(July 31, 2012)
For fans of European football, July is pretty much downtime until mid- to late-August when the UEFA, German, Spanish and other supercups officially conclude the previous season. After the excitement of the Champions League and European Football Championship (EURO 2012), the spotlight shifted to transfers and lower-key international friendlies, which help clubs prepare for their upcoming domestic seasons. This year, though, a spotlight off the pitch continued to compete strongly for media and fan attention. I am, of course, referring to “racism,” an unfortunate solecism that is more emotional than accurate.
At EURO 2012, jointly hosted by Poland and Ukraine, UEFA launched the anodyne “Respect Diversity” campaign. Despite its bumptious aim of eliminating racism, some sort of official program does seem necessary:
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• Hours before EURO 2012 began, Polish thugs attacked English-speaking fans and hurled racist epithets at Dutch stars.
• During the championship, the Croatia Football Association was fined €80,000 for fan misconduct, which included hurling insults at Italian star Mario Balotelli, who is ethnically Ghanaian.
• Later, the Russian and Spanish football associations were fined €30,000 and €20,000, respectively, because their fans exhibited racist behaviour and engaged in racist chanting toward specific black players.
Moreover, long before EURO 2012 started, the English Premier League was embroiled in two major racial issues. Luis Suarez of Liverpool FC was found to have insulted Manchester United defender Patrice Evra during an Oct. 14, 2011, match at Old Trafford. He would be suspended for eight games. The incident is also thought to have cost Liverpool FC coach Kenny Dalglish his job because he had come to Suarez’s defence.
Just over two months later, on Dec. 21, Chelsea FC captain John Terry was accused of insulting the ethnic origin and colour of Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand. This July, the incident actually landed Terry in a Magistrate’s Court, where he was found not guilty of a racially aggravated public order offence. Earlier, Fabio Capello resigned as coach of the English national team because he could not abide the Football Association’s peremptory decision to strip Terry of his captaincy. Most recently, the FA decided to charge Terry despite the not-guilty verdict.
“Racism” is not new to international football, but high-profile cases over the past year have given the beautiful game a black eye. How the sport does, and does not, dealt with intolerance, shows that its insistence on ethical behaviour is really only skin deep.
On the one hand, if a black player is verbally abused the incident will be thoroughly investigated. The accused offender(s) can expect to be pilloried in the media and punished if found guilty. However, if an Arab player is physically abused, as in the case of Mahmud Sarsak of the Palestinian national team, virtually no action will be taken. One would think that the deliberate physical abuse of a player would merit stronger condemnation and punishment than mere name-calling (“sticks and stones” and all that), but because Israel was the offender, FIFA exhibited the moral cowardice and double-standard typical of high-minded organizations.
Sarsak’s ordeal began on July 27, 2009—three years ago—when he arrived at a border crossing in the northern Gaza Strip en route to joining the Balata Youth club football team in the West Bank. Despite having the required travel permit from the Civil Administration of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, Sarsak, a university student with no political affiliations, was arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist (!) and sent to an Israeli jail.
In April, Sarsak went on a hunger strike, and by July his condition had deteriorated to the point where he had to be taken to hospital. His plight sparked a major international campaign to save his life. Because intense international attention was making Israel look bad, it finally agreed to release Sarsak. That was the end of it.
ISRAELI MEMBERSHIP IN UEFA
According to the UEFA Statutes, in exceptional circumstances, a national football association that is situated in another continent may be admitted for membership, provided that it is not a member of the Confederation of that continent, or of any other Confederation, and that FIFA approves its membership of UEFA.
Due to the tense political situation in this particular part of the world in the beginning of the 1990s, Israel asked for its affiliation to UEFA. Its clubs were not given the chance to participate in club competitions under the umbrella of the Asian Football Confederation as most of the Arab countries objected to meeting Israeli teams. In an effort to contribute to the development of football and to give an opportunity to as many people as possible to enjoy the game, the UEFA Executive Committee decided to accept the affiliation request.
This was done in three steps:
• 19 September 1991 in Montreux, Switzerland: Admission of teams from Israel in European Clubs competitions.
• 19 September 1993 in Cyprus: The UEFA Executive Committee agrees on a provisory admission of the Football Association of Israel (IFA).
• 28 April 1994 in Vienna, Austria: The UEFA Congress agrees on a definite admission of the IFA to UEFA.
For its part, FIFA’s response reeked of timidity. When apprised of Sarsak’s condition, Sepp Blatter politely wrote to the Israel Football Association to express “grave concern and worry about the alleged illegal detention of Palestine football players… in apparent violation of their integrity and human rights…” [my emphasis]
I contacted FIFA in Geneva to ask how Blatter could call such a blatant offence “alleged.” I was told that the accuracy of Sarsak’s story was not certain because it came from third-party reports. This excuse is indefensible. If nothing else, it shows that for three years, FIFA did nothing to secure Sarsak‘s release..
But let’s be charitable for a moment. Let’s assume that FIFA had no knowledge of Israel’s racially motivated arrest and abuse of Sarsak, and let’s pass over Blatter’s feeble response to Sarsak’s hunger strike. What does FIFA do now? Sanction Israel? Suspend Israel? Investigate Sarsak’s arrest? No. Nothing.
As I thought about Israel, racism and FIFA—even beyond the Sarsak incident—I thought about South Africa, racism and FIFA. I called Geneva to find out what it would take for FIFA to suspend or expel Israel the way it did South Africa, and was treated to this gem: “The case of 1964 which you mention was different, as the South African football association was at that time not complying with the FIFA Statutes.”
In other words, South African apartheid was a football matter, and therefore punishable; Israel’s apartheid is political, and therefore outside the authority of FIFA. This is indeed a curious response. First, in July 1972, FIFA “clarified” its suspension of South Africa by stating that it was done not for contravention of football rules, but because of South African government policy! Second, even if such an argument were defensible, the abuse of Sarsak, a football player, clearly makes his abuse a football matter.
Ethical double-standard?—It’s hard not to come to that conclusion. In fact, FIFA admits its tolerance for Israeli apartheid in the language of is own anti-racism campaign:
“The Respect Diversity programme will be implemented with the cooperation of UEFA’s long-time anti-discrimination partner the “Football against Racism in Europe” (FARE) network and its eastern European partner organization Never Again. One key aspect of the initiative will be the monitoring by Never Again of racist and discriminatory chanting and symbols. Such monitoring activities have been an important aspect of FARE’s work at major international final rounds for several years”, as was stated in the message.”
“Never Again,” as we all know, is the shibboleth of Jewish exceptionalism and Holocaust® propaganda. How ironic that FIFA should unknowingly parade its Israeli subservience before the whole world!
If FIFA can grant Israel membership in UEFA by special resolution, it can also take it away. Instead of integrity, though, we’re just going to get more of Sepp’s blather.