FIFA president Sepp Blatter has decided to include a plea for suspending Israel on the agenda of the executive of world soccer's governing body on May 3, according to reports in the last two days. In the last month several Arab soccer bodies have asked to have Israel ostracized because of the conflict with the Palestinians.
The Saudi news agency (SNA) on Sunday reported that Blatter sent a letter to the head of the Saudi FA, Sultan Bin Fahd Abdul Aziz, in which he said: "The matter of the suspension of the Israeli FA because of the country's actions against the Palestinian population is an issue we will have to consider seriously at our executive meeting in Zurich." Sources at FIFA headquarters yesterday confirmed the issue would be discussed in Zurich on May 3.
Last month the Saudis sent a letter to FIFA on behalf of the Arab Football Union in which they called on Blatter "to protect the interests of the Palestinian FA - a full member of FIFA, which has been harmed by Israeli actions." Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon and Oman added their names to the letter.
Blatter's move is clearly connected with his bid for re-election in a vote on the eve of the World Cup finals in Seoul on May 29. Blatter's standing as the most important functionary in the world's most important sport has taken a severe knock lately following allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
Even if the move to suspend Israel fails, Blatter realizes he must pick up votes especially from Third World countries if he is to fend off a challenge to his leadership from Cameroon's Issa Hayatou, the African confederation chief, who is also standing for election in Seoul.
The 24 members of FIFA's executive committee will vote on the proposed boycott. Secretary general Michel Zen-Ruffinen, who has recently fallen out with his boss, will also take part in the discussion but is not allowed to vote.
The balance of power in the committee appears to suggest the proposal has only a slim chance of being adopted. Apart from Blatter, there are eight European members of the committee, three of whom are vice presidents. All of them, except perhaps Belgium's Michel D'Hooghe, are expected to vote against.
UEFA president Lennart Johansson and Italian Antonio Matarrese are long-standing friends of Israel, as is Scotland's David Will. All of them will adopt the UEFA line which invariably opposes FIFA and its boss, Blatter.
South Korea's Chung Mong-Joon, Julio Grondona, the president of the Argentina FA, and CONCACAF president Jack Warner are also not expected to support the proposal.
Hayatou is in a delicate position. On one hand he will not want to lose votes from the Third World, on the other he will also not want to anger his European sponsors after getting public support from Johansson, who called on all the European bodies to support the Cameroon man against Blatter.
Other members also expected to vote against are Spain's Angel Maria Vilar Llona, Brazil's Ricardo Teixeira and Chuck Blazer of the U.S.
Votes in favor will undoubtedly come from the representatives of Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Qatar, Botswana and Mali.
Jacob Erel, the chairman of UEFA's tournament committee who works out of Switzerland, warned that Israel would have to do some work to ensure the motion is defeated.
"Even if there is only a slim chance that the move to suspend Israel is adopted, it is important to be prepared and to work hard to persuade the delegates on a personal level," he said. "It was not so long ago we saw how unlikely but politically-loaded votes went against Israel. Usually UEFA makes a special effort to oppose political dictates, so we should expect most of the European delegates on the committee to vote against. So will others, but nothing can be left to chance. It is imperative to work hard on each and every member of the committee in order to ensure their vote," Erel said.
"I believe that the representatives of Italy, Spain, Russia and South Korea will not vote for the Arab proposal, but it is important but it is important the IFA does not assume it has a majority in the bag," he said.
Erel said Israel's image abroad has take a severe knock following the pictures on TV screens lately. "It is almost impossible to underestimate the damage that has been done, politically, economically, and in sports," he said.
But Erel added: "If calm returns to the region there is a good chance international matches involving Israeli clubs and the national teams will return to home soil, assuming that UEFA will be convinced the situation has indeed calmed down."
IFA chairman Gavri Levy sent an urgent personal letter to Blatter yesterday and also asked for a meeting as soon as possible before the committee convenes. "We will act swiftly and decisively and I hope that it will all come to nothing, but in the disgusting world in which we live anything is possible," he said.
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