Thursday, 2 September 2010

Today is the start of the European Cup.

                                   It was during the last European cup that Israel played against England at Wembley, and I tried to bring a Palestine team for some games against UK football league teams at the same time. My objective was to give the Palestinians opposition that would motivate them to practice and improve. We had a base at the University of Chester, who were providing specialist coaching, and we had  an ascending order of games culminating with a premier league game against Blackburn Rovers. But it didn't happen. The UK government refused them visas on the grounds that Israel might refuse them re-entry, if they let them out in the first place, so they would become refugees and become a burden on the state. Meanwhile Israel turn up to an official reception to play their leg in the European Cup, feted by the English FA. But why does Israel play in Europe whilst it is imprisoning another team, and why Europe anyway?
The reason Israel plays in Europe is the Oslo agreement. Palestine is not a 'country' as Zionists keep telling us, so is not entitled to a FIFA recognised team, whilst Israel could not get a game in Asia, where most countries boycotted it. So giving Palestine a team, as a concession for moving Israel to Europe was an obvious move to make in the Oslo settlement. Crucially, Israel gets to be treated as a 'normal' state where it matters most, in the west.
In this Cup, Israel play Malta tonight. They have a very easy group, their seeded team is Croatia, who they have beaten before, I think, and the second seed is Greece, a team very varied in quality. The winner of each group and the 5 best runners up qualify for the finals, and this must be Israel's best opportunity yet. Their other opponents are Malta, Latvia and Georgia (who despite the distance, really are in geographical Europe). And an appearance in the final play-offs is yet another step to normalising them as a country, and as a European Country at that. No wonder Israeli commentators like Gideon Levy and Illan Pape say that the Israeli public have closed their mind to Peace, seeing no need to get out of their chairs, and feeling comfortable in the world's acceptance of who they are, occupation and all.
As I said, I invited the Palestine youth team over, but they were refused visas by the UK Government. A practiced media expert could have made much more out of it than I did, but, still there was some media attention for it. I do not discount rumours that Israel threw their England game as a deal to get the banning result, you have only to read the commentaries on the game, and see what an appalling game Yossi Benayoun had, for instance, and England badly needed a win to retain credibility (they still didn't qualify). But whether or not, they played at Wembley and the Palestinians remained locked in Gaza.
Anyway, the amount of work in trying to organise the tour was astonishing, and the costs enormous, so I won't be trying it again. In any case, after the failure of that visit the situation changed dramatically for the team. They were not helped by the then president of the Pal's FA saying that my failure to get visas was a personal failure, because I was obviously not corrupt enough to pull the right strings, and, as he told me, nothing to do with the siege of Gaza, which didn't affect him personally much. There are still a very few people in Gaza, I very much regret to say, who feel that breaking the siege is just a matter of corrupt payments to the right Israelis rather than action to end the occupation for all. This corruption is, of course the reason why Fatah were punished in the elections, and Hamas elected, but our Pals FA president, sitting in his 5 star hotel in Qatar, paid for by the Emir, had not yet got that message, even though the 2006 world cup qualifying run came to an end for the Palestine team when Israel refused visas to half the team when they needed to get a good result against Uzbekistan, and they lost, and lost momentum. "Pah, he said, why would the British government be implicated in the siege of Gaza?"
The progress of the team was mentored by a Kuwaiti based Palestinian refugee businessman called Barakat, who persuaded many other businesses to invest in the team. They really thought that World Cup qualification was possible, and the team moved up the FIFA rankings from the bottom to 115th, nearly halfway. The enthusiasm was palpable and it was possible to image the world sitting up and taking notice. As their success grew, beating Taiwan 8-0, and drawing with in form Iraq 1-1, Israel suddenly refused to allow half the team to play against Uzbekistan, and that was the beginning of the end. They lost 3-0, and under similar sanctions, they failed to qualify through their remaining games. 
In 2007, in the next world cup, without Barakat's support, and with West Bank pressures, they lost their pre-qualification match with Singapore, at 'home' in Qatar, and failed to show up for the return leg in Singapore, probably because of Israel visa issues, but also shortage of money and organising ability. The Pal FA failed to organise Palestinian TV coverage of the Singapore game, and failed to inform Al Jazeera (in Qatar!) or to make the most of Al Jazeera's coverage when I accidentally organised it for them following a fortuitous meeting in my hotel. I presented a shirt from Blackburn Rovers, but the Pals insisted that it be off camera, thus alienating Blackburn who were looking to build support in the Middle East, and also failing to get the important message, that they have friends in the West, out to their supporters. What was the explanation for this behaviour? I don't know, but it didn't help the team, and if the President thought it helped his position with Israel or the West Bank Fatah Government, he was mistaken. It just made it easy for him to be replaced.
Israel could clearly see the propaganda value of a successful Palestine team, and were keen to stop it.
Tony Blair, Middle East envoy, also saw the propaganda value of the team, and that clubs in Gaza were still largely controlled by Fatah but delegates were moving towards Hamas, so it was that FIFA agreed to re-build a national stadium, but on condition was that there must be a new election for President and delegates. Then they ruled out all the Gaza votes because Hamas 'gunmen' were said to have intimidated the voters at one local Gaza club. As a result, all the delegates are West Bank Fatah, except the delegate for Qalqilya, who 'is in touch with Hamas'. As a result the emphasis of the team was moved to the West Bank, and the new stadium was built there, just outside the area Israel has zoned as part of "Jerusalem", so not being contentious in the current Peace talks when Israeli Annexation of Jerusalem is ratified. They did this rather than rebuild the Gaza stadium that Israel bombed.
And it was the old West Bank section of the FA (supposedly under control from Gaza, but encouraged by Blair and Israel to behave independently) who had also sabotaged 'my' tour by refusing to take part unless they got 50% of the players regardless of ability, and on refusal by the President, pulled out. (This sabotage made it much easier for the UK to refuse the team visas, since they were all from Gaza. The press often described it as 'A Gaza Youth Team', whereas it was the official U19 Palestinian National Team. I was asked by Channel 4 News whether it wasn't right that the team should be blocked to punish Hamas)
The new President of the Palestine FA, Jibril al Rajoub, is a Fatah hard man. He is a powerful general previously in charge of Internal Security. Blair wanted to get rid of most of these guys from Government in order to create a unified structure of armed forces control, and he had to find jobs for them. 
Unlucky FA! Since his appointment, many foreign players, such as Chile's Roberto Kettlun, that were so prominent in Palestine's dramatic progress towards the 2006 world cup, when they beat Taipei 8-0, have not been recalled, even when they request it, and some are now being recruited by Jordan instead. Conversely, however, Jordan has pressured the Palestine FA not to recruit Jordan based Palestinians (70% of Jordan citizens) and the Palestine FA appear to have agreed. A recent story concerns two Croats, the Sharbini Brothers, called up for the Singapore qualifier in 2007, but too frightened by death threats in Croatia to leave at that time, but who have not been recalled subsequently even though they have signalled a willingness to be so. One has been approached by Croatia, but both seem likely to play for Jordan, who has also approached them. The team is thus being downgraded to a non-threatening position, although they were scheduled to play a friendly against a league side in Belgium last year, but I'm not sure if it happened. There are plenty of UK clubs that would play them if the UK FA could be persuaded to invite them, but there is a strong link with the Israel FA in London, both officially and by Zionist individuals in senior positions.
And so the Israelis will strut the International stage, while the football mad Palestinians languish at 171 out of 207, positioned above the Comoros Islands and Somalia, their only scheduled fixtures being friendlies against Yemen away (played in Amman) and Iraq at home (played in Amman, despite FIFA promises about their home stadium). They have previously drawn with Mauritania, Sudan and the UAE, lost to China 3-1, and to Iraq 3-0, then 4-0
Still the West Bank got that new Stadium, and most Gaza players are allowed out of their jail to play, but generally not to train, although the Captain is still not allowed out - but then he is also no longer the Captain. The siege has been left out of the picture by these dealings, as Palestine is now not called unsafe by FIFA, so FIFA also now supposedly allow foreign teams to play in this Ramallah stadium, and both the men's and women's teams have played Jordan in friendlies, both ending in draws. Yet no other matches have been played in 'Ram', or are scheduled to be. 
Interesting and co-incidental that England's first game in its new Wembley stadium was against Israel. And while I have been writing this, Israel have beaten Malta 3-1. A hat trick by Yossi Benayoun, ex Liverpool, now Chelsea player. Well Done, how the Premier league has improved your play!  What a shame that the UK Premier league will never be allowed to employ Ramzi, the 65 times capped Palestine keeper. I don't how many of Benayoun's goals he would have saved, but I do know that he would give his life for the opportunity to be allowed to try.