Saturday, February 10, 2024

Why is Palestine's FIFA Membership Important?


Issam Khalidi


   During my interview with Palestinian martyr journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in November 2021, I was asked several questions as part of our interview, but this one stood out as most noteworthy of them all: What does Palestine's FIFA membership mean to us as Palestinians? In our conversation regarding this membership, I raised a few critical issues. Nevertheless, I kept thinking about this question and decided it would be a good idea to write a post about it.


    Palestine joined FIFA on June 8, 1998, after numerous attempts since 1946. The first attempt was when the (Arab) Palestinian Sports Federation (founded in 1931 and reestablished in 1944) applied to join FIFA in 1946. It competed with the Jewish-dominated Palestine Football Association (founded in 1928), which represented Palestine in the International Football Federation (FIFA). The attempt failed because according to FIFA’s statute, no country has the right to be presented by to federations. A second attempt was made in 1951, a third in 1962, a fourth in 1978, and a fifth in 1989. In May 1995, the Palestinian Football Association got provisional FIFA membership (two years after the Oslo Accords). 


   The admission of Palestine to FIFA was a significant victory for Palestinian sports and for the Palestinian people. There is no doubt that the Oslo Accords were a positive factor in accelerating Palestine's admission to FIFA. However, we still accept this fact as a fact that must be dealt with, even though we have reservations about the Oslo Accords themselves. In fact, Palestinian sports suffered marginalization in the diaspora after the Oslo Accords. However, this marginalization continued after joining the FIFA, and it was not addressed. The focus of sports activities remained in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


    Apart from the role that the Oslo Accords played in accelerating Palestine's admission, several other factors have also played an important role in making this possible. For several decades, Palestinians struggled relentlessly to join FIFA. It was their goal to convince FIFA that the Palestinian sports movement was dispersed and diverged after 1948. Despite this, Palestinian football kept growing. When it was in Gaza, the Palestinian Football Association (founded in 1962) brought together most Palestinian sports clubs. Later, through its operation in Lebanon (re-established in 1971), it brought together Palestinian athletic clubs that had been operating in Lebanon. Moreover, Palestinian football has been proving its efficiency at the local, Arab, and international levels in recent years, which has contributed to its growth and recognition. 


    The Arab support that has always been provided to Palestine by Arab countries and sports organizations must also not be forgotten. Using their leverage and every opportunity, they intended to convince FIFA officials that Palestine has the right to be a member of this organization. For instance, in 1978, Iraq, in response to FIFA's demands addressed to the Palestinian Football Association, agreed to host the PFA on its territory based on FIFA's demands. In addition, the PFA was offered a stadium of its own.


  Palestine's accession to FIFA in 1998 marked the beginning of a greater and more visible manifestation of Palestinian ideology in sports on an international stage. By joining this organization, Palestinians were able to express themselves on an international level their identity, opinions, and suffering under the occupation and expose its arbitrary practices on the international arena. It is Palestine's name, its flag, and its people that cause Israel to be more worried than anything else. Despite the Oslo Accords, Israel has always feared Palestinian sports and the rise of Palestine at the local, Arab, and international levels. It is worth mentioning that Palestine's membership in international organizations (like FIFA, the Olympic Committee, and others) paved the way for its acceptance as a non-member observer state at the UN in November 2012.


    Palestinian membership in this international body cannot be overstated since it has become a landmark within international sports. As a result of this membership, Palestine qualified for the Asian Cup in 2000 and the FIFA World Cup in 2002. It was in 2010 that Palestine entered the first round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. A year later, it was ranked 73rd by FIFA in February 2018, which is its highest FIFA ranking to date. In December 2010, the Palestinian beach soccer team, stationed in Gaza, participated in the Second Asian Beach Games in Amman as part of the Palestine delegation. In June 2012, the Palestinian team won third place in the Third Asian Beach Games, which were held in China.


   There was financial and logistical support provided by FIFA to Palestinian sports. It has begun collecting donations for the construction of a stadium at Al-Ram, near Jerusalem, named after the late Palestinian national leader and activist Faisal Al-Husseini. In addition to the $1.4 million contribution from FIFA, the King of Saudi Arabia contributed one million dollars, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi contributed one million euros, the French government contributed half a million euros, and Sheikh Ahmed bin Fahd Al Sabah contributed $250,000 and the UAE government contributed half a million euros. On October 26, 2008, the stadium was opened for the first historic international friendly match between Palestine and Jordan that was played on its soil for the first time in history. Aside from this, FIFA has also raised and donated funds to many Palestinian cities for the construction of stadiums and the purchase of stadium equipment. It includes Gaza, Al-Bireh, Nablus, Qabatiya, Jericho, Hebron, and Tulkarm to mention a few. 


  To raise the competencies of coaches and administrators, FIFA organized training and refresher courses for them. Additionally, FIFA built a "Tomorrow's Talent Academy" (which was named the highest-model academy) for young people under 15, under 17, and under 20 with week-long training programs combining football and education. It is certainly true that joining FIFA has given the Palestinian Football Association the ability to contribute to the decision-making process within FIFA - the highest governing body for football in the world. In addition, it has enabled the PFA to communicate and coordinate with football federations all over the world, and this has contributed to its success. 


  This membership has added to the PFA's responsibilities and improved its performance in both the Arab as well as international arenas because of this membership. The joining of FIFA had a positive impact on Palestinian football. The performance of the Palestinian national football team improved as a result. The Palestinian Football Association was required to comply with FIFA's requirements, especially when it came to professionalism. In the 2010-2011 season, the West Bank Premier League (for professional teams) was launched with 12 teams, with Al-Am'ari Club winning, and Jawwal Company signing the first commercial contract. As part of FIFA's policy to promote healthy lifestyles, the association-imposed restrictions on players who changed their diet, sleep pattern, smoking habits, etc.


   In terms of women's football, FIFA has contributed to the development of women's teams all over the world through encouraging and providing support. This includes the Palestinian women's team, established in 2007. However, it did not receive this level of support as did the men's team, owing to the modest level and the social aspects of its development.


  In the opinion of some, this membership could bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. However, as we saw later, the differences between the Palestinian and Israeli federations deepened, especially regarding including the six settlement clubs in the West Bank in the Israeli Football Association, in addition to playing games in the settlements. As a result, the PFA at the FIFA conference in May 2016 issued a call for the expulsion of Israel from FIFA in response to this situation.

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