Palestine flags were waved around by an enthusiastic crowd at the Asian Cup in Australia earlier this year as the national football team captain Ramzi Saleh realised once again that sport was a powerful political tool.

The team failed to win any of their games but for the players and supporters, being present at the competition marked a historic moment while accomplishing an important goal.

“We sent a message to the world,” Saleh told Al Jazeera. “We managed to achieve more in one tournament than we have done in 10 years in politics. Most people in east Asia had never heard of Palestine. Now they’re aware of its existence.

“We’ve given a voice to 12 million Palestinians at home and abroad.”

We managed to achieve more in one tournament than we have done in 10 years in politics

Ramzi Saleh, Palestine football captain

The participation in the tournament, according to Saleh, was particularly important as Palestine’s first match took place less than two weeks after the rejection of its latest bid for statehood.

Alongside the US, the Asian Cup hosts Australia had opposed the resolution that was put to a vote at the UN Security Council in December 2014.

Palestine's rise

In the past seven years, Palestine’s performance has improved significantly, with the team jumping 66 places to reach the 113th in FIFA’s world ranking in 2014. It currently sits at 126th.

According to Saleh, the rise was the result of the increased support that the Palestinian authorities had granted to football and sport activities, including better infrastructure and setting up training centres in Gaza and the West Bank.

“The leadership has recognised that sports, football in particular, are important tools to bring the Palestinian voice and our cause to the international level.”

Football alone would not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but sport has been credited for its contribution to easing some high profile diplomatic tensions.

Diplomacy

Table tennis was at the centre of one of the most notorious cases of sport-led diplomacy in April 1971.

The US Table Tennis Federation accepted an invitation from its Chinese counterpart to play a series of friendly matches in China. This paved the way for a revival of diplomatic relations between the two countries after a 22-year hiatus.

Less than a year after the table tennis matches, Richard Nixon became the first US president to visit the People's Republic of China.

Boycotts of sport events have also been used by countries to make political statements.

Twenty-five African countries withdrew from the 1976 Montreal Olympics. They were protesting against the IOC’s refusal to ban states whose athletes had participated in sporting events in South Africa as long as apartheid continued.

Competitions have also been held to mark important moments in the history of minority groups. A day after the July 2011 referendum, the world’s youngest state South Sudan celebrated its newly gained independence by playing a friendly against Kenyan premier league team Tusker.

Form of recognition

Meanwhile, Palestine is one of the few FIFA members that are not sovereign states.

For communities lacking the international recognition that comes with statehood, global and regional tournaments are important platforms to increase visibility and self-affirmation, according to Jeroen Zandberg, treasurer and programme manager at the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.

"We’ve given a voice to 12 million Palestinians at home and abroad," said captain Ramzi Saleh [Getty Images]

“The ability of a nation to participate in sporting activities with others provides a form of recognition and the feeling that their cultural identity is valuable and recognised,” Zandberg said.

“This gives the identity more status and respect and thereby strengthens it from within and from outside.”
In 2005, UNPO organised its first football tournament for members that include Assyria, Iraqi Kurdistan and Kosova.

Similarly, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA) launched the first world tournament for teams not affiliated to FIFA last year. ConIFA’s first European championship will be held in June 2015 and feature teams such as Northern Cyprus, Occitania and Ellan Vannin.

A tool for peace

Apart from promoting and preserving identities, sport can also be used to help solve conflicts between groups.

Since 2001, Football4Peace (F4P) has rolled out a series of programmes across the world which involve coaches, community leaders and volunteers implementing action-based strategies to promote reconciliation between communities.

“Sport is one of the most powerful tools you can use to bring people together,” Anthos Aristou, a volunteer with F4P, said.

Aristou joined a F4P project in Israel in 2012 and, as part of the initiative, he was tasked with explaining the organisation’s methodology to leaders of Arab and Jewish groups so that they would encourage children of their communities to participate in a week-long football training camp.

The physical activities were designed to develop values such as trust, respect, responsibility, equity and inclusion.

Over 200 children aged nine to 14 attended the camp where they were invited to play in mixed-nationality teams. For most, it was the first ever experience of its kind. After some resistance, the participants started interacting with members of the other group, according to Aristou.

“We showed the community leaders some trainings and drills and how we could use them to bring out the values. We also encouraged the kids to celebrate at the end of every game. On the first day, they would not celebrate together.

“But by the last day, we saw them high-fiving, hugging and calling each other by their names, which is important to overcome the ‘they-us’ mentality.”

Source: Al Jazeera