Palestinians Inaugurate National Soccer Stadium

Don’t you just love it when a sporting event is used to boil down the immense complexities of geopolitical circumstance to a few simplistic characteristics? It can be a dangerous game, it’s true, especially when sportswriters suddenly think they’re foreign policy experts. But more often than not, the use of sports to explain the world is an illustrative exercise. A few months back, we just couldn’t help reporting on the optimistic joint Israel-Palestine bid for World Cup 2018.

And considering all the hoopla surrounding Israeli politics these days, we were once again pleased to see traditionally volatile Middle East subjects in the innocuous sports sections of major news agencies this past weekend.

As you can gather from the Sky Sports video above, the Palestinian national soccer team inaugurated their national stadium competing against Jordan on Sunday.

Although the action on the field wasn’t particularly remarkable (they drew 1-1), it was a day worth celebrating. Besides inaugurating their new stadium, Sunday’s game also marked the Palestinian team’s first game at home. As the BBC reports, restrictions on Palestinians’ travel has kept the Palestinian team from playing World Cup qualifiers and other games:

Israel controls access to the West Bank and movement within it. [Palestinian team] Coach Izzat Hamzah says that has had an impact on his team and its preparations.

“We have many players outside Palestine – they cannot be allowed to come here because of the occupation,” he said.

He said that players coming from various parts of the West Bank had been held up at checkpoints..

Since its recognition by FIFA 10 years ago, the Palestinian team has had to stage its “home” internationals elsewhere.

But many people in the stadium said that Sunday’s historic event has given them a sense of pride and as one fan described it, “a taste of freedom”.

Unfortunately, this frustrating scenario has been the norm when it comes to Israel, Palestinians and soccer. Israeli footballers have a fair shout themselves: They’ve had to play important international games away from home (in Cyprus, for example) for years because FIFA deemed their national stadium an unsafe venue. In addition, the Israeli team must travel far more than their competitors and must play in Europe, as Israel cannot join FIFA’s Asian qualifying groups because too many of their Middle Eastern neighbors refuse to compete against a country they do not recognize.

But it is not worth taking this story and editorializing on politics, and certainly this isn’t the place to go into the benefits and drawbacks of Israel’s security fence and the limits on travel within the territories (although it does seem a bit harsh that the Israeli government wouldn’t let the soccer team travel).

Because we need to be serious: Although soccer might help illustrate some complicated geopolitical circumstances, it does not solve them. So let’s just take this story for what it is, and keep the numerous Palestinian perspectives, like this Palestinian player from the Sky Sports video segment above, in mind: “We want to show everyone in the world that Palestinian youth can do something else except act, as the world sometimes sees us, like terrorists.”

Benjamin Schuman-Stoler

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