Game of Politics |

Israel's National Soccer Team Heads to Spanish BDS Bastion for World Cup Qualifier

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Head coach Julen Lopetegui with the Spanish national soccer team: Politics is a secondary problem to sport.
Head coach Julen Lopetegui with the Spanish national soccer team: Politics is a secondary problem to sport.Credit: Reuters

La Roja, "The Red," does not play in just one home stadium, instead the Spanish national soccer team moves its home games all over Spain. Very important games are played at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid, but also at Vicente Calderón Stadium, in Madrid too, and the Mestalla in Valencia has hosted serious rivals and important games too. Other cities have hosted less important opponents in Seville, and friendly matches are often held in a wide variety of smaller cities.

That is why it is logical for 2018 World Cup qualifying game against Israel scheduled for Friday to be held in a small and remote city such as Gijon. The question is why Gijon, a known as a bastion of support for the Palestinians, and where anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian protests are expected, along with protests by supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel.

When Gijon was chosen last December to host the game, no one in the Royal Spanish Football Federation thought about the political issue and a sort of crisis with the guest team. They say the choice was just part of the regular round of appearances of the national team, as well as for a few additional reasons.

"Head coach Julen Lopetegui wanted for us to play in the north because this is a not attractive opponent and in the north the crowd always comes to national team games," said a source in the Spanish soccer federation, who is close to the Angel María Villar, the president of the organization. "We were offered three options and we chose Gijon."

It is very likely that the Spanish federation really chose Gijon innocently and did not even think about the political issues. After all, why do they need political problems? But they were asleep at wheel. Almost a year before the choice of Gijon, on January 13, 2016, the Gijon city council, with the support of mayor Carmen Moriyon, passed an extreme anti-Israel resolution declaring itself  “a space free of Israeli apartheid.” 

A large number of political movements in Spain, including the Socialist party, have expressed their support for BDS, but the Gijon city council decision went much further, calling Israel an apartheid state. A majority voted in favor of the resolution, but some city council members opposed it and even called it anti-Semitic. Other cities in Spain also tried to pass similar resolutions, but these were stopped by local courts which ruled the resolutions unconstitutional.   

"We didn't know about this resolution of the Gijon city council," says the soccer federation official.  

The match will be played in the El Molinon stadium in Gijon, which just happens to be the oldest stadium in Spain, and even though tickets were still available just two days before the game as this column was being written, the stadium is expected to be full.

The Spanish police will be out in full force, both because Israel is playing and in order to prevent problems from demonstrators inside the stadium. But left-wing groups in Gijon, including political parties represented in the city council coalition as well student organizations and Palestinians, are planning demonstrations against Israel, and in favor of the BDS movement. The call to "give Israel a red card" is gathering momentum in Gijon. Other calls are for demand FIFA and UEFA to suspend Israel because of the occupation, "apartheid" and because Israel allegedly is violating international law when teams from the West Bank play in Israeli soccer leagues.

In Gijon, they say they have never seen so much police and security than before this game. The Spanish police announced they are using "computerized and special means" in the area of the stadium, and as with every event that causes security problems for Israelis in the region, the Mossad is cooperating with the local police. Israeli security guards are of course accompanying the Israeli team too. The Spanish police declared the highest level of alert, level four, for Gijon on Friday, a particularly high level in local terms for the not large city.

The local Socialist party will not participate in the demonstrations, and local residents are split over the protests. A survey conducted by a local newspaper showed a large majority against holding the demonstrations.

Lopetegui, the Spanish head coach, who was in Gijon two weeks ago to promote the game along with the mayor, said this is a secondary problem that will not influence the game or his team. "Gijon is an excellent place for a match of the national team and we must focus on the game and not on other things." Hamutal Rogel of the Israeli Embassy in Madrid agreed with Lopetegui when speaking to the Spanish media. 

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