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 the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com