|Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with FIFA President Blatter|
Perhaps it was not much of a surprise to see that seven top FIFA executives were arrested in Zurich yesterday on charges of racketeering, fraud, money laundering etc., The charges apparently relate to bribes that FIFA officials are alleged to have received in connection with awarding the World Cup to South Africa in 2010. Investigations have been opened over the awarding of the World Cup to Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022. Qatar as a World Cup host? Is there any other plausible explanation aside from bribery?
FIFA has long been the subject of swirling allegations of match fixing, bribery of officials and all sorts of other conduct. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who is now running for his fifth term on Friday, has vehemently denied having any knowledge of any such activities. Funny enough, one of his strongest supporters is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who always seems to have "no knowledge" of different circumstances, particularly the untimely deaths of his various political opponents.
It is in this context that one must consider the Palestinian motion that has been brought to oust Israel from FIFA. What's wrong with this picture? For one thing, "Palestine" is not even a state. Why does it have its own FIFA team to begin with? It should have "FIFA observer status."
But consider - that the Palestinian FIFA organization is asking the 209 members of FIFA for a popularity contest vote with respect to Israel. Not sure how Qatar, Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Turkey and some other human rights luminaries are likely to vote but they seem disinclined to support Israel, to put it mildly. I haven't seen a vote on the FIFA agenda for the suspension of Russia for its activities in the Ukraine or, for that matter, for the suspension of Palestine for the launching of rocket attacks at Israel last year. This motion to suspend Israel is obviously a blatant political move by the Palestinians in their ongoing effort to delegitimize Israel by using the BDS movement, instead of making political concessions to reach a peace deal.
Consider for a moment the structure of FIFA. Israel is already in the wrong division in an organization that is supposed to be apolitical. Israel is part of UEFA, the European Football association rather than the Middle Eastern division. For this reason, it is so difficult for Israel to gain entry to the World Cup finals. Geographically, Israel should be grouped with its neighbours. It should have to play Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Jordan etc., to qualify. If those countries were to boycott the matches, they could be considered to have defaulted the game. If there are any security concerns, matches could be played in neutral territory in Europe. But instead, FIFA has always given in to the notion that a whole geographic area can exclude Israel and force Israel to play with the Europeans. If FIFA had any balls as an organization (and not balls that were being artificially inflated or otherwise doctored), it would take the appropriate steps to ensure that Israel is in the proper division.
So the issue has already been politicized. Now the Palestinians have clamoured for a vote to suspend Israel. With yesterday's news of the arrests of several FIFA officials, it became clear that an investigation has been going on at FIFA for more than a year. These FIFA officials have known, or certainly should have known what was going down.
In the face of this type of pressure on FIFA, why not do what Middle Eastern countries always do? Blame Israel for everything, lob the ball over to the Israeli side of the pitch and see if all of the negative attention can be deflected to Israel. Moreover, with allegations of bribery swirling over the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar - a key financier of Hamas and backer of various terrorist activities, perhaps it was even a condition of the award to Qatar that this type of motion would be brought at FIFA.
A cynic might question the timing of U.S. prosecution officials and wonder why so many FIFA officials would be arrested just as the issue of suspending Israel was coming to a vote. Fair enough, the timing is interesting. But this investigation has been going on for more than a year and is apparently just the tip of the iceberg. It will be really interesting to find out how Russia and Qatar were awarded their World Cups. (South Africa apparently bribed officials to the tune of $10 million U.S. to get the games).
With this background information, it seems far more likely that the Israel issue is much more of a smoke screen, a cloud set up to distract attention from what is really going on at FIFA. In other words, the timing issue is probably the exact opposite of what the cynic might suggest. It is FIFA, down by a player or two (or seven), with a collection of yellow cards (or whatever colour U.S. indictments might be) that is begging the referee to hand Israel a red card at a crucial moment to deflect attention from its own foul play.
Can anyone really say that Israel is the one country in the world that should be suspended from participating in world football with everything going on in the world? I haven't heard of any pending votes on Russia (over Ukraine), China (over Tibet), or countless other countries. If FIFA decides to go down this road of politicizing football even more than it already does, it may wind up with only a handful of member countries who are deemed to be worthy of participation in its illustrious organization.
The best outcome for Israel, for FIFA, for world football and for international sports would be a vote in which Israel manages to scrape together more than the one-third that it needs to avoid suspension. Hopefully, an even more decisive vote would send the message that political disputes should not be played out on the football pitch.
Perhaps the next discussion topic, if Israel is successful, will be the realignment of FIFA divisions to put Israel in the Middle East, where it really belongs. But, of course, that is just a dream. Given FIFA politics, it is far more likely that the organization will soon vote to add a new member to the organization - ISIL/ISIS - with its apparent expertise at heading the ball - and beheading opposition players.
World Football fans might even get to watch ISIL play Palestine at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, while some democratic countries like Israel sit out on the sidelines. Can't wait...