While attention was focused on alleged corruption at FIFA, another kind of drama was playing out between the Israeli and Palestinian soccer delegations.
TEL AVIV — Palestinian soccer chief Jibril Rajoub got what he wanted at last week's FIFA Congress: the proper stage to humiliate Israel and raise the issue of oppression in Gaza and the West Bank. As a result, FIFA will need to initiate more actions with Palestinians to avoid further discussions about Israel's legitimacy in the world.
Though Rajoub withdrew his demand to suspend Israel from international competition, he gave a dramatic speech covered by media the world over in which he criticized Israel for racism and asked for the creation of a "mechanism" to address Palestinian concerns — namely that Palestinian soccer players don't have free movement and that donated soccer equipment entering the territories is taxed.
But most importantly, the gathering of the FIFA Congress gave Rajoub a platform. "Many people tried to convince me to call off my demand," he told the gathering. "I believe Israel should be suspended, but I appreciate every person who asked me, and I know how sad it is to suspend an association from FIFA, so I withdraw my demand. But I will not give up the fight for my people. This is the moment to give a red card to racism in the Palestinian authority and everywhere else."
Rajoub said he made the suspension demand after many representatives pushed him to do so, especially the South African delegate. He then took advantage of his position on stage to humiliate the Israeli delegation and to say that he received death threats from Israelis.
The right response
The Israeli reaction was swift. Ofer Eini, head of Israel's soccer association, made a very determined speech demanding that his "friend" Rajoub "leave politics to politicians," and saying that he supported the idea that sports can be a bridge for peace talks.
At the end of his speech, Eini asked Rajoub to shake his hand, to which his Palestinian counterpart answered that he would like to but only after the Congress voted on his proposal. It did, with 165 members supporting the creation of a committee to solve the problems between the Israeli and Palestinian soccer associations and 18 voting against.
The big victory for Israel is that the body won't discuss or make decisions on political issues such as territoriality. But Rajoub got what he wanted.
After the successful vote, Eini went to shake Rajoub's hand and received praise for doing so. In the face of Rajoub's sweeping rhetoric, Eini showed determination to solve the problems. It was one hell of a show, and it will have long-term repercussions.
The Israeli soccer association will now have to be a lot more active — by offering friendly matches on a regular basis, by showing support for building new soccer fields in the Palestinian territories, and by creating a real partnership with Palestinian soccer so it doesn't find itself in this situation again.