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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

How football pitches became a global stage for the Palestinian cause

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As Israel continues to take the lives of hundreds of Palestinians fighting to end the illegal occupation, various athletes have utilised their popularity to take a stance.

In recent weeks, several football stars have taken to the pitch to stand in solidarity with Palestinians facing persecution from Israeli forces across the occupied territories.

The significant act of support from world-known stars has managed to mobilise global attention from millions of sports fans to a decades-long conflict that has been described by many as apartheid.

Though the Palestinian flag or keffiyeh are no strangers to the football field, both iconic symbols have been seen more frequently in recent weeks in response to Israel’s latest deadly aggressions that left 248 Palestinians dead, including 66 children.

Most of the deaths happened during an 11-day Israeli bombardment by on the besieged Gaza Strip, which only came to an end on May 21 after a ceasefire brokered by Qatar and Egypt.

However, for Palestinians, this was too little too late with much of Gaza’s infrastructure destroyed or heavily damaged by Israeli airstrikes, thousands left displaced with nowhere to go and hundreds being detained by occupation forces.

“We all say that the sports should be apolitical, but the reality is, just by simple implication, sport is a human activity. And as a human activity at, we will involve some form of politics, even playing a game under certain rules in particular places,” said Simon Chadwick, Global Professor of Eurasian Sport.

“I think sport and politics are synonymous with one another. They go hand in hand together. And it’s interesting because, in certain countries across the world with more liberal views, it is now commonplace and acceptable for athletes to protest against certain injustices or to advocate on behalf of certain causes.”

Alarmed by the bloodshed and injustice, footballers from all around the globe took to social media to pledge support for the Palestinian people, with some even taking their solidarity straight to the football pitch.

Here in Qatar, local teams Al Sadd and Al-Arabi were seen wearing the Palestinian Keffiyeh while holding an Arabic banner saying “Palestine is in our hearts” at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium prior to a match.

The stance was made right before kicking off the semi-final round of the 49th edition of the Amir Cup, and footage of both teams wearing the Keffiyeh circulated on social media, with many praising the players for their support.

Current beIN Sports commentator and Egyptian football icon Mohamed Aboutrika also took the time to address the unravelling events in Jerusalem while on air.

“I first want to take the time to salute the people in Jerusalem and I pray that Almighty God makes them victorious..They need our prayers and we need their prayers, because they are the most honourable and purest people in our ummah [Muslim community]. May God grant them victory over the occupation,” he said.

Read also: Qatar’s amir, officials condemn ‘brutal’ Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Jerusalem

Similar sentiments have also been shared by several players around the world – including in the United Kingdom, Turkey, Chile – as violence against Palestinians continued to increase in the holy city of Jerusalem.

In mid-May, Leicester City’s Hamza Choudhury and Wesley Fofana held up the Palestinian flag while they celebrated their team’s victory over Chelsea in the UK’s FA Cup final at London’s Wembley Stadium.

Pictures of the high-profile demonstration were shared widely on social media, bringing huge attention to the Palestinian cause from sports fans around the world. The two players also received praise from social media users for their strong, and rather bold, stance in front of millions of viewers around the world.

However, many made note of the significance of the win itself, pointing to Chelsea’s billionaire Russian owner who allegedly donated more than $100 million to a far-right Israeli organisation accused of displacing Palestinian families from Jerusalem, according to bank documents.

Officials have also jumped to show appreciation to the athletes.

“Thank you, Paul Pogba and Amad Diallo, for your solidarity today at Old Trafford. One day, Palestine shall be free. One day, the Palestinian people will be free. One day we will invite you to play in Jerusalem, our liberated capital,” said Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, in a letter addressed to the pair.

The Palestinian Keffiyeh was also seen on a pitch all the way in Chile, worn by players from Club Deportivo Palestino, a team established in 1920 by Palestinian immigrants, just minutes before kick-off.

 

Starting with Manchester City’s Algerian icon Riyad Mahrez, who tweeted a picture of the Palestinian flag on May 10 and used“#Palestine” and “#SaveSheikhJarrah.”  The hashtags show solidarity to the Palestinians who protested attempts to ethnically cleanse the East Jerusalem neighbourhood from its indigenous Arab population to make way for Jewish settlers. In a later match, Mahrez was pictured with the Palestinian flag on the pitch.

Manchester United’s French midfielder Paul Pogba also posted on Instagram asking all his followers to “Pray for Palestine.”

Though a little less subtle, Egyptian football star Mohamed Salah called on world leaders and British Prime minister “to do everything in their power to make sure the violence and killing of innocent people stops immediately”.

Sadio Mane, Salah’s Liverpool team-mate, also tweeted in solidarity with Palestinians, with thousands of people sharing and commenting in support.

Egypt’s Mohamed Elneny, who plays for UK club Arsenal, and Eric Cantona, actor and former Manchester United player, have also weighed in.

“My heart and my soul and my support for you Palestine,” ELNeny said in a tweet, which included pictures of Al-Aqsa demonstrations.

 

However, experts say that even though using football’s global influence to shed light on important political issues is crucial for persuading public opinion, more needs to be done to mobilise action.

“The most obvious thing to say about anybody protesting through football is guaranteed eyeballs, is guaranteed visibility. And so in those terms, you can rest assured that many people now know about Mohamed ElNeny’s protest at arsenal, but also about Paul Pogba’s protest Manchester United as well,” Chadwick added.

“What these athletes have to do I think is, is not just protest, but also take it upon themselves to be responsible for communicating some of the details of these kinds of issues, because it’s one thing to raise visibility, but it’s another thing to completely change someone’s attitude or to influence somebody’s behaviour.”


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