World soccer body FIFA is likely to toughen its stance on Israel if Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed Bin Hammam succeeds in challenging Sepp Blatter in FIFA presidential elections scheduled for June.
That is the conclusion of remarks made to World Football Insider by Bin Hamman, who has hinted that he will challenge Blatter, but has yet to formally announce his candidacy.
Bin Hammam has argued in recent months that FIFA needs a change of leadership to polish its image tarnished by corruption scandals and Blatter’s 12-year long imperious rule. FIFA insiders say Bin Hammam has only an outside chance in defeating Blatter.
Speaking to World Football Insider, Bin Hammam took FIFA to task for doing too little to press Israel to drop its crippling travel restrictions on Palestinian national team players who are based in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and need Israeli permission to travel from one territory to the other.
Palestinians attribute their failure to advance in the Olympics 2012 qualifiers to Israel’s refusal to allow eight of the 12 Gaza players requested by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) to travel to the West Bank for last week’s match against Thailand, the first official soccer game ever to be played on Palestinian territory.
Thailand won the match 6-5 on penalties.
PFA president Jibril Rajoub told World Football Insider that five of the eight banned players would have played against Thailand had they been allowed to travel. “Politics has nothing to do with sport. The Israelis are using this as an excuse, which is false and baseless, just to justify their irrational ideology to our Palestinian athletes,” Rajoub said.
Bin Hammam, who attended the match, said soccer could play a role in resolving the Israeli-Arab dispute, but that Israel had a responsibility to guarantee the freedom of movement of Palestinian players. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national who carries a diplomatic passport, was held by Israeli authorities at the border for two hours before being allowed to enter the West Bank.
“Through FIFA we are trying to correspond and encourage FIFA to take actions. But so far there is very little. I think Palestinians playing here on their soils we’ll be demanding much, much more than we used to do in the past,” Bin Hammam said, adding that this was “a big issue for the AFC.”
Blatter played a major role in making FIFA one of the few international organizations to recognize Palestine as a state, and admitting Palestine to the world soccer body as the only entity that does not represent a state. Blatter was also instrumental in the 2008 funding of the refurbishment of the Faisal al Husseini Stadium on the outskirts of Jerusalem where Palestine played its match against Thailand.
“I would like to support the Palestinian athletes, especially the footballers, to gain their independence and gain their own character,” Bin Hammam said.
Palestinian soccer players and officials say the travel bans prevent their national team from building cohesion. “Because we don’t meet all the time it is hard to create a proper harmony between the team,” said defender Nadeem Basem Barghot, who broke into tears at the end of the match against Thailand.
Bin Hammam said that he hoped that Israeli officials and supporters had watched the match and that that would allow the AFC as well as Palestinians and Israeli to “build the bridges between national associations and sports people.”
Israel has competed in Europe since 1994 after it was earlier expelled from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). That was prior to Bin Hammam’s ascendancy to the AFC presidency in 2002.
Former Israeli player Mordechai Spiegler, who played alongside Pele at the New York Cosmos and scored Israel’s only World Cup finals goal in 1970, was one of the few Israelis to attend Palestine’s match against Thailand.
Bin Hammam suggested that the popular revolts against authoritarian rule sweeping the Middle East and North Africa could contribute to improving relations, at least as it regards soccer, between Israel and the Arabs. He said Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup would help to break down barriers in the region.
“The vision of Qatar 2022 is peace in the Middle East, and Palestine and the Israelis is the best example of where we’d like to see that—this World Cup changing the lives of youth for the two nations,” Bin Hammam said.
Bin Hammam stopped short however of putting his money where his mouth is: pushing the AFC to readmit Israel. That would create an environment in which Israeli and Arab perceptions of one another could be broken down and in which Bin Hammam’s ambition to build bridges through soccer could flourish.
International tennis has created a precedent for Bin Hammam to match his words with deeds. In 2010, three Israeli tennis players appeared at the ATP World Tour and World Tennis Association tournaments in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates despite the two countries’ long-standing ban on sports encounters with Israel and Israeli passport holders crossing their borders.
Moreover, relations with Israel are no longer an alien concept for Middle Eastern nations. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with the Jewish state.
Bin Hammam’s native Qatar alongside Oman, Bahrain, Morocco and Tunisia established trade relations with Israel during the heyday of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations following the Palestine Liberation Organization’s establishment of the Palestinian Authority as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Mauritania, a member of the Arab League, established full diplomatic relations with Israel. Those trade and diplomatic relations were only frozen when Israel attacked Gaza in late 2008.
James M. Dorsey is a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog