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HomeQatar TimesDouble standards on the pitch: when does mixing sports with politics become...

Double standards on the pitch: when does mixing sports with politics become acceptable?

Recent geopolitical tensions left many questioning what has been described as ‘hypocrisy’ by the international community.

Sports diplomacy has come under the global spotlight once again, with significant moves banning Russia from playing at the much-anticipated 2022 FIFA World Cup, as FIFA and UEFA suspend the Russian national team from playing in their international competitions in light of the latest Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Whilst the swift move received global praise, it amplified echoing calls from thousands, if not millions, who have been oppressed by numerous world powers over the last years and decades. 

Read more: European countries call for Russia to be banned from 2022 World Cup

Such comparisons include the lack of action against Israel, which has persisted in its occupation of Palestine for more than 70 years. 

Israel’s occupation of Palestine 

On Monday, former Egyptian football player and beIN Sports commentator Mohamed Aboutrika, called for banning the Zionist entity in partaking in all sporting events, saying, “The decision to ban Russian clubs and teams from participating in all tournaments must be accompanied with a ban on clubs and teams under the Zionist entity, because it is an occupier that has been murdering children and women in Palestine for years.”

“But you (FIFA) use double standards,” he added.

Aboutrika himself was a victim of the double standards, when he displayed solidarity with Palestinians under blockade in Gaza by Israel and Egypt in 2008. During a match against Sudan at the Africa Cup of Nations, he revealed a t-shirt with the slogan “Sympathy with Gaza”.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) was quick to issue him a warning for ‘mixing politics with sports’.

Similarly in 2009, former French-born Malian footballer Frederic Kanoute was fined by the Royal Spanish Football Federation for showing his solidarity with Palestine during a match against Deportivo La Coruña.

Whilst it took four days to ban Russia for their invasion of Ukraine, Palestinians who have been witnessing years of occupation have yet to witness a similar move against Israel.

For years, rights groups and the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) called on football associations and the international community to terminate Israel’s participation in sporting events.

Flagrant human rights abuses committed by Israel include their attempts to isolate Palestinians from being involved in global tournaments. In 2019, Israel decided to cancel the FIFA Palestine Cup by denying Gaza’s players travel permits.

Israel restrictions on the movement of Palestinians are highly repressive, with at least 700 obstacles placed around the West Bank and up to 140 checkpoints.

Palestinians and activists from all over the world have long accused FIFA of ignoring their letters to suspend the Israeli Football Association’s membership.

Other football organisations including the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) have also failed to take action against Israel. In 2013, Israel was the host of UEFA’s Under-21 Championship

More recently, Israel mulled over the possibility of hosting the World Cup in 2030.

Russian attacks on Syria

Syria has been subjected to bombardment by the Bashar Al Assad regime with military backing from Russia since 2015, under the pretext of “fighting jihadists”. Russia has been accused of killing thousands of Syrians, as well as systematically bombing hospitals, schools and public places in non-regime held areas in Syria. 

In 2018, Russia hosted the World Cup despite the country’s complicity in war crimes against Syrians. The event took place amid a siege on the city of Daraa, which was captured by the Syrian regime with the help of Russia, as Russian warplanes bombed civilians areas in the city. 

The Syrian city of Douma was also subjected to chemical attack in 2018 where at least 70 civilians were killed. Moscow, however, denied the use of chemical weapons accusing the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of providing factual and technical errors. 

Russia has also admitted to having tested over 320 weapons in Syria, which have caused immeasurable destruction to the country since the beginning of their military intervention in 2015. Despite this, and in spite of calls by many Syrian civil society groups and activists, FIFA and other football associations did not consider the destruction and deaths caused drastic enough to ban the country from events prior to the invasion if Ukraine. 

US invasion

There was complete silence from the football world as the US carried out harrowing human rights abuses during the Iraq invasion in 2003. Iraq’s health ministry said that at least 151,000 people were killed between 2003 and 2006, whilst UNICEF reports 4-5 million children in the country have been orphaned since the US invasion.

The exact number of casualties remains disputed.

Afghanistan invasion architect George Bush ‘concerned’ for women following troop withdrawal

Civilians were subjected to the harshest measures of torture, particularly in the US-run Abu Ghraib prison. Images of victims who were tortured in the notorious prison offer a glimpse into the psychological and physical horrors experienced then, and which survivors continue to suffer from.

Since, there has been an absence of accountability against the US, which participated in the 2006 World Cup in Germany with no bans, or calls for such, set in motion. 

Iraq, however, was banned from hosting international matches following the invasion of Kuwait by former leader Saddam Hussein in 1990. The ban remained until the US invasion toppled Hussein, and was later reinstated due to “security concerns”. The ban was lifted over the Iraq national team in February 2022. 

The US also committed human rights violations during its invasion of Afghanistan for two decades, where more than 241,000 people were killed of which 71,344 were civilians.

Between 2003 and 2004, Human Rights Watch [HRW] found that the US was complicit in war crimes in Afghanistan with American forces indiscriminately detaining innocent civilians who were not connected to hostilities taking place in the country.

Yet, the US was seen participating in major sporting events with neither repercussions nor vocalised calls from other national teams to suspend them from playing. 

Despite claims by sports officials that the industry should not mix with politics, recent events have indicated otherwise, begging the question: where do sports organisations draw the line when it comes to crimes against humanity?

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