Cancellation penalties

Goodwill went out of the window when the British government banned Palestinian youth players from touring north-west England. Richard Bagley explains football’s importance in Gaza and the West Bank

An away match at Chester probably wouldn’t be a highlight of most international footballers’ careers. But, to a group of talented young players from Palestine, it promised to be one of the most memorable experiences in their lives. A project called Palestine: Something to Cheer About had secured the backing of the English FA, the Professional Footballers’ Association and a host of other bodies for its effort to use the positive power of football to help teenagers in one of the most deprived areas on earth. But the Under-19 tour fell at the final hurdle – and, to the organisers’ disgust, without even a squeak of protest from the footballing authorities.

Normally, a series of friendly matches in the north-west, against Tranmere and Blackburn as well as Chester, would not exactly be headline news. But, with England hosting Israel on the day that the Palestine Under-19s were scheduled to play at Ewood Park, this tour was anything but normal.

Britain’s refusal to grant visas to the young participants in a project that was no longer “something to cheer” had a tragically familiar ring about it. This time, it was the British authorities that rejected the whole Under-19 team, claiming that there was a risk that they would refuse to return to the spiralling poverty at home. But to long-time followers of the Palestine senior team’s fortunes, it merely marked the latest injustice to befall the national side.

“Football is one of the very few institutions that Palestine has to compete, to show our statehood, to be on the world stage,” was how US-born Palestine striker Morad Fareed described the sport’s role. Yet the intense political turmoil in the Middle East has plunged the Palestine team, currently ranked 142nd in the world, into crisis after crisis. Their qualifying campaign for this year’s Asian Cup was disrupted by Israel’s refusal to grant visas to travel to Singapore last November, a repeat of events during qualification for last year’s World Cup, while the national football stadium in the Gaza Strip was destroyed by an air raid in April 2006. This year, national-team players were held up for a month on their return from a pair of June games in Jordan, while movement restrictions in both Gaza and the West Bank have hampered attempts to field teams – with the territory divided in two by civil strife, there is currently no national league.

The world’s football bodies have kept their distance. UEFA set out their position in a letter following calls from solidarity groups for a boycott of the Israel team ahead of the England game. “UEFA is ­committed to offer the Israeli FA, its clubs and supporters, the opportunity to participate in its competition and in the development of football in general,” they said in a statement. “We are of the opinion that football – and sport in general – are building bridges between nations and communities and that political matters should not interfere with the practice of the game.”

However, Rod Cox, one of the leading figures in the Something to Cheer About project, argues that UEFA should at least compel the Israeli FA to take a stand on the treatment of their neighbours. “Football can be a bridge to friendship and UEFA should tell Israel to extend a hand to the Palestinians,” Cox says. “I do not think that it is unreasonable for the Israeli FA to be asked to make an unequivocal statement that they do not support the movement restrictions placed on the team by the Israeli military.”

Cox believes that football can have a positive role to play in the region and fears the consequences of continued restrictions on Palestinian teams. “The real losers are the boys have given their whole life to football, avoiding the blandishments of gun culture or jihadist promises. They’re trying to live up to the Western culture that they have had drummed into them – success through achievement,” he says. While football can undoubtedly be a force for good, Cox’s assessment suggests that the continuing travails of Palestine’s footballers could yet push young men towards other activities, ones that will do nothing for the bridges that UEFA hopes to build.

From WSC 248 October 2007