Middle East Politics Is No Game for Soccer Players

Akin Ajayi
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Akin Ajayi

In certain matters, I will always defer to the wisdom and knowledge of the soccer players of the English Premiership League. The skill, passion and physical grace that they bring to the Beautiful Game? Certainly. The profligacy with which they distribute their not inconsiderable earnings across car dealerships and gambling dens? Obviously. The enthusiasm – deviancy might be a better description – that they vest in interpersonal relationships, contracted in nightclubs and recorded for posterity on shaky mobile phone cameras? Again, yes. (You may suspect some envy on my part with all this. You would be correct.)

But matters political? I think not. Fine, call me an intellectual snob if you must, but this much is true: Premiership soccer players are the go-to guys for tips on how to kick balls in goals, not on How to bring Peace to the Middle East. So that’s why, when I happened on a story in the papers a few weeks ago, regarding a petition submitted by some of their number to UEFA – the body responsible for governing soccer across Europe – my first instinct was to turn the page.

But something caught my eye. The petition concerned the European Under-21 soccer tournament, taking place in Israel next summer. The petitioners asked UEFA to withdraw hosting rights from Israel, objections founded on the conduct of the recent Gaza offensive. Keeping the tournament here, they argued, would be a reward for “Israeli aggression.”

Ah. The sages of soccer have spoken and we, the uninformed, must listen. Forgive my cynicism, but sportspeople expounding forth from a political soapbox tend to bring out the worst in me. It’s not that they possess opinions and are happy to act upon these; they are entitled to the former, and the latter is usually an admirable trait. My reservations lie elsewhere.

The problem lies with the unsubtle approach that these calls for action so often embrace. Take this petition, for example. One might reasonably infer certain assertions from its tone. That the footballers object to violence as a means of settling extra-territorial disputes is one. That they deplore the fall-out from the recent engagement between Israel and Hamas is another. And that they hold the Israeli state responsible, in its entirety, for the causes and consequences of the recent Gaza offensive is a third. And that’s not exactly correct, is it?

Irrespective of the rights and wrongs that inform the most recent outbreak of hostilities – and I happen to think that in fairly much all circumstances, organized violence is the least suitable way to settle disputes – I do recognise that attempting to explain the parlous relationship between Israel and her Palestinian neighbours in a thousand – no, make that a 100,000 – words or less is a mug’s game. Take the recent hostilities. Israeli politicians, quite reasonably, argue that the country has a right to defend herself against external aggression, namely the incessant – if largely ineffectual – rocket attacks on her southern communities. More to the point, Hamas subscribes – rhetorically, at the very least – to the destruction of the so-called Zionist entity. Turning the other cheek, as my co-religionists sometimes suggest, may not be the most practical option.

Ah, but there’s the Occupation, one might counter. Resistance against the continued encroachment on Palestinian liberties, physical and conceptual, is legitimate. The violence, threatened and actual, of the Palestinian militant groups is a natural, revanchist response to Israeli hegemony. But hang, on, wait a minute, aren’t the Jews the authentic revanchists, reclaiming the birthright wrenched from their grasp two millennia past? And in any case, the Palestinians aren’t an authentic nation...

And there you are. Amidst claim and counter claim, the only certain thing is this: The political and social relationship between Jewish Israel and Arab Palestine is one born from intertwined yet inescapably contradictory narratives, beset by complexities, and is all too often bedevilled by bad faith on all sides. Taking sides – as the soccer players’ petition proposes – is rather like importing the lexicon of the soccer field to the slightly more complex area of diplomatic relations. Choose a team, wear their colors, proclaim one’s allegiance loudly at every opportunity: most importantly, ignore all your team’s shortcomings in the spirit of partisan fealty. To be honest, it’s all very reductive. And I do think the Middle East deserves more than reductive classification in the form of a soccer game.  

But wait. Perhaps I’m being too unfair on my friends, the unsubtle partisans of the English Premier League. After all, they’re not the only one seeking to reduce the Problems of the Middle East to the lowest common denominator.

Now, I don’t mean to get all misty-eyed and nostalgic about the political and diplomatic representatives of the State of Israel from years gone by. After all, if they’d done their job properly, we wouldn’t be in the mess we find ourselves in now. Still: amidst the prevarication, obfuscation, ambiguity and occasional black-hearted mendacity that makes up a diplomat’s toolbox, they did try to get the job done. They engaged with the facts. If anything, they embraced, with open arms and a joyful heart, the complexity of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Complexity was Good. Partisanship was very much a minority pursuit.

But the times, they are a’changing. Now, we have well-packaged but insultingly simplistic videos on YouTube; crude analogies and slanging matches on Facebook and Twitter. The professionals, in short, have descended to the level of the playing field. Or the soccer field, if you like.

This embrace of the lowest common denominator, the reduction of diplomatic nuance to partisan provocation might very well suit the current administration. But one should beware. Like football, this diplomatic strategy, designed to divide and alienate, ultimately boils down to one thing: Winner takes all. And of course, we wouldn’t want anything so crude and abjectly unfair, would we?

Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer and editor based in Tel Aviv who moved to Israel from the United Kingdom in 2007.

Manchester United's Michael Carrick (C) shouts at the referee before a free kick, during their English Premier League soccer match against Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea, South Wales.Credit: Reuters

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