Tuesday, April 11, 2006

AFC president addresses missile attack on pitch

Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam drew attention earlier this month to an exchange of missiles resulting in damage to football grounds in Israel and Palestine. "This is a crime against Palestine sports facilities and I will defiantly write to the confederation and Arab football associations," he said as quoted by Digger Matt Scott of The Guardian (UK).

The Palestinian stadium in the Gaza district, constructed under FIFA's Goal project, was struck by Israeli rounds in retaliation for rockets fired by Palestinian militia which hit a football field and surrounding facilities at Kibbutz Karmiya in Israel and caused light injuries to one person.

However, as the incident took took place at a time when the Palestinian national football team was taking part in the AFC Challenge Cup in Bangladesh, Hammam reportedly held a meeting with Palestine FA assistant general-secretary Nahid al-Hour and FIFA president Sepp Blatter ,who were in attendance, to discuss the situation.

Jerome Champagne, a representative of FIFA's president for special affairs, subsequently sent an official letter to Aviv Shiron, Israeli Ambassador to Switzerland (where FIFA is based), asking for an explanation. "We have just asked for explanations," Champagne told Associated Press in a telephone interview. "FIFA has been fighting for more than a century to make this game universal. To hit a football field is really the wrong signal."

The ambassador told Jeremey Last of the Jerusalem Post that, after checking with the authorities in Israel, "I got back to them [FIFA] saying that in the framework of Israeli activities against Kassam rockets and its launchers apparently the field was hit." Shiron said he also raised with FIFA the issue of the Kassam that hit the football field in Karmiya but that FIFA had not yet responded.

According to the Israel Football Association website, FIFA accepted the Israeli explanation and Champagne, in a telephone conversation with IFA General Secretary Haim Zimmer on 7 April, "stated unequivocally" that FIFA had no intention of imposing any sanctions on Israel and was not considering asking any other body to take action. The website said IFA has very close and continual dealings on a close personal level with FIFA President Sepp Blatter, General Secretary Urs Linsi and with Champagne and that Champagne was personally involved in the decision in 2004 to allow Israeli national teams and clubs to host international matches on home soil.

The IFA emphasised that "it always views positively FIFA's requests to assist the Palestinians and has often intervened with the Israeli authorities to help arrange travel permits for Palestinian national team players to travel to international matches" and "also tries to assist in other matters concerning Palestinian sports and their sports officials."

The IFA made no mention of incidents listed by foreign publications commenting on political acts of violence against Israel that were connected with football. These included an alleged official Palestinian football tournament named after a suicide bomber who murdered 31 people at a Passover celebration at the Park Hotel in Netanya in 2002 and the suicide bombing of the Maxim restaurant in Haifa in October 2003 which injured three officials from the Israeli club Maccabi Haifa.

FIFA subsequently announced that it will cover the costs of the rehabilitation of the football pitch of the Palestine Stadium. FIFA President Blatter said in a statement that in the world of today, which is disrupted by long-lasting disputes and violence, football is one of the very few universal tools mankind can use to bridge gaps between nations and peoples, and to symbolize what unites our planet over what divides it.

"I call on the relevant authorities to do everything they can to allow Palestinian and Israeli football to develop", said Blatter

However, the incident did draw attention to the anomaly that while Palestine plays in the Asian Football Confederation, neighbouring Israel plays in Europe - particularly as Israel was one of the 12 founding members of the AFC in 1956 and won the Asian Nations Cup in 1964 (runners-up in 1956 and 1960). Its youth national team won the Asian Nations six times and the Israeli league champions, Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Hapoel Tel-Aviv, won the Asian Champions Cup in three of its four first editions. As an Asian nation, Israel qualified for the quarter final stage of the Olympic football tournament in 1968 and the final stage of the World Cup tournament in 1970.

Apparantly, as a result of increasing numbers of Arab and Moslem countries joining the AFC, Israel was "expelled" from the confederation in 1974 and spent 15 years in international limbo (sometimes playing World Cup qualifiers through the Africa, South America and Oceania football confederations) until invited to compete in the European club cups in 1991. Three years later IFA was accepted by UEFA as a full member. In 2000, Israel made it to the playoffs of Euro 2000 and, in 2002/03, Maccabi Haifa became the first Israeli club to qualify for the UEFA Champions League.

Both the Israel FA and current Palestine FA claim their roots to the same Palestinian Football Association, founded in 1928 during the British Mandate and affiliated to FIFA as a full member the following year. Non-league games in the territory were organised much earlier: an Arab football team was reportedly formed in Al Rawdha school in Jerusalem in 1908 and the first "organised match" of Jewish clubs took place in 1912 between Maccabi Reihovot and a combined team of Maccabi Jaffa and Rishon Le Zion (later to become Maccabi Tel-Aviv).

The PFA was the first territorial sports federation in Palestine and was composed of Jewish, Arab and British army and police teams. National cup competition began the same year and a national league was founded four years later with the participation of nine clubs. In the 1934 World Cup qualifiers, a PFA representative side was beaten over two legs by Egypt, losing 1-7 and 1-4 in Cairo and Jerusalem respectively. The team's first goal ever was scored by Avraham Nudelmann. By playing in that qualifier, the team had the distinction of being the first from Asia in the World Cup. The PFA also participated in the 1938 World Cup qualifiers.

With the division of the British Mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories by the United Nations in May 1948, the original PFA split and the Israel Football Association was admitted directly to FIFA. However the current Palestinian FA was only affiliated in 1998.

Israel's first international game as an independent state was played in September 1948 when the national team made a tour to the USA. Domestically, the game has progressed consistently since the current national league was founded in October 1949. Despite constant threats and acts of war and terrorism against the country - intense enough for FIFA not to permit internationals being played in Israel until 2004 - there is a 12-team Premier League and four other divisions of 52 clubs which broadly represent the country's Jewish and Arab communities.

In 2004, the Arab-supported Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin FC won the Israeli Cup and qualified to play in the UEFA Cup. "It's important for me and for all the Arabs in Israel and all the people who believe in peace and co-existence," Shuwan Abbas, the team captain, told the BBC. "I think it's very important for the whole country to know how to practice co-existence."

According to the Palestinian page on the AFC's website, football development in the Arab territories was "short-lived" between 1948 -1967 when the West Bank district was administered by Jordan and the Gaza district by Egypt and during 1967-1994 when both districts were controlled by Israel. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, football activity has been on the rise with considerable assistance from FIFA. More recently, construction of a new PFA headquarters in the city of Beyt Lahya was funded by FIFA's Goal project and FIFA is also currently involved in the completion of tenders for the laying of three much-needed artificial turf pitches, one of which will be at Beyt Lahya HQ, with the others in Ram and Ramalla.

Problems remain: the PFA national team does not play any 'home' matches in the traditional sense of the word, with the bulk of Palestine's fixtures over the last two years staged in the Qatari capital, Doha. The team also has never trained on home soil; instead they use the Egyptian town of Ismailia, some 120 kilometres north of Cairo, as their base.

Domestically, the PLA has no permanent league and communication both inside the West Bank and between the West Bank and Gaza is difficult. "On many occasions, merely being able to collect 18 local players for a match can prove challenging due to the logistical and security issues entailed in leaving the West Bank and Gaza Strip, even for the short border-crossing into neighbouring countries, although the recent re-opening of the Rafah border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt undoubtedly signalled a significant change for the better," FIFA recently reported. The world body also acknowledged that it has worked "in conjunction with the Israeli FA to obtain the necessary visas for Palestine's national and club teams."

In November 2005, a joint Israel-Palestine team played a friendly against European powerhouse, Barcelona FC, before 32,000 fans at Nou Camp Stadium in Spain. The game was organised and financed by the Peres Centre for Peace and the Abu Shukr Sport Centre in Ram Allah and designed to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. A spokesman for the Peres Centre for Peace, Alon Beer, told Khalid Amayreh of Aljazeera.net the trip to Spain by the joint team was coordinated with the top echelon of the Palestinian Authority, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas and national security adviser Jebril Rajoub. "Our goal is to bring as many Palestinian and Israeli children together," Beer said.

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