Injecting politics into sport never ends well—remember the Honduras-El Salvador “Soccer” war? Which is why soccer’s FIFA overseers have generally sought to stay away from such an incendiary mix.
The soccer chiefs’ latest challenge touches on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Under its president, Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) wants FIFA to suspend Israel from competing in international tournaments because – the PFA says – the Israeli government is restricting the movement of Palestinian players.
Israel has said security concerns necessitate some restrictions, which apply to most Palestinians, including athletes.
Let’s rewind to 1999, when I was based in Israel as Middle East producer for the U.K.’s Sky News.
I was in the stands as Denmark thrashed host Israel 5-0 in the first leg of the European Championship qualifying play-off game.
As someone who covered the conflict, I recognized the man sitting a few rows away: Rajoub was at that time the feared head of the Palestinian National Authority’s internal security services in the West Bank.
During his 1994-2002 tenure with the Preventative Security Force, as the security services are called, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group accused him being part of an apparatus that used torture on a large scale in its control of the Palestinian population.
Israel arrested Rajoub multiple times when he was younger – including once for tossing a grenade at an Israeli army bus.
In recent years, he’s accused Israelis of being Nazis, told an official Palestinian newspaper that "Normalization in sports with the Zionist occupation is a crime," and even gave his blessing to a sports tournament in the name of Abu Jihad, who helped Yasser Arafat found the Palestine Liberation Organization, and who was blamed for a string of deadly attacks on Israelis, including children.
As for the travel restrictions, Israeli authorities point out they arrested one Palestinian player last year on suspicion that he met with a Hamas terrorist while the team trained in Qatar.
Rajoub’s background makes one wonder how he ever got FIFA’s ear, and more troubling is his current lobbying effort for a vote on Israel’s FIFA status at the governing body’s congress in Zurich in May.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter, a masterful politician if ever there was one, has made it clear he's opposed to any vote, and is reportedly working behind the scenes to avoid one.
Meeting with Rajoub this month in Egypt, Blatter said he wanted to “find solutions for the benefit of football development in Palestine.” He also emphasized that “football should connect, not divide.”
In recent years FIFA has suspended Nigeria, Cameroon, Zimbabwe and others for governmental interference in national associations, but Blatter is right to generally steer clear of non-soccer politics.
Indeed, imagine the extent to which FIFA’s ranks would be thinned if it expelled countries with, say, poor human rights records. Facing scrutiny would be the likes of Iran, Qatar, Syria, Venezuela, China, and Russia – to name a few.
If a vote on Israel takes place, FIFA’s 209 member nations would be smart to vote for soccer, and not act as political lap dogs.
Video of the week: Whaddup Whidat?
Check out this stunning overhead kick by goalkeeper Mohammad Shatnawi of Jordan's Al Faisaly who lost 2-0 against local rival, Al Whidat.
From the wires
Chelsea midfielder Oscar is out of the hospital following a heavy collision with an opponent during a Premier League game that left the Brazil international with a swollen face.
Oscar was injured about 15 minutes into the 0-0 draw at Arsenal on Sunday when goalkeeper David Ospina collided with him. The midfielder continued playing after treatment, but was substituted at halftime and taken to the hospital to have some scans.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said Monday that Oscar "went immediately to his house yesterday night" from the hospital and slept at home. Oscar is expected at the club's training ground on Monday.
Asked if Oscar had sustained a concussion during the collision, Mourinho said: "I'm not sure of that. We saw his face was swelling at halftime, we don't want to go for any risks. We made that decision."
Mourinho said Oscar will be traveling with the rest of the Chelsea squad for Wednesday's match at Leicester, but didn't confirm whether he was available to play.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.