The motion to expel Israel from world football was never put to the delegates at the 65th annual Congress of FIFA. The proposal, drafted by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), was dropped a few hours before the vote was due to take place. This occurred, of course, just days after FIFA, world football’s governing body, was thrown into chaos following the arrests of a number of its officials in the United States on corruption charges. Eventually, amidst last minute changes to the agenda and talk of ‘compromise’ solutions, the debate on the situation in Palestine ended in what Vice described as a “baffling display of confusion”.
For those of us trying to understand what happened to the PFA motion, the waters were muddied by the toxic combination of institutional turmoil and the lack of transparency which characterises FIFA’s democratic practices. The subsequent, often contradictory, reports reflected this. Some attempted to unpick exactly what had gone on behind the scenes, others simply shoe-horned a limited number of ‘facts’ into a pre-determined narrative. At their very worst some articles seemed to suggest (in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink fashion) that the FBI’s arrest of leading FIFA members had been timed in order to scupper the PFA’s efforts. Given that the assorted partial truths fail to make a consistent whole, it seems worthwhile examining the events of late May.
In some quarters there has been suggestion that the PFA motion was junked as the result of some nefarious activity on behalf of FIFA and/or the Israeli Football Association (IFA). For example, this article in the Morning Star talks about "brinksmanship" of the two organisations as the vote approached, insinuating that either FIFA or the Israeli FA (or both) were in some way responsible for the decision to drop the motion calling for Israel to be expelled from world football’s governing body. As I understand it, this is not quite the case. The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) had, of course, spent a long time trying to generate support for their motion, but it became increasingly clear that they were not going to get anywhere near the 75% of the conference vote required for it to pass. The Palestinians were met with a familiar refrain about politics and sport not mixing - a member of the South African FA delegation allegedly said that sporting boycotts had no place in political matters!
Faced with a choice of watching the motion inevitably fall or pulling it and keeping their powder dry, the PFA opted for the latter.
None of which is to say that either the IFA or FIFA sat idly by in the run to and during the Congress. The Israeli delegates will have pressed the flesh at every available opportunity, pushing their arguments to as many other delegates as possible. We also know that the Israelis embarked on a diplomatic mission to head off the vote, hinting that some Palestinian footballers were involved in terrorist activity. And FIFA’s opposition to the proposed expulsion is well documented; indeed Blatter explained this position at length after his meeting with Mahmoud Abass in April earlier this year. Such political manoeuvres were to be expected.
Where the Palestinians were stitched up, however, was in the talks that took place between FIFA, the PFA and IFA during the Congress revolving around a potential FIFA monitoring group, tasked with examining football in Palestine. As part of a compromise ‘solution’ the PFA had originally wanted the issues of racism and Israeli teams in the illegal settlements referred to the United Nations. When this was rejected out of hand by Blatter, a committee comprised, at least in part, of international representatives from ‘neutral’ football associations was suggested. This was in turn countered with a proposal that the committee should be comprised of individuals drawn from the IFA, PFA and FIFA. Such a group is clearly a means of equivocation, far preferable to both FIFA and the IFA than a successful vote to expel Israel, it was duly implemented and is to be headed by ex-ANC government minister, Tokyo Sexwale.
Interestingly nobody in Palestine seemed to think that the outcome of the FIFA congress was a result of Blatter-inspired subterfuge or an FBI-Mossad conspiracy. Instead their ire was reserved for the head of the Palestinian Football Association, Djbril Rajoub, who they saw as having sold out under pressure. As this report in the Middle East Monitor reported:
“Fadi Quran, a Palestinian activist and head of the Avaaz campaigns in Palestine, disagreed strongly with the Palestinian official and called on Rajoub to resign. In a press release issued along with a petition that garnered 8,000 votes in a very short time, Rajoub's action was described as the waste of a golden opportunity. "By withdrawing the motion to expel [Israel] without any accomplishments, the Palestinian cause lost a new opportunity for partial justice because of the weakness of its leadership and its short-sightedness," Quran explained. ‘In agreeing to a compromise over a clear violation of FIFA statutes, Rajoub actually proved that Palestinians were playing politics rather than insisting on the implementation of the laws of the game.’"
The Palestine Monitor website makes a similar point in its report:
“The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was among the most vocal critics of the PFA’s decision to drop a bid to have the Israel’s Football Association suspended from FIFA. The PFLP charged yesterday that the PFA’s decision was an, “outrageous deviation from our values, principles and efforts to expose the Israeli occupation's crimes and to oust Israel from international organizations,” the leftist group issued in a statement Saturday.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one retired Palestinian politician speculated to the Palestine Monitor that, “it’s not fair [of the PFA] to raise the expectations of the public. People were hoping and left with the impression the the PFA was taking on the fight. It’s unfortunate that not only we did not win, but we did not even fight.” He went on to speculate that Rajoub’s, “credibility was hurt in the outcome of this failed bid.””
In any event, in both Palestine and elsewhere there was something more than mere disappointment at the result at the Congress; there was a definite dejection amongst pro-Palestinian activists, as though what should have been a certainty had been wrought from our grasp. Why should this be the case? Firstly it was almost certainly the result of an overly-optimistic appraisal of the situation prior to the Congress. Certainly there were some national FAs (such as the Dutch and Swedes) who were rumoured to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but these were mistaken for guarantees of support. Similarly the number of signatories to online petitions in support of the expulsion motion was always unlikely to act as a barometer of the feeling within the body of Congress delegates. In the run-up to the event some truly believed that Israel would be expelled from FIFA. In truth it was never on the cards.
Israel’s status as a member of FIFA was never going to be settled, decisively or otherwise, by the strength of the Palestinian’s argument or the weight of evidence in support of their case. This is not to say that FIFA is the grips of a Zionist cabal. Rather it speaks to a truth of global sports administration. The likes of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee are by any definition ‘political actors’ but their first instinct when confronted with political questions is to run a mile in the opposite direction. They occupy an ideological space in which they believe politics only serves to taint the purity of sport – actually they would go so far as to argue that sport can play the sort of positive role that politicians can barely imagine. This is why Blatter can envisage a ‘friendly’ international between Palestine and Israel as transcending the political divide.
Yes, it’s arch-hypocrisy. Yes, it’s an example of double-think. But it exists, and as such a boycott movement is the last thing on the collective mind of football’s governing bodies. The lever that can change this barrier to action is the pressure which can be exerted by an international mass movement. And this takes time.
Here the case of Apartheid is particularly illustrative (although there are crucial differences between the attempts to exclude Israel from world football and the anti-Apartheid movement: the Soviet Union made the call for boycott a central plank of its sporting foreign policy; African states which had come through liberation struggles were instinctively in opposition to the racism in South Africa).
South Africa’s racist policies famously led to its exclusion from world sport, most notably being expelled by the IOC in 1970 and FIFA in 1976. In historical discussion it is, as Malcolm McClean has pointed out, “common to identify 1959 as the year that the boycott movement came together into coordinated international activism”. Yet the first calls for an international boycott of South African sports happened in the early 1950s and the first time they were ejected from an international sports body came in 1955 when the whites-only South African Table Tennis Union were barred from the International Table Tennis Federation. There was, therefore, at least a two decade gap between the first calls for a sports boycott of Apartheid and the eventual expulsion of South Africa from FIFA.
Those twenty years saw any number of protests, demonstrations and actions against Apartheid take place across the world. Something on a similar scale is required if the objective of a sporting boycott of Israel is to be realised. We are, in all honesty, only at the beginning of that movement. If the events of the past fifty years – not to mention those of the last FIFA Congress - tell us anything it is that ‘boycott’ is as much a process as an act.