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For those exhausted by supporting club teams on the slide or stressed by the vagaries of fantasy football, this week brings the more pedestrian pace of an international break.
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England face Italy in a Euro 2024 qualifier, Scotland can seal a spot at the tournament if Norway fail to beat Spain, and Euro hosts Germany begin “das reboot” under new boss Julian Nagelsmann with a friendly against the USA.
But, as so often, politics is overshadowing football; this week’s horrific violence between Israel and Hamas, and the soaring civilian death toll is already in the thousands.
UEFA postponed Israel’s Euro 2024 qualifiers against Kosovo and Switzerland, while Palestine were unable to travel to Malaysia for a tournament.
Lior Asulin, a former player for Hapoel Tel Aviv, was killed by Hamas fighters at a music festival in southern Israel. He joins a long list of athletes killed in the conflict – including Palestinian footballer Ahmed Daraghmeh, killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank late last year.
Football federations have been urged to speak out on the latest violence, and even take sides, while some fans have been told to shut up.
While FIFA was quick to send condolences to the victims of this week’s earthquake in Afghanistan, and decisive in acting when the Russian war in Ukraine began last year, President Gianni Infantino only sent condolences to the Israeli and Palestinian football associations on Friday.
Meanwhile, if the British government and the main opposition had their way, the Wembley arch would be lit in blue and white on Friday for England’s friendly against Australia in solidarity with Israel.
The arch was previously lit up in colours of the Turkish, French and Belgian flags after attacks, and in Ukrainian colours after Russia’s full-scale invasion.
But while most would join the politicians in condemning Hamas’s killing of Israeli civilians, why is there not the same level of concern when the victims are Palestinians killed by Israel, especially as Israel inflicts even more misery on the besieged Gaza Strip?
The English Football Association eventually decided that a period of silence will be held before the game for “the innocent victims of the devastating events in Israel and Palestine” and that players will wear black armbands. The arch will not be illuminated in any colours.
The UK government issued a rare rebuke to the FA over the decision.
“It is especially disappointing in light of the FA’s bold stance on other terrorist attacks in the recent past,” Britain’s Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport Lucy Frazer said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
“Words and actions matter. The Government is clear: we stand with Israel”.
I am extremely disappointed by the FA’s decision not to light up the Wembley Stadium arch following last weekend’s horrific terrorist attacks in Israel, and have made my views clear to the FA.
— Lucy Frazer (@lucyfrazermp) October 12, 2023
Fans attending the game, meanwhile, are banned by the FA from bringing national flags other than those of England or Australia.
And Home Secretary Suella Braverman said earlier this week that waving a Palestinian flag on streets in the UK “may not be legitimate” if deemed to be a show of support for “acts of terrorism”.
This comes amid controversy over a Scottish Premiership game last Saturday, in which The Green Brigade, a Celtic ultras group, waved Palestinian flags and banners saying “Free Palestine” and “Victory to the Resistance”.
Many Celtic fans have deep connections to the Palestinian cause. (Across the sectarian divide, fans of Glasgow-pals Rangers can be seen displaying Israeli flags).
Celtic’s board subsequently released a statement saying that they wished to “disassociate” from the displays and that “political messages and banners are not welcome at Celtic Park,” especially at “a time of loss and suffering for many”.
The fan group hit back at the “elitist board”, insisting in a statement that all fans “have the right to express political views on the terraces just as ordinary citizens do elsewhere in society”.
They also questioned the board’s stance, since expressions of support for Ukraine were welcome in the stadium after Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Why are Ukrainian lives more sacred than Palestinian lives?” they asked, calling on all Celtic fans to raise the Palestine flag during the club’s UEFA Champions League match against Atletico Madrid on October 25.
Meanwhile, there was another reminder this week that football can confound and that stadiums are often the unruliest places in some societies.
Fans at a football match in Tehran chanted for Palestinian flags handed out by the authorities to be shoved somewhere very eye-watering.
“This is a really interesting and often overlooked dynamic in Iranian society compared to what the regime says; extreme anger at being constricted and impoverished whilst huge sums are spent on Hamas and Hezbollah,” journalist James Montague wrote on X.
This is a really interesting and often overlooked dynamic in Iranian society compared to what the regime says; extreme anger at being constricted and impoverished whilst huge sums are spent on Hamas and Hezbollah. https://t.co/oMgBKYgX3F
— James Montague (@JamesPiotr) October 10, 2023
All of this raises questions. Since there is no clean separation of politics from sport, who gets to speak freely? Whose politics are allowed? Who is football for?
Of course, there should be limits – racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of hate speech should not be tolerated in stadiums – and there will be debates over where the lines are and on the timing of statements.
But defending football stadiums as a civil society space – whether for protest, activism, or indeed somewhere to forget the world outside the stadium – free from the burdensome interference of politicians and officials seems vital.
Abdullah Al-Arian, associate professor of history at Georgetown University in Qatar and author of Football in the Middle East, told Al Jazeera this week that football stadiums are among “the last democratic spaces where people come together and express themselves” in a way that is hard to censor, drown out or criminalise.
Elsewhere this week:
- India-Pakistan rivalry: Whatever happened to ‘cricket diplomacy’?
- Exclusive: Boxer Joshua Buatsi on faith, activism and being a nice guy (except in the ring).
- ‘Pressure builds up’: How India and Pakistan cricket fans see their rivalry.
- Stumped by cricket? Al Jazeera has a handy and simple illustrated guide.