Soccer as a Diplomatic Weapon

Israeli midfielder Sheran Yeini playing against Belgium

Israeli midfielder Sheran Yeini playing against Belgium

By Henry Lewis

Photograph of Israeli midfielder Sheran Yeini courtesy of The Guardian

From Invictus to 42, the use of sports to bridge racial barriers remains a classic Hollywood cliché. Unfortunately politicians also manipulate sports for division rather than reconciliation. For example, the upcoming congress of FIFA- soccer’s governing body- has become enmeshed within Middle East politics. The Palestinian Football Association proposed a resolution that would suspend Israel from playing international soccer matches. Regardless of one’s political opinions, it seems disappointing to use soccer as a diplomatic weapon.

The upcoming FIFA meeting will not be the first time that soccer has factored into Middle East politics. The Asian Football Confederation expelled Israel’s team after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Soccer also has unleashed domestic political tensions within certain countries. The success of Istanbul club Galatasaray- including a win over Manchester United in the 1994 Champions League- opened up divisions within Turkey about its growing European engagement. Today, controlling riots by rowdy soccer fans known as ultras has proven a challenge for the Egyptian military government. Soccer’s role as a wedge political issue has a long history in the Middle East.

Yet the proposal to ban Israel represents a major escalation in antagonistic soccer diplomacy. Kuwait, Iran, and Iraq stand as the most recent Middle Eastern countries to face FIFA sanctions. However, these reprimands punished actual sporting violations rather than broader political actions. Actually banning a country- such as Ethiopia in 2008 or Nigeria in 2010- from playing FIFA matches typically only punishes government intervention within soccer affairs. Such examples do not apply to Israel’s case. Suspending a team because of disagreement over geopolitics would stand as unprecedented action by soccer’s governing policy.

From a purely sporting perspective, a suspension of Israel would come at an inopportune time. The team finds itself in contention to qualify for the 2016 European tournament and has played well recently against heavyweights such as Portugal and Belgium. Of course, more important factors come into play here. If true, accusations that the government prevented Palestinian players from travelling to matches would merit some level of reprimand. Still, ideally sports and diplomacy would remain as separated as kosher milk and meat. Hopefully world leaders can manage to affect social change without denying fans the right to enjoy a simple soccer match.

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