Thursday, March 31, 2011

Israeli Football Team to Join FIFA's Mideast Division

The Israeli national football (soccer) team could find itself playing 2014 World Cup qualifying matches in Saudi Arabia, Jordan or even Ramallah. FIFA President Joseph Blatter announced yesterday that FIFA was realigning its divisions to ensure geographic consistency. As part of that move, Israel will be moved officially from the European Division to the Asian Division.

At a press conference at FIFA headquarters in Zurich Switzerland, Mr. Blatter explained the rationale for the move. “We believe that International Football transcends politics. Over the past few years, we have seen a move towards improved political relations between countries in the Middle East. For example, it no longer makes sense to have Israel travel to Europe for qualifying matches when they could be playing against their neighbours in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Turkey, among other countries.”

At the news conference, Blatter cited the example of India playing Pakistan in World Cricket. If India can play Pakistan in world cricket – and if all of the world’s countries can play against each other in the Olympics – FIFA should “embrace that approach of putting sport above politics.”

Blatter explained that on a personal level, he was very optimistic about the changes sweeping Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries. He speculated that together with regime change or increased openness and press freedom, these countries are likely to reject the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments that have to date prevented this kind of move. He also suggested that he had spoken to American, EU and other world politicians, including Canadian officials, who were involved behind the scenes in pushing for this change.

Blatter acknowledged that scheduling matches between Israel and some of its neighbours such as Iran, Syria, Yemen, Palestine and even Iraq may require some creativity on the part of FIFA. “We are prepared to have these matches played in nearby neutral countries such as Cyprus – but FIFA members will have to rise above politics and play the assigned matches to avoid disqualification. At the same time, we will take all appropriate measures to ensure security together with sportsmanship.”

FIFA’s move is likely to greatly increase Israel’s chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. While Israel is currently ranked 58th in the world, it has faced very difficult qualifying conditions due to its placement in the European division. For the 2010 World Cup, Israel was in a pool with Switzerland, Greece and Latvia, all very strong sides. The Asian division includes some strong sides but also includes all of the other Middle Eastern countries, many of which are much weaker than Israel’s current national team.

Israel’s coach Luis Fernandez was quite enthusiastic about the announcement. “Israel is prepared to play against any country in the world – even Iran or Syria. We are football players, not politicians – and we just want to have a chance to compete against the best players in the world – on fair terms.” He went on to explain that they would, of course, rely on and work with the Israeli government to ensure that all appropriate security precautions are taken and that they are given the green light to travel to some of these countries.

Mokhtar Tlili, the Tunisian coach of the Palestinian national football team was hesitant to speak about FIFA’s latest announcement. However, he was willing to explain that if his Palestinian team had to travel to Ramat Gan (outside of Tel-Aviv) to play against Israel, he would then expect that the Israeli team would have to play matches in the Palestinian team’s upgraded stadium in Al-Ram, in the West Bank.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas gave mixed messages about the change in a television interview with Al-Jazeera. He regretted that this change might soften the political pressure on Israel to resolve the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. However, Abbas also explained that the process of “normalization” of attitudes between the various Arab countries and Israel was the only real way to bring about true peace. “Why not start with Football – a game that breaks down barriers and instils passion for sport in people across the world? If Israelis and Palestinians “humanize” each other, even if only on the Football pitch, that will be great step forward for everyone in our region.”

Besieged Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad could not be reached for comment.

The first qualifying matches under the new alignment are likely to take place in the fall of 2012.

Blog Entry written for April 1, 2011 – Happy AFD.

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