Much ado about a supposedly peace-fueled soccer game

Sinai Says: In the Middle East even what looks to be a harmless initiative somehow ultimately deteriorates into conflict.

Peres and Barcelona FC President Sandro Rosell 370 (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO)
Peres and Barcelona FC President Sandro Rosell 370
(photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO)
It was with much fanfare that President Shimon Peres and the president of FC Barcelona, Sandro Rosell, announced last Thursday the plan to hold a match for peace between the Spanish powerhouse and a mixed team of Israeli and Palestinian players on July 31.
The two spoke at length about the benefit such a match would bring and how soccer “brings down barriers, eliminates racism and teaches us to compete in friendship rather than fight in anger,” as Peres put it.
However, in the Middle East even what looks to be a harmless feel-good initiative somehow ultimately deteriorates into conflict.
Hours after Peres and Rosell spoke about how “football is a universal language that should be used to bring people together,” Palestinian Football Association chief, Jibril Rajoub, poured cold water on the idea saying that “it is too soon.”
The senior Palestinian Authority official added after his meeting with Rosell on Friday that “the conditions are not ready for this idea as Israel does not even recognize us as a sporting entity.”
Rajoub claimed on Monday that the Peres Center for Peace had arranged the match without consulting the Palestinians and that there are other issues which need to be resolved before they agree to cooperate with the initiative.
“This is a good and amazing idea which I love. I really think that sports and soccer can be used to build trust and create peace,” Rajoub told radio station 102FM. “However, the decision was made without consulting us. They think that it is our obligation to do what the masters of the region demand.”
Rajoub complained that the Israeli authorities have withheld the entrance of a FIFA expert to the West Bank over the past few days and that four Palestinian national team players are not being allowed to travel from Gaza to Ramallah, eventually explaining that the “current atmosphere is not appropriate for a match like this.”
That final comment likely stands at the core of the opposition Rajoub is currently displaying towards the match for peace.
The escalating tensions in the West Bank over recent days have surely contributed to Rajoub’s stance, resulting in the unrelated requests he is demanding as a precondition to agreeing to Barca’s visit.
“Several issues were brought up by the Palestinian authorities regarding the game with Barcelona which need to be dealt with by the Israeli side,” Ido Sharir, the Director General of the Peres Center, told me on Tuesday.
“We are studying them and hope to find a solution. In the same breath, we continue to hope that we will succeed in arranging the game which will send out a message of peace to the children and the entire public in the Middle East which believe in dialogue and coexistence.”
Rajoub protested on Monday that he had heard about the idea to hold the match from the Peres Center after they had already made all the arrangements, but Sharir claimed that the sides are working together.
“The Peres Center for Peace is working in cooperation with the Palestinian side and with other authorities in order to promote the holding of a peace match with Barcelona in the upcoming summer,” he said.
“We hope that the atmosphere in the region will calm down and that we will succeed in promoting a message of peace the way we have done through sports over the past decade.”
Standing beside Peres last week, Rosell elaborated on how Barcelona “want to make our team available to take part in a football match with the hope that this game will serve to extend the channels of dialogue within the two communities and help bring them closer together.”
Little did he know that even arranging a seemingly innocent match would result in dispute.
Peres even went on to say that he is “convinced that the day will come and we shall celebrate together full peace between our two nations.”
Maybe Messi will bring peace? For the time being, however, the world’s greatest player isn’t even coming to play in the Holy Land as the two sides can’t even agree to combine forces on the field of play.
“We are the Peres Center for Peace. We are always optimistic,” Sharir said when asked of the chances the match will go ahead as planned.
“But we must also be realistic. There is a lot of willingness on Barca’s side and a lot of willingness on our side.
“The Palestinians have made requests, some more legitimate than others, and we are trying to deal with that. There are a lot of variables that are out of our control and can affect an initiative like this. But we have a good base [for arranging the match].”
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