Can Politics Stay Off the Field?
By Rebecca Borison
For 15 minutes, a group of boys lived their dream. These boys met their idols and played soccer during the half-time break of a game between Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Madrid. And after the game, those boys returned home…to their Israeli and Palestinian families.
The game was sponsored by Children United, hosted in L.A., and supervised by Jose Mourinho, the coach of Real Madrid. As the world struggles to find the “solution” for the Middle East, groups like Children United are trying to think outside of the box and employ sports.
According to Spanish journalist Henrique Cymerman, “People like the Real Madrid manager have more power than governments, in many cases, because football is like a religion. We strongly believe that the fastest road to peace isn’t with political agreements but through education and sport. Football is a very useful instrument to encourage different people to live together.”
Even though we may all have different political views, Cymerman thinks that we can put that aside for the name of sport. These young boys all share this passion for soccer, and by creating these opportunities, we can bring them together even though they come from entirely different backgrounds.
If only it were that easy.
While soccer-loving kids may be able to put aside their differences, there are still entire governments that can’t seem to put aside politics in the name of sportsmanship. Just look at the current Olympics, and you will unfortunately find an abundance of examples.
For starters, Iran has long maintained a policy of prohibiting their athletes from competing against Israeli athletes. And while this year, Bahram Afsharzadeh, secretary general of the Iranian Olympic committee, promised that Iran would “be truthful to sport” and “play every country,” no Iranian athlete ended up facing an Israeli athlete. The only hope of a show-off was in judo, but the Iranian judo champion, Javad Mahjoub, mysteriously dropped out of the competition because of a “critical digestive system infection.”
Last year, Mahjoub reportedly told the Iranian newspaper Shargh that he threw a match against a German opponent, explaining, “If I won, I would have had to compete with an Israeli athlete. And if I refused to compete with the Israeli, they would have suspended our judo federation for four years.”
Mahjoub had some issues leaving politics out of the arena.
And apparently, so did Lebanon. After the Lebanese judo team refused to practice in the same gym as the Israelis, the Olympic organizers agreed to place a barrier between the two teams.
But before we get too depressed about the power of sports to overcome any obstacles, Itamar Marcus has a bit of good news for us. While there may be no way of sugarcoating Olympic conflicts, we can at least find a slight improvement on the Palestinian policy towards competing against Israelis.
Reporting on the Children United soccer game, the official PA daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida had only positive things to say about the tournament. In the August 8th issue of Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, the newspaper reported, “[The game] aims to create a warm atmosphere in order to draw the nations together, and support peace between them… Mourinho’s influence may be much stronger than the influence of the governments, and football is capable of achieving what political agreements and treaties have been unable to achieve”
According to Marcus, “the official PA policy is to ban sporting events promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” And the PA has been known to condemn such events in the past. In 2011, for example, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida reported on a similar tournament in Canada, but wrote that the PA was planning on forming a investigative committee which would “submit its recommendations before legal steps are taken against the players.”
The fact that the newspaper was able to report on the LA soccer game without any condemnation is a big deal. We can’t be sure that this represents a total shift in policy, but it is definitely a step up.
So while it may take awhile for this sports over politics philosophy to fully permeate, I can’t help but think that it can’t move much more slowly than the current peace process.