Politics on the Pitch: When Gaza and Sports Collide

In January 2008, Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Aboutreika followed a goal by raising his shirt to reveal the slogan “Sympathise with Gaza”. His actions were meant to put a spotlight onto the economic embargo that Israel had imposed on Palestinians in Gaza after the election of the Hamas government.

Days before the ceasefire halted the carnage in Gaza city this month, history repeated as Sevilla (Spain) striker Fredi Kanoute raised his shirt after scoring a goal to reveal a shirt that said “Palestine” in multiple languages. Kanoute is not an obscure player. In 2007, he was named African player of the year, even though he was born in France (his family is from Mali).

After earning a £3,000 fine for his political gesture, famed Barcelona coach, Jose Guardiola stood up for him, saying: “The fine is absolutely excessive. If they always banned these type of things, then journalists would not be able to write columns. … Every war is absurd, and too many innocent people have died for us to be fining people for things like this.”

Welcome to 2009, when Israel’s offensive on Gaza, ceasefire or no, is finding expression in the sports world. It’s a development that should give supporters of Israel’s actions in Gaza a great deal of pause.

Kanoute’s actions come on the heels of an event in Ankara, Turkey when the Israeli basketball team, Bnei Hasharon, had to flee the court from what the Associated Press described as “hundreds of fist-pumping, chanting Turkish fans”.

Before the game could begin, angry chants of “Israeli killers!” came down from the crowd, as Palestinian flags appeared in their hands. Then, in a scene that would look familiar to George Bush, off came the shoes, and footwear rained down from the stands (the shoes didn’t hit any players).

A melee then began between 1,500 police officers and Turkish fans, as the fans advanced toward the court. Both Hasharon and the Turkish team Turk Telecom were hurried to the locker rooms where they remained for two hours.

Hasharon forfeited the contest. It says something that Israel found reckoning on the basketball court long before any kind of International Criminal Court.

According to sports historians, a sporting event hasn’t been actually stopped in such a manner — with fans turning the stands into a site of protest — since 25 July 1981, when South Africa’s Springbok rugby team had to cancel a game in New Zealand when fans occupied the field of play to protest apartheid.

Israel has historically been adamant that any comparisons between the Israeli state and South Africa are absolutely false and even antisemitic. Jimmy Carter provoked their outrage of course when he published his book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid.

But this parallel, when related to sports, should not be taken lightly. One of the most effective tools against apartheid South Africa was the South African Non-Racialised Olympic Committee, which attempted to use sports as a way to highlight and broadcast the inequities of the South African government. Sports can bring a political spotlight and unwanted attention onto a society like few other forces in the international community, galvanising, attention, passion and, as we saw in Turkey, anger.

Israel hasn’t helped itself in this regard by making sports a target in the war. On 9 January, the IDF bombed Gaza’s Palestine National Stadium. The stadium was also the head of the Palestinian Football Association. The structure was built in 2005 partially with funds from Fifa. The facility will now need to be rebuilt again (in 2006 it was also bombed). It was meant to be a symbol of a Palestinian state, something that united the West Bank and Gaza as an expression of unity. Now it is rubble.

In addition, perhaps fearing a repeat of Ankara, the Israel Football Federation is preventing any club matches from being played in Palestinian towns. As Jimmy Johnson, who works in Jerusalem for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions told me: “These are not Palestinian clubs from the West Bank, East Jerusalem or Gaza, but for Palestinian citizens of Israel, sometimes called Arab Israelis, who are almost 20% of the population, vote in Israeli elections, etc.”

This has gotten little press in the US, but in the soccer-mad Middle East, it is altogether insult on top of injury.

Sports, which we are told repeatedly represent a sacredly apolitical space, a place to flee the headaches of the real world, has now been thrust into the heart of a conflict raw with politics in a way we haven’t seen in quite some time. Protests against Israeli actions in Gaza are sure to continue in sporting events outside the US. But the ramifications could very easily be felt inside our borders, as political leaders come to the White House and tell the new administration tales of sports fans gone wild.

Dave Zirin is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love (Scribner). He can be reached at: edgeofsports@gmail.com. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on January 24th, 2009 at 11:51am #

    before 1945 only some euros hated/feared these cultists; now it is also asianas/asianos and afrikanas/afrikanos that hate/fear the neue uebermenschen. danke

  2. Deadbeat said on January 24th, 2009 at 12:10pm #

    Obfuscation at its best from the world’s most renowned “Leftist” Zionist …
    From Democracy Now 1/23/2009…

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Noam Chomsky, for Americans who want to figure out how to move now with the new Obama administration to end these atrocities that are occurring in the Middle East, what do you suggest? And also, what’s your viewpoint of the divestment movement? Many young people are urging something similar to South Africa, to begin pressing increasingly for divestment from Israel.

    NOAM CHOMSKY: The position that people who are interested in peace ought to take is very straightforward. I mean, a majority of the American population, considerable majority, already agree with the full Arab League peace plan, not the little sliver of it that Obama mentioned. The peace plan calls for a two-state settlement on the international border, maybe with minor modifications. That’s an overwhelming national consensus. The Hamas supports it. Iran has said, you know, they’ll go along with it.

    AMY GOODMAN: Noam, we only have thirty seconds.

    NOAM CHOMSKY: OK, so we should push for that.

    Is divestment a proper tactic? Well, you know, if you look back at South Africa, divestment became a proper tactic after years, decades of education and organizing, to the point where Congress was legislating against trade, corporations were pulling out, and so on. That’s what’s missing: the education and organizing which makes it an understandable move. And, in fact, if we ever got to that point, you wouldn’t even need it, because the US could be brought in line with international opinion.

    AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, we want to thank you very much for being with us. And from all of us at Democracy Now!, condolences on the death of Carol, your wife of more than half a century.

    NOAM CHOMSKY: Thank you.

    AMY GOODMAN: Thanks, Noam. Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

  3. louisa said on January 24th, 2009 at 12:23pm #

    Chomsky is hardly a leftist. He is moreover a self-declared opponent of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. In Dec. 2001 the Great Man stated:

    “I am opposed and have been opposed [to divestment] for many years, in fact, I’ve probably been the leading opponent for years of the campaign for divestment from Israel and of the campaign about academic boycotts.”

    –from Chomsky’s Gift, Harvard Crimson 12/12/01

  4. bozh said on January 24th, 2009 at 2:29pm #

    moreover, as i said before, noam is for a two-state nonsolution and thus approbates ashkenazic crimes of ’45-48 and wants to reward the criminals with a state of their own.
    that is criminal behavior to me. these bastards must never be rewarded bu prosecuted- dead or alive. thnx

  5. mary said on January 25th, 2009 at 3:51am #

    Death, discrimination and putting up obstacles – how the Zionists attempt to break a national spirit.

    Three Palestinian footballers have been killed in Gaza.

    Kettering Town is a football team owned by a Muslim. Some of their games have also been taken off the TV schedules because they wear the wrong shirt. Sir Victor Blank the Chairman of Lloyds Bank is also a friend of the Prime Minister and his wife. Blank helped his friend Brown out at short notice by taking over HBOS in the recent banking collapse.

    My brother’s open letter to the UK Foreign Secretary when the Palestinian football team were refused visas to play here in 2007.

  6. kahar said on January 25th, 2009 at 2:56pm #

    Well, no Iraqi either is allowed visa to visit family or friends in Britain, unless they are government whores of course. All those who do manage to get here have paid several thousands of pounds in bribes.