By Andrew Warshaw
October 27 – After years of delays and buck-passing, FIFA has officially closed down its much-troubled Middle East mediation initiative, a highly provocative move that could enflame tension in the region and seems bound to infuriate the pro-Palestinian lobby like never before.
All but conceding that painstaking attempts to solve the footballing stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians – started by his predecessor Sepp Blatter – had failed, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said the issue went beyond the sport and that no more could be done to bring the two parties together.
At last May’s FIFA Congress in Bahrain, the long-running issue of Israeli teams playing in the occupied West Bank was unilaterally withdrawn from the agenda by Infantino in the latest example of procrastination.
Infantino refused to allow a vote on a Palestinian motion to discuss a long-overdue report drawn up by FIFA’s chief Middle east negotiator Tokyo Sexwale which, crucially, was said to include a recommendation to give Israel six months to stop six of its teams playing in the occupied territories and relocate them inside Israel’s internationally recognised borders.
Perhaps mindful of his own position, the FIFA president reportedly acted following a personal phone call made to him by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking for the item to be removed, thereby ruling out a vote to sanction Israel.
Infantino instead promised the FIFA Council would take a decision in the autumn – in other words today. But few anticipated the organisation would wash its hands of the entire issue.
“The Council has taken note of all the different documents presented by Tokyo Sexwale but the issues have been there for 10,000 years and have still not been solved,” Infantino told a press conference following the latest Council meeting in India.
“Football is not going to solve them either, I’m afraid. The Council has decided to refrain from imposing any sanctions and declares the matter closed.”
The move came despite FIFA being accused by human rights groups, European lawmakers and even United Nations officials of breaking its own statutes. Both Israel and Palestine have their own national federations and FIFA regulations state that clubs from one member association cannot play on the territory of another member’s association without the latter’s express consent.
Infantino countered by telling reporters that on a political and diplomatic level, the United Nations had never imposed sanctions against Israel so how could FIFA? There were limits, he said, as to how far his organisation could go.
Football in the region, Infantino said, was “characterised by exceptional complexity and great sensitivity due to certain de facto circumstances that cannot be ignored but cannot be changed unilaterally either by a non-governmental body like FIFA … which has to remain neutral. We see where our limits are.”
“It was also felt that any interference by FIFA in the status quo in the whole area with regard to football could aggravate” the situation and that this “would not be in the interests of the game” or the “smooth running of football.”
Apart from the six contentious Israeli teams, the general complaint is that Israel has long been been blocking the free movement of both players and equipment in Gaza and the West Bank.
Yet today’s decision begs the question as to whether FIFA put the cart before the horse in terms of trying to intervene in the first place – at considerable expense and with Sexwale no doubt pocketing a handsome fee for ultimately solving very little after trying to negotiate with all sides in the dispute, each of them adopting entrenched positions.
With the Palestinians already taking FIFA to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over May’s Congress fiasco, Infantino was asked by Insideworldfootball whether FIFA’s credibility had now been further undermined. “It’s not about FIFA being fine or not fine, or clubs playing or not playing in territories which are considered occupied,” he replied. “Some progress has been made and football is being played thanks to the work of the FIFA monitoring committee. Any other decision would affect that progress.”
No sooner had Infantino made his announcement than criticism poured in from pro-Palestinian groups with all manner of legal threats.
One lawyer representing the Palestine Football Association told reporters: “This decision puts football in a very bad position overall in the world. I’m sure we will challenge it. What could be worse for the Palestinians than the current situation?”
But not from the Israeli side. In a statement, Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, commented: “I am delighted to welcome the decision of the FIFA council to show a red card to Palestinian attempts to throw Israel out of world football. This is the right outcome. I am grateful to all the right thinking members of the football family for helping to achieve this fair and just outcome.”
Among further issues, Infantino also announced that World Cup prize money for Russia next year would be increasing by 12% from $358 million to $400 million for those participating. “It’s right to reward those teams who have qualified,” said Infantino who also disclosed that after 2020, FIFA’s youth competitions may be streamlined, possibly including co-hosting and scrapping under-17 and under-20 tournaments and replacing them with one single age category.
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