 2019, 52 football players, among whom were well-known names like Eden Hazard signed a petition expressing their solidarity with the people of Gaza and demanded the FIFA to shift the tournament out of Israel. They even quoted the death of four teenage football players. Calling the bombing a ‘stain on the world’s conscience’, they stated that it ‘is unacceptable that children are killed while they play football’.

Now let us come to 2023. In spite of being one of the worst attacks on Palestine since the formation of Israel, we do not find any joint statement by football players. The reason lies in the way the clubs have reacted to those players who have openly expressed their solidarity with Palestine. Yusuf Kabadayi, who played for the German U-18 team and is now representing the German club, Schalke (on loan from Bayern Munich), expressed his solidarity with Palestine. He simply wrote: ‘I stand with Palestine’. For this ‘crime’, the club management condemned the player and forced a public apology. Moroccan international footballer Anwar El Ghazi, who plays for Mainz 05, another German club was not only reprimanded, but his contract was terminated and wages stopped.

Karim Benzema, who is a national player for France and a Ballon d’ Or (one of the highest individual honours in football) awardee, is subjected to intense backlash for his support to Palestine. The French interior minister, Gerald Darmanin accused him of having ties with Muslim Brotherhood and demanded Benzema be stripped of his French citizenship and his Ballon d’ Or be taken back.

In a striking contrast, Bayern Munich’s Daniel Peretz faced no repercussions for his pro-Israel statement. In February 2022, the UK’s governing body, the Football Association (FA) shared two tweets in solidarity with Ukraine, which made former Liverpool captain and England international, Jordan Henderson to state that the Premier League as a whole backed Ukraine. They lit the iconic Wembley stadium in blue and yellow – with words, ‘we stand with Ukraine’. Again in stark contrast, the Premier League banned the display of both the Palestinian and Israeli flags during the games. Reports show recent social media footage at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium, where one fan was asked to “lower this (Palestinian) flag, because the club is not politically sided either way”. The fan responds that “it was ok when it was Ukraine”! This is how the clubs are trying to control the political views of players, while not shying away from promoting their own views.

Despite this control, there are players who have stood in solidarity with Palestine. Mohammad Salah of Egypt and Liverpool club, French player Jules Koundé, who plays for the Barcelona, Galatasaray's  (Turkish football club) Moroccan winger Hakim Ziyech; his compatriot at Bayern Munich Noussair Mazraoui; Arsenal's Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Elneny; Real Betis, French player Nabil Fekir; Riyad Mahrez, an Algerian footballer who plays for Manchester City; Salem Al-Dosari, of Saudi Arabia and Al Hilal club; former Real Madrid and German international, Mesut Ozil and retired French player, Franck Ribery, expressed their solidarity with Palestine. And Anwar El Ghazi, whose contract was terminated, bravely stated: “The loss of my livelihood is nothing when compared to the hell being unleashed on the innocent and vulnerable in Gaza #stopthekilling”.

Football and politics are not cut off from each other. Professor Tony Collins writes that football was ‘more than a game’. It remains still. It is a ‘communal gathering, a place to express local and class pride’. May be fans of other games too argue similarly. But football is a working class game. We have witnessed many brilliant players who started without even a ball and a ground (football greats like Maradona, Pele rolled ragged clothes into a ball and played on the streets in their formative years). But today, as many other things, it has also become commercialised, with corporate interests deciding many decisions – from buying and selling players to the conduct of such players. No wonder that many clubs do not want anything that goes against the views of their owners.

But again, as Collins states: “It’s a world (a game of football) where the corporate culture of modern football is challenged, where the sport has a responsibility for its communities, and where the quest for equality for all is at the heart of the game”. This is not something far from truth.

For instance, during a match (against Atletico Madrid in Champions League) played by Scotland’s Celtic Football Club, the club’s fans openly supported Palestine and taunted Israeli player Liel Abada for his association with Israel. The Green Brigade, a hardcore fans group of the club (also called ultras) expressed solidarity with Palestine, which prompted the club’s board to distance itself. But the club could not do much to stop the fans from displaying Palestinian flags and banners during its matches.

The Green Brigade is renowned for aligning with different progressive issues, including the Palestinian cause. Similarly, during Liverpool's recent derby game against city arch-rivals Everton, Palestinian flags were on display. Liverpool is considered to be historically a club of the working class, though its management is not. It is this power of the fans that had forced the FA to drop its idea of lighting Wembley with the colours of Israel.

There are many football clubs around the world that champion progressive ideas and chief among them is the cause of Palestine. In Chile, there is a club, Deportivo Palestino, that was established by Palestinian refugees who were forced to migrate after the establishment of Israel. This club stands not only for the Palestinian State, but also for the interests of the working class. This phenomenon – standing for working class, progressive causes, along with Palestine – can be found across these ‘Left-leaning’ clubs to call them as such for our convenience. Stewart McGill and Vincent Raison, associated with the Communist Party of Britain, capture this phenomenon in their highly informative book, ‘The Roaring Red Front’, published recently.

The essence of the experiences narrated in the book and what we notice from the reactions in solidarity with Palestine point out that humanity survives not only through its opposition to war and aggression, but also by standing against exploitation and oppression.

Left politics can try replicate such experiences in our country by substituting football clubs with cricket ‘franchises’/clubs that are springing up everywhere. Of course, cricket might not be a working class game as football is, but still. Stories abound where players are emerging from the most exploited and downtrodden in our country. It is time to challenge the corporate culture in sport and along with it, exploitation and oppression, starting with Palestine.