Why won’t Saudi Arabia travel to Palestine for a soccer match?

Between implicit recognition of Israel, or simply a desire not to travel through military checkpoints, the Saudi Arabia national team does not want to play against Palestine in Jerusalem. 

By Yoni Mendel (translated from Hebrew by Sol Salbe)

Saudi Arabia's Green Falcons. (photo: Nasya Bahfen CC BY-ND 2.0)
Saudi Arabia’s Green Falcons. (photo: Nasya Bahfen CC BY-ND 2.0)

Last April the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur witnessed the Asian draw for the regional groups’ stage of the 2018 World Cup. As soon as the first group was drawn out, the Palestinian representatives knew that times ahead were going to be tough — and not only on field. Knowing who was selected to Group A was enough for them to work it out. Asian Group A included the following teams: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Timor Leste (East Timor), Malaysia and Asia’s rising star: Palestine.

The Palestinians, who last year achieved the huge milestone of qualifying for Asia Cup for the first time in their history, knew that the preliminary stages for the 2018 World Cup contains some huge hurdles. These hurdles would be there long before coach Abdel Nasser Barakat starts wracking his brain as to the opening line up of his team. The first thing the Palestinians need to ensure is that their games actually occur. There are many non-sporting obstacles facing the Palestinian team, and naturally these obstacles are related to the tremendous difficulty of bringing together the national team’s players. The players reside in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, within Israel itself, in various Arab states and in the countries of Europe and America. Furthermore they travel using foreign passports, laissez-passers or refugee ID cards. Even getting them together for training is a strain.

Secondly, there is the problem of exiting and re-entering the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The permit regime, the ongoing occupation of the West Bank, and the blockade of Gaza, has made it difficult for team players to leave for abroad and return. Whether they are coming and going via the Allenby Bridge crossing (Jordan), the Erez Crossing (Israel-Gaza) or the Rafah crossing (Gaza-Egypt), trouble looms. Even those players who have received the relevant permits are liable to be forced to go through security interrogations. Some get stopped at this point. Thus the team’s composition depends not only on the coach and their physical fitness, but to a large extent the on the Israeli authorities’ whims as to who can come and go and who may not.

A new problem

From the moment Palestine appeared on the global sporting stage as a national team — and most certainly since it became a rising force in the Asian arena — it has naturally played a large number of international games. It has hosted some of these matches at home, usually at the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium at the A-Ram neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Because most games are against Asian teams, some of which represent countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations, the visiting team end up facing a dilemma: to show up or not.

If they don’t turn up, they may risk a technical default, especially in light of Palestinian Football Association Chair Jibril Rajoub’s determination to promote Palestine on the world map. Rajoub has resolved to promote every aspect of Palestine– the name, state, the land and the team. Herein lies the problem: there are obviously no direct flights to Ramallah or scheduled ferry services to Gaza, so international teams have to pass through an Israeli border crossing and perhaps through an IDF checkpoint as well. For many of those teams this is an acute problem involving political contact with an enemy state, normalization with Israel, and security concerns entry through an Israeli military checkpoint.

One doesn’t need to travel politically as far as Lebanon or Iran, whose teams will probably not turn up at the Allenby Bridge or Ben Gurion Airport any time soon, to find those who oppose such a move. Even the Egyptian Olympic team ended up canceling a friendly game against the Palestinian Olympic team four years ago. That match was meant to be an act of solidarity with the Palestinian people at the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium on the occasion of Land Day. The official explanation for the cancelation: fear of normalization with Israel.

Extra time

Therefore as soon as the Kuala Lumpur draw was completed, two obvious political obstacles caught the Palestinian representatives’ eyes. First, how do you get the UAE team coming from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah into Faisal Al Husseini Stadium in northeast Jerusalem? A second, even more difficult problem: how do you get the Green Falcons — the Saudi Arabian Football team — to hand their passports to Israeli soldiers or police officers? Remember this isn’t just any old team but the one representing the Saudi kingdom, custodian of Islam’s holy places, largest oil exporter in the world and a founding member of the Arab League. And part of that last obstacle: how do you facilitate the safe arrival of the Saudi team to a stadium, situated less than a quarter of an hour walk from the Neve Yaakov settlement’s medical center?

The luck of the draw had Palestine playing the role of host and playing their first game against the Saudi Arabian national team on home soil on June 11, 2015. Immediately after the draw was announced, the Saudis started wriggling uncomfortably in their seats. Their first missive suggested, how shall we put it nicely, that it would rather difficult for their team to show up to the game.

The Palestinian national team. (photo: Nasya Bahfen CC BY-ND 2.0)
The Palestinian national team. (photo: Nasya Bahfen CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Saudi pressure worked. The two sides ended up with compromise. According to Tayseer Nasrallah, spokesperson for the Palestine Football Association, “the Saudis said that because of exceptional circumstances they cannot make it to their match in Palestine … and we decided, in consultation with them, to swap the order of the games. We’d play against them in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) in June, and the match which was scheduled to take place in October in Saudi Arabia will be held in Palestine.” Also included in the Palestinian Football Association’s announcement of the change was the comment: “We emphasized to the Saudi brothers the high importance of their support for the Palestinian team hosting its home games in Palestine.”

The Palestinians fulfilled their part of the bargain. They traveled to Jeddah last June, and displayed a heroic effort which ended in huge disappointment. The Saudis – who had previously qualified for the World Cup – took an almost certain winning margin of 2:0 by the 45th minute. It looked like that the match was over and done with. But the Palestinians got back into the game scoring two goals (both of whom were by Palestinians living in Chile: Pablo Tamburrini and Matias Jadue) and managed to equalize the score to-2-2 in extra time, at the 92nd minute. Then, just as the Palestinian fans began celebrating in the stands and as silence dawned over the Saudi ones, the Qatari referee awarded a further period of extra time for just one more attacking maneuver. Unfortunately for Palestine, the excellent and swift Mohammed al-Shlaooi managed to score an extra goal at the 94th minutes, thus ensuring a Saudi victory.

After this loss, the Palestinians managed to get back to form defeating Malaysia 6:0 in their away game (goal scorers were: Musab Battat of champion team Al Zahiriyah; Khader Youssef Abuhammad of Tarji Wadi Al-Nes; a pair of goals to Sameh Marabaa who was arrested by Israel a year ago when he returned from playing at an international match and then spent seven months in detention facilities; and another pair to Tamer Seyam who plays for Shabab Al Khalil.)

By the next game in early September, it was already possible to examine not only the standard displayed by the Palestinian football team, but also Jibril Rajoub’s seriousness. At the beginning of the month the Palestinians hosted the UAE national team for a home game. This was yet another team which had previously qualified for the World Cup. Al-Jazeera reported before the game that this is a historic game which takes place in what is “historically a neighborhood of Jerusalem but now cut off from the Holy City by Israel’s illegal separation wall.”

The game took place after Israel pledged to allow the entry of every single member of the Emirates national team. Local sports media there made a point of noting “that players from the Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas were given the green light to come and participate in the game,” apparently out of a desire to justify the participation of their players. The historic game, in front of 12,500 spectators, ended in 0:0 tie. Although no goals were scored it was undoubtedly a great achievement, both sporting and political, for the Palestinians.

The prisoner and the jailer

As of now the Palestinians have another five games to go that will determine whether they will continue to the next round — something that maybe, just maybe, will propel them to an incredible historic World Cup. On paper, three of the games seem easy while two appear quite tough. The easy ones are the home and away rounds against Timor Leste and the home encounter against Malaysia. The Palestinians should expect to win those games. The difficult games are the one in in Abu Dhabi in March 2016 against the UAE and the match at Faisal al-Husseini Stadium on October 13 2015, against the Saudi team. That is, if the game against Saudi team even takes place.

Whether the Saudis will indeed play in northeast Jerusalem is a question that still hangs in the air. FIFA’s website lists the date of the game, but does not list the time. The Al-Arabiya website published a report that the Saudis are holding feverish consultations “with experts on FIFA’s rules and regulations” to determine whether it is possible to force the two sides to meet at a neutral ground and not at A-Ram, due to the unusual political circumstances.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, have stressed that they have no intention to back out of the deal reached. Jibril Rajoub has emphasized that his team will “not tuck tail under any pressure to play an official game away from Palestinian land.” At a meeting with his Saudi counterpart, held in Amman, Rajoub said that “It is our legitimate historical right to host historic home games on our land, and we are not going to give it up.”

He said that alternatives should be examined under which the Saudis could arrive at the game without having to go through Israeli checkpoints, and suggested that the Saudi players arrive in Jordanian helicopters which would fly them from Amman to Ramallah. It appears that such a solution would be rejected out of hand by Israel. This will eventually force the Saudis to decide whether to make it to the game and break their self-imposed political status quo, or not show up at all, and thus risk forfeiting with a technical loss of 3:0. An even greater loss would be scored against the Saudis in the international and Arab arenas.

“We need to point out to all those who fear normalization with Israel,” Rajoub said, “that no such fear should arise as long as the goal is to play against the team of Palestine on the land of Palestine.” “We must draw a very clear distinction,” Rajoub continued. “Just like visiting a prisoner does not confer legitimacy upon the jailer. Arriving in Palestine will do one thing only: it will send a message of solidarity and support for the Palestinian people and its just struggle. We have proven this at our last encounter against the UAE team. I call on King Salman Ibn Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia to intervene in the matter in order to ensure that the match is played in Palestine.”

Rajoub stressed that he is ready to examine other solutions, such as holding the game in Jordan rather than in the West Bank, but any attempt to force the Palestinians to move their home game would immediately lead to the resignation of all the members of the Palestinian Football Association. “If the team’s games are going to be held outside Palestine, there is no need for a Palestinian Football Association.”

The Saudis who are more than preoccupied with the recent Mecca disaster that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims and who are facing international criticism and accusation, especially from Iran and Nigeria, that Saudi negligence has led to the disaster, now have other chestnuts to pull out of the fire. Nevertheless the decision on the Jerusalem game will be made soon.

Given Rajoub’s declarations, it seems likely that one way or the other dramatic historical consequences would ensue. Either the dismantling of the Palestinian Football Association, as a result of FIFA’s consent to hold the game in Jordan, or the Palestinians achieving victory on October 13, well before the opening whistle: When the Green Falcons take the steep road to the A-Ram neighborhood, and the flood lights of the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium are switched on.

Yoni Mendel is the projects manager of the Mediterranean Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and co-editor of the book review section of the Journal of Levantine Studies (JLS). This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where he is a blogger. Read it hereTranslated by Sol Salbe of the Middle East News Service, Melbourne, Australia.

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