December 30, 2022

How should Israel feel about the 2022 Qatar World Cup? - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

Among the creative advertisements – our version of Super Bowl commercials – that supported the World Cup broadcasting on Israel TV was one of an Israeli couple settling in front of the TV to cheer the home team, only to be reminded by the disembodied voice that Israel wasn’t taking part in the 2022 World Cup. The Hebrew word for “taking part” (hishtatfut) is the same as the word insurance companies use for “deductibles.” This clever play on words was a lead-in to an insurance commercial.

But the truth is that Israel did play a role in the World Cup. Not on the playing field, of course. We haven’t qualified since 1970. Still, surf the web for news about Israel and the World Cup, and you’ll find abundant unpleasant coverage. This criticism of our small country is outsized, in a world replete with countries run by dictators and where women are flogged for being bare-headed.

We have no official diplomatic relations with Qatar, although we do have contacts when Qatar provides suitcases of cash to distribute in Gaza. When Qatar wanted to host the World Cup, it had to obey the rules about not discriminating against any country, including ours. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t be banned for ethical reasons. Russia, which hosted the previous World Cup, was excluded because of its invasion of Ukraine.

The role Israel played in the World Cup

How would Israeli fans get to Qatar? An agreement was signed between Israel and Qatar allowing direct flights to Doha. Thousands of Israelis flew to Qatar. The exact number is unclear; according to reports it was somewhere between 3,000 to 30,000. Most sources estimate around 10,000. Reputedly, even more “Palestinians” were there than Israelis. It’s hard to know who is counted as a Palestinian – those men and women living in the West Bank and Gaza or those living abroad. The Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Jordan reportedly flew via Amman, and fans in Gaza went via Cairo.

Would those of us who stayed home be able to watch the games on Israel TV? Amazingly, we had free viewing on national television and could listen on Israel radio. As I was swimming at Jerusalem’s YMCA, the games were shown on a screen above the pool. I could swim and watch at the same time. Talk about multi-tasking!

Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has been holding the World Cup since 1930. Israel competed in 1934 and 1938 as “Mandatory Palestine.” The only time we qualified for the World Cup, the games were held in Mexico. The names of our two stars must have been as challenging then as French stars Kylian Mbappe and Aurelien Tchouameni are today: Giora Shpigel and Mordechai “Mota’le” Shpigler.

In 1970, the FIFA organizing committee gave up on a plan to seed the teams so the best teams wouldn’t meet until later in the competition. Instead, the 16 teams were divided into four geographical groupings. This also ensured that Israel, playing in the European group, wouldn’t face Morocco, which had earlier threatened to withdraw if they had to play against Israelis. Who did refuse to play against Shpigel and Shpigler 52 years ago? That bastion of human rights – North Korea.

ALTHOUGH THERE were reports of cold shoulders toward Israeli fans on the Qatar streets, with some people refusing to be interviewed by Israel’s reporters, the temporary Israeli consular office reported almost no incidents of note. The Israelis came and left in peace. That has to be good news.

But should we ignore the ubiquity of the Free Palestine banners at the World Cup? As Sky News reporter Alistair Bunkall summarized it: “The most common flag of protest wasn’t the rainbow but the black, green, white and red of Palestine. It was an almost universal sign of solidarity, carried by fans of many nations, paraded by pitch invaders, draped over the shoulders of supporters, used in a victory photo by the Moroccan team, and displayed in hotels and on streets alongside the flags of the actual competing nations. There were rumors that Qatari organizers secretly handed them out to fans; they certainly turned a blind eye in a way they didn’t to other political symbols.”

Indeed, Free Palestine flags could be easily seen in the stands and in the stadiums. Palestinian armbands were popular on sleeves. A flag carrier ran across the playing field carrying the Palestinian flag in the France-Tunisia game, to cheers from the crowd.

After all the sympathetic support for the achievements of the underdog Moroccan team, why was it necessary to hoist a Palestinian flag when they advanced to the quarter-finals by beating Spain? Am I imagining that we have defense pacts, economic agreements and a recent bilateral energy agreement with Rabat?

The pro-Palestinian demonstrations got wide coverage abroad. In the US, both The New York Times and The Washington Post featured almost gleeful reports of how the Arab street is united in disliking Israel, despite the Abraham Accords. Palestinian Authority head Mahmud Abbas was so delighted that he publicly thanked Qatar for using the World Cup to “present the Palestinian cause in an unprecedented way.”

When I complained aloud about this, a British-born football aficionado colleague told me I obviously didn’t know much about football if I was upset by the anti-Israel tone. Pro-Palestine and anti-Israel messages are common among sports teams, he said, pointing to Leicester City and the Forest Green Rovers displaying the Palestinian flag and anti-Israel slogans at matches. In Scotland, Glasgow Celtic fans waved the Palestinian flag.

We shouldn’t be willing to accept anti-Israel signage as an acceptable default to shrug off. Where were the FIFA officials enforcing the no-politics rules at the World Cup?

ON ANOTHER subject, whom should we non-participants be rooting for? One football fan told me he could not cheer for France because of the recent criticism of Israeli scientist Cyrille Cohen by a French TV host for wearing a kippah in the studio. He thought that was worse than the Moroccan flag waving.

Nazi hunter Ephraim Zuroff reminded me that Croatia, the team that came in third, has a terrible Holocaust history and a recurrent nostalgia for fascism. All my French neighbors were solidly behind their former homeland, despite the antisemitism that caused them to leave. They remind me that Argentina took in Nazis after World War II.

The question of whether Argentine footballer Leo Messi is Jewish has been popping up on the web for years, usually connected to his grandparents’ backgrounds or the supposition that the name Messi is a Jewish name connected to Messiah. He’s clearly Catholic, but after he once donated his shoes to a charity in Egypt, a supposedly insulting act, he was slammed by Egypt as a “Jewish Zionist.” After all, Messi was born on la calle Estado de Israel – the State of Israel Street.