Mark Godfrey

Sepp Blatter and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Mark Godfrey
Sepp Blatter and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

BY SAM WILSON

It is no lie that politics and football often have their lines blurred; encroaching on the territory of one another. Usually, its politics meddling in football – whether this be hyper-aggressive fans with political motivations, traditional links between religious or socio-political groups and football clubs, or even players marking goals with politically charged gestures and celebrations.

However, every so often it is the other way around. Football interferes with politics and whether for good or for bad, some argue that it should not happen at all – that the two should be separate.

To find an example of one such incident, we must go back to the not-so-distant past of May 2015. Sepp Blatter was still the President of FIFA and had yet to be deposed for his involvement in corruption. Blatter was on a trip to the Middle East, holding talks with both Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

Providing some context on the situation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been ongoing since the middle of the 20th century. It centres around the country of Israel and the state of Palestine; primarily the Jewish and Arab populations and the discrepancies between the two. They currently split the city of Jerusalem, with the East being the capital of Palestine and the West the Israeli capital.

The conflict has been ongoing for nearly 70 years and has divided political opinion all throughout the 20th and 21st century. Israel have been accused of breaching international law, with the use of chemical warfare on Palestinian civilians and, whilst the situation is occasionally calmer than at other times, it is no closer to a conclusion.

Back to Blatter; the FIFA president decided to try and take solving the Israel-Palestine conflict into his own hands. The Swiss was on a self-proclaimed “mission of peace” after the Palestine Football Association (PFA) asked that FIFA indefinitely suspend Israel. The PFA got FIFA involved because it believed that Israel was restricting the movement of players between the West Bank – occupied by Israel – and the Gaza Strip.

What was Blatter’s solution to one of the most fractious international relationships of the modern world? Arrange a peace match. It is safe to say that, due to the extent of the struggle, that his ‘peace match’ has not yet taken place; nor does it appear likely anytime soon.

Blatter met with Netanyahu and Ofer Eini, head of the Israeli FA, at a FIFA congress meeting on the 29 May 2015. He did not detail much of the discussion but did reveal the plans for the so-called ‘peace match’. Speaking at the time, Blatter said:

“One item I can tell you that I spoke about with [Netanyahu] … to arrange a match for peace between the national teams of Israel and Palestine and FIFA would be happy to organise it.”

The idea that Sepp Blatter believed he had the power to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict with a football match shows not only a god complex on his part but further proof that there are some areas FIFA should stay well clear of. To negate Palestine’s genuine concerns about the problems that Israel were causing the nation in relation to football, with reported war crimes and violence aside, was nothing short of disrespectful.

Blatter was pictured smiling and joking with the Israeli prime minister; whilst ignoring the genuinely negative impact that the crisis was having on Palestinian football.

In October 2007, a crucial 2010 World Cup qualifier between Palestine and Singapore was not played; as the team were not able to obtain visas to let them leave the area. FIFA opted not to reschedule the fixture and Singapore were awarded a 3-0 win by default. The following year, in 2008, Palestine’s team were not allowed to travel to the AFC Challenge Cup and Israeli attacks caused extensive damage to Palestinian football facilities.

The matter did not stop there and has even led to loss of life. In Operation Cast Lead, a three-week military conflict between Israel and Palestine, Palestinian footballers Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe were amongst the estimated 1400 casualties. Countless arrests of Palestinian footballers have also been made; including the notable case of Mahmoud Sarsak, who was detained administratively by Israel in 2009 – before being released after pressure from FIFA and Blatter in 2012.

Blatter’s trivial suggestion of a ‘peace match’, despite the ongoing conflict, was wrong. If ever proof was needed that football, and FIFA in particular, should never meddle in politics – this was certainly it.

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