In December 1945, Dynamo Moscow became the first Russian soccer club to play in Great Britain. Its four matches against English and Scottish teams shocked British soccer players and fans alike: Dynamo Moscow employed innovative tactics and methods that were unknown to conservative British sides, and proved an equal to revered teams such as Chelsea and Arsenal. Dynamo’s success spurred the international soccer federation, FIFA, to invite the Soviet Union to join its ranks.
George Orwell, however, was more impressed with the rowdy behavior of the British fans and the wave of unbridled nationalism that engulfed them. He penned one of his rare articles on sport, “The Sporting Spirit,” which included a sentence that would henceforth be quoted in any discussion of the link between sports and politics. Serious sport, he wrote, “is war minus the shooting.”
The decision of Argentina’s national soccer team to cancel its friendly against Israel on Saturday gives the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement a dramatic victory in its own war against Israel.
The cancellation garnered unusually large international attention because of its proximity to the opening of the World Cup in Russia next week, and as a direct consequence of the irresponsible intervention of Israel’s flamboyant culture and sports minister, Miri Regev.
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The game itself was of no importance, and Israeli fans of Lionel Messi will soon get over their disappointment and outrage. But the danger of the Argentine cancellation lies in the precedent it sets: It bestows legitimacy on other foreign clubs and national teams to follow in Argentina’s footsteps. The BDS movement’s moral victory could spur it to concentrate on a sports boycott against Israel, and to try to emulate the successful tactics adopted by the Anti-Apartheid Movement from the 1950s onward.
The South African precedent should trouble all Israelis – including those who reject any analogy between the Israeli occupation and the repressive and racist white government that ruled South Africa until the early ’90s. The sports boycott began in 1956, with the decision of the International Table Tennis Federation to expel the all-white South African team, and expanded throughout the next two decades to include cricket, rugby, soccer and the Olympic Games.
The sports boycott paved the way for the cultural, academic and economic sanctions that followed. And while it may have had no tangible effect on the apartheid regime, it accentuated Pretoria’s growing international isolation and demoralized sports-crazy white South Africans.
The Anti-Apartheid Movement focused at first on the exclusion of black players from segregated South Africa’s national teams, but soon turned it into an expression of protest against the apartheid regime as a whole.
The sports world provided a convenient battleground for boycott supporters. Clubs and national teams proved more mindful to public opinion than governments and business conglomerates. National and international sports federations were mostly independent, able to make their own decisions. Their strict hierarchy enabled them to impose the boycott on reluctant teams. In the ’70s, South Africa began handing out large sums of money to makeshift teams to play on its soil. However, participants risked personal boycotts and expulsion from their sports.
The South African government’s reaction poured more fuel on the smoldering fire. Pretoria retaliated by expelling foreign proponents of the boycott who came to visit, and by arresting and incarcerating local activists. The harsh reaction attracted the attention of the foreign press and empowered the boycott movement still further. It was perceived as confirmation of the apartheid regime’s repressive nature.
A half-century may have elapsed, but the current Israeli government hasn’t learned the lesson: Protest movements thrive on confrontation and publicity. Small wonder that the Israeli war against BDS activists – including the wholesale refusal to allow them to enter the country – has similarly provided vital lifelines to an often-fading movement.
To his credit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed on Tuesday that he is well aware of the risks of amplifying the Argentina incident.
“Let’s move on,” he said, signaling his ministers and parliamentarians to stop depicting the cancellation of a friendly soccer match as an act of terror, if not the destruction of the Third Temple. After all, hardly anyone was aware that, only last month, Argentina also canceled a friendly match against Nicaragua, scheduled for May 29, citing “security concerns” after riots left 40 dead in Managua and other cities. In Israel, however, the BDS movement is constantly being boosted by right-wing firebrands eager to impress their base.
Netanyahu’s belated enlightenment, however, does not absolve him of his overall responsibility for the fiasco. It was he who appointed Regev as culture minister; he who allowed her to run wild to her heart’s content; he who kept silent as she turned the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony, the Eurovision Song Contest, the “Salute to Israel” at Times Square and the friendly match against Argentina into unadorned presentations of nationalism, arrogance and personal aggrandizement.
In exchange for her shameless kowtowing to Netanyahu and his wife Sara, Regev was given a blank check to carry out unprecedented politicization of the culture and sports spheres she oversees.
Regev’s insistence on investing millions of shekels into moving the venue of the Israel-Argentina match from Haifa to Jerusalem loaded the friendly with political connotations, which – wonder of wonders – somehow managed to reach Buenos Aires as well.
Right-wing agitators quickly adopted the ridiculous thesis that Haifa is somehow unworthy, and that friendly matches between nations are always played in capitals – as if Brazil only hosts foreign national teams in Brasilia rather than Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo.
As is their wont, Regev’s supporters immediately transformed support or opposition to the Jerusalem venue into another vile litmus test for patriotism and love of country. The hoarding of tickets by Regev and her confidants – to be handed out to lackeys, supporters and other Likud dignitaries – contributed to the transformation of the game’s image from a sporting contest for the pleasure of soccer fans into a government-sponsored showcase for Netanyahu, Likud and, first and foremost, Regev herself.
The government, its supporters and the heads of Israeli soccer would do well to downplay the enormity of the Argentine transgression, despite the storm that has admittedly engulfed Israeli public opinion. The more they rail and rage against the cancellation, the more they increase the chances of it launching a dangerous trend. But for that, they would need to change their spots and stop using nationalistic agitation as their political weapon of choice.
In any case, it’s a pipe dream as long as Regev remains at her post. Her next provocation, which will inevitably sully Israel’s reputation, is surely waiting in the wings. As in war, it’s hard to win when your own side insists on kneecapping your own team and players.