The Last Word: New degree of optimism

Israel coach discusses friendly match with Palestine coach.

luis fernandez 311 (photo credit: Jeremy Last)
luis fernandez 311
(photo credit: Jeremy Last)
Perhaps I had been imbued with a spirit of optimism after spending a week in London addicted to the 24 hour coverage of political change.
As a former politics student the election of a hung parliament for the first time since the 1970s, resulting in the creation of a coalition government in the UK for the first time since the Second World War, was invigorating.
So after leaving the airport on Wednesday evening I was struck by the first piece of Israeli sports news which appeared on my mobile telephone as I continued to hold on to a positive outlook.
New national soccer team coach Luis Fernandez had been talking up the remote possibility of Israel playing Palestine in a friendly, an intriguing prospect with many obvious and far-reaching consequences.
There have been a number of joint peace projects where some Palestinians have played alongside Israeli players, but an official international match has always been out of the question, considering the continuing military conflict.
When it was announced just over a week earlier there had appeared to be little newsworthy about the French Ambassador to Israel hosting a reception at his official residence to welcome Fernandez to the country.
Fernandez is a French sporting legend who made his name in 1984 when he shone for Les Bleus alongside greats such as Jean Tigana and Michel Platini as they won the European Championships on home soil, and thoroughly deserves such an auspicious welcome.
However, Ambassador Christophe Bigot’s decision to invite the Palestinian national team coach to join in the festivities definitely perked up the interest value a notch or two, especially when both coaches were seen chatting together in a extremely friendly manner.
This was less surprising than it initially seemed, as Palestine coach Moussa Bezaz is a French-Algerian who played for four French teams during a 22-year career and has previously coached a number of French teams.
While both his playing and coaching career never reached the heights of Fernandez’s successes which saw him win Ligue 1 as a PSG player and the Coupe de France as the club’s coach, Bezaz’s time working in French soccer overlapped with Fernandez and they clearly know each other well.
When asked on Wednesday about their views on the idea of Israel playing Palestine Bezaz and Fernandez both responded in a political manner.
Bezaz indicated that the pair had already spoken about the prospect. “Luis thinks, like myself, there is no problem for there to be a game between us,” he told reporters. “Not immediately but maybe in the future...I think there needs to be time.” Fernandez was slightly more coy, stressing that it is not up to him to make such decisions but, “If everyone agrees on this I would be happy to help.” The idea of sports being used as a vehicle for peace has been utilized for many years, with the Peres Center for Peace’s efforts some of the more prominent.
Back in May 2007 a visit to Israel by Real Madrid for a peace match only days after they had won the Spanish La Liga title filled me with hope.Undoubtedly, there is a long, long way to go before a real peace between Israel and the Palestinians can be achieved.
As such, both the Israeli and Palestinian political echelon, and much of the populations, would probably not view the idea of sharing a soccer pitch with a diplomatic foe in a positive light.
The Palestinian Football Association is one of a few FIFA members which represents a territory not yet internationally recognized as a state or nation.
It has had a difficult time since its inception and admission into FIFA in 1998, five years after the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
It is one of a few The organization of games has not been easy, with World Cup qualifiers played abroad due to Israel’s partial blockade of Gaza and most opponent’s fear of playing in a war zone.
It is therefore also unlikely that the Palestinian players would be interested in facing up against Israel any time soon, or former Fatah leader turned PFA chief Jibril Rajoub would give such a game a goahead.
Yet, the simple fact that these two Frenchman discussed playing a game of soccer together opened up the heart once more.
Until a peace agreement is signed and a state declared don’t expect to see Palestine coming over to Ramat Gan for a friendly.
But if anything can move the peace process from the political to the normal it is sports. On the field of play everyone is equal.
Fernandez’s appointment in March was greeted with much skepticism among the local media, with some considering even the unqualified Eyal Berkovic a better fit for the job.
The 50-year-old Fernandez has so far, however, acted with an unexpectedlevel of poise, both at his Wednesday’s reception and at Thursdaymorning’s press conference announcing his first squad.
As Israel prepares for yet another qualifying campaign, we await his future moves with new anticipation.