Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Palestine at FIFA: What Happened?

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.

Monday, July 6, 2015

In Praise of Martyn Rooney

A big well done and thank you to Martyn Rooney. The 400m runner proved to be an oasis of sense in a British Athletics Championships threatening to be side-tracked by a crass, xenophobic discussion of national identity, opportunity, and the supposedly ‘plastic’ Brits.

Harangued by a BBC trackside-pain-in-the-ass, probably Phil Jones, Rooney was quizzed post-race not only on his performance in the 400m heats, but also on his attitude to those athletes, born overseas, who have recently been cleared to compete for Great Britain. In defiance of his lung-busting run, the lactic acid build-up in his legs, and the views of the Daily Mail, Rooney offered this articulate response:
“It’s kind of an offensive term ‘plastic Brits’. Y’know we’re very lucky to have guys who can run, compete for us, and they make the events better. All of those guys contribute to British sport, British culture, so we’re very lucky to have them here.”
To be fair, Rooney was not the only voice speaking out for British athletes hailing from abroad. Although Gabby Logan was quick to tell us that “reaction had been mixed”, there was a unanimity among the analysts joining the coverage from Birmingham. “I actually think, the way sport is at the moment – cricket, rugby, football – it doesn’t matter… They have legitimate dual-nationality. It’s fine. We have to move on,” said Denise Lewis, gold medallist in the heptathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Paula Radcliffe (a migrant herself who now resides in the south of France) agreed, if somewhat reluctantly: “We’re not talking about some other countries who have gone out and brought runners in – these people have a legitimate right to represent Great Britain.” On Friday Steve Cram, writing in a piece for the BBC Sport website, put the whole furore into perspective, explaining why he has “no problem” with the so-called ‘plastic Brits’:
“Some might argue that they didn't train in the British system but, in fact, there's no system here. There's a funding programme, but below that there isn't anything. People can learn to be an athlete in any part of the world. There's no investment in athletics clubs in Britain, which means only those who run here are eligible to run for Britain.
"I guess the big issue is that newcomers arriving puts others in the team under a lot of pressure. But that can happen if an athlete pops up from anywhere - it doesn't matter where they were born. If you think you were shoo-in to get into the team and somebody else pops up you weren't expecting, then you have to deal with that."
The plastic Brit ‘controversy’ – such as it is – was sparked by the announcement that “five foreign-born athletes” had switched allegiance to Team GB over the past month. This drew a sarcastic and negative response from Richard Kilty, a World and European indoor 60m champion, and apparently caused similar outrage amongst his fellow competitors: “All sprinters,” tweeted Kilty, “I’ve spoken to this morning in the team feel exactly the same as me but daren’t speak out.” The roots of the debate however can be traced back to 2012 and the run-up to the London Olympics. It was then that the Daily Mail ran a story informing the world that there would be 61 ‘plastic’ Brits competing at the Games for Team GB.

Many of the tropes deployed in discussion of the ‘plastic’ Brits will be familiar to anyone paying attention to the long-running demonization and scapegoating of migrants arriving in the UK. They perceived as foreign interlopers, costing the ‘true’, ‘hard-working’ Brits their jobs and squad places. No matter the ‘validity’ of their decision to relocate to this country, their motives are treated with distrust and disdain. They are seen to have arrived as mercenaries, in search of welfare state handouts or Lottery funding. Whether he realises it or not, Kilty has assumed the role of the defiant truthsayer (traditionally reserved for such intellects as Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn or Nigel Farrage), the voice of a silent majority too browbeaten by the forces of political correctness to stand up to the perceived injustice.

In six weeks’ time the World Athletics Championship will begin in Beijing. If the performances seen during the early Diamond League meetings are anything to go by, then it promises to be a magnificent week of track and field competition. It would be truly terrible if this sporting spectacle was hijacked by the right-wing press looking to spout off over their latest manufactured scare story. That Martyn Rooney spoke out is to be applauded.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Run, Mo, Run – It’s the Daily Mail!

So Paddy Power have done this. No surprise really. As befits an online bookmaker, they have form. Previous Paddy Power ads have played fast and loose with taste and decency thanks to their rampant sexism and the sort of nationalist sentiment that wouldn’t look out of place at a rally of the far-right.

But this time they’ve outdone themselves by turning the plight of thousands of migrants into a ‘jokey’ advertising campaign. Pure bantz! These people have nowhere to live, ha ha ha! Look at how desperate they are – but don’t forget to place your bets first! They can come over if they’re good at sports, fnar fnar!

In Paddy Power’s defence this last point does at least mean their attitude towards immigration is slightly more liberal than that of the government, whose policies seem to consist solely of ‘bomb their homeland’, ‘let them drown’, ‘build a wall’ and ‘lock them up’. Paddy Power even had a particular athlete in mind when they commissioned their ’hilarious’ ad.

Mo Farah was just eight years old when he arrived in the UK, a refugee from the Somalian civil war. Since his move to London in 1991 he has become one of the most successful and (despite those atrocious Quorn commercials) most loved British athletes of all time. His victories in both the 5,000m and 10,000m at the London 2012 Olympic Games have guaranteed his place in sports history.

Yet it has been a rough few weeks for the long-distance runner. Last month the BBC aired an edition of Panorama that alleged Alberto Salazar, Farah’s coach, had provided performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to some of his athletes. Salazar, a coach at the famed Nike Oregon Project, is said to have encouraged runners, such as Farah’s training partner Galen Rupp, to experiment in micro-doping (taking PEDs in such small amounts so as not to be detected in routine testing) and, in a move seemingly taken from a John le Carre novel, sent athletes pills and sprays in the hollowed out pages of books. For the record, Salazar denies these claims.

Although the Panorama documentary mentioned both Salazar’s relationship with Mo Farah and his role as “unpaid consultant” for UK Athletics (how could they not?), it was careful to avoid insinuating that Farah himself was implicated in any way during their investigation. However, it was inevitable that Mo would be subject to close scrutiny because of his association with the Cuban coach.

Two additional factors do little to dampen the rumours and back page intrigue. First was the revelation Farah had missed two consecutive drug tests prior to the London Olympics. Secondly, looking back over Farah’s career, one notes that his jump from nearly-man to champion occurred at a relatively late stage – and coincided with the switch to Salazar’s tutelage. As Dave Renton pointed out two years ago:
“Without much doubt, the moment that changed Mo from a successful Team GB athlete into a world-beater was his decision in 2011 to relocate to Portland, Oregon in the United States, to work with new coach, Alberto Salazar. Here Farah trained with the American athlete Galen Rupp, and Salazar refocused their training regimes to reduce their sprinting times over the very shortest distances.”
Neither of these factors definitively point to Farah having ever experimented with PEDs, of course. Missing drug tests may not be common, but neither is it completely unheard of. As Kelly Sotheron was quick to point out, ‘clean’ athletes do miss tests from time to time, for all sorts of perfectly innocent reasons, while Chris Froome revealed that he had also missed two such tests during his career. And, while a mid-career upturn in fortunes can be evidence of doping (see Lance Armstrong), it is far from conclusive proof. Any number of factors can trigger a jump to world-class status: a change in coach, a change in training, the retirement of rivals, an unlikely victory, a maturing of physical and/or mental competitiveness. One needs look no further than triple-jumper turned broadcaster Jonathan Edwards for an example of an athlete who blossomed at a relatively late stage in their career.

As more and more questions were asked of Salazar, so Farah increasingly found himself in the spotlight. Even those, such as Jo Pavey, who do not doubt his innocence suggested it would be wise for the double-Olympic champion to distance himself from his coach. As the public and media gaze intensified so Farah was forced to respond, telling the world he was angry his name was “being dragged through the mud” and claiming that the accusations were “killing him”. He offered this riposte via Facebook:
“I have never taken performance enhancing drugs in my life and I never will. Over the course of my career I have taken hundreds of drugs tests and every single one has been negative. I’ve fully explained the only two tests in my career that I have ever missed, which the authorities understood, and there was never any suggestion that these were anything more than simple mistakes.
The last two weeks have been the toughest of my life – with rumours and speculation about me that are completely false – and the impact this has had on my family and friends has left me angry, frustrated and upset. In particular, the media pressure on my young family and my wife, who is 5 months pregnant, is extremely painful, especially as I’m away training for some important races.”
Steve Cram leapt to Farah’s defence. The legendary middle-distance runner who, like Edwards, is now a key member of BBC Sport’s athletics team, claimed Mo was the victim of a witch-hunt saying, “It seems as if some people are deliberately going after him and that is a shame.” Current Team GB athlete Hannah England had made the same point two days previously. Given the status and popularity he enjoys, who would possibly want to conduct a witch-hunt against Farah? The answer, undoubtedly, is the Daily Mail, although Cram was far too savvy to say that out loud, referring only to “sections of the media”.

Since the Panorama story aired, Farah has featured in approximately 130 stories in the Daily Mail. No great shakes there considering he has been tagged in more than 110 articles on the Guardian website over the same time period. But the tone of the pieces featured in the Mail is, shall we say, accusatory. In the wake of the allegations against Salazar, Richard Pendlebury reflected on Farah’s Olympic success and “with an edge of scepticism” asked “How did Mo do it?” Immediately the Mail listed “seven key questions for Mo Farah to answer”, and went to great lengths to stress that Farah and his agent Ricky Simms had failed to answer questions put to them by the paper. The implication being that there “was something nefarious in Farah's two missed tests.” Farah, the Mail continued, had “handled [the] incident surrounding his coach as badly as possible” before adding, “[t]he double Olympic champion is an emotional individual, prone to the occasional tantrum”.

Why the Daily Mail should take such a line is not difficult to fathom. Farah represents everything the paper despises: an ethnically diverse Britain in which migrants can become heroes. As they seek to (re)ignite a three-year-old controversy over so-called ‘plastic Brits’ – the sporting version of the immigrant bogeyman, coming over here, stealing our jobs – the Mail also senses the opportunity to put the boot in on Farah.

Let’s be clear. No one - not me, not the Mail, not UK Athletics – knows if the allegations made against Salazar have any truth to them. Still less can any of us conclude that Farah, an athlete who has never failed a drugs test, is guilty of doping.

But one thing is for sure. The Daily Mail is desperate for Mo Farah, the Muslim, Somalian asylum-seeker with the wrong colour skin, to be guilty as hell. Those of us who see the runner as symbolising the kind of open, welcoming, multi-cultural society in which we want to live, hope he is clean. Not least of all because watching the Mail eat their hate-fuelled insinuation will be more enjoyable than any gold medal.