While an Israeli judicial committee weighs the life of footballer Mahmoud Sarsak in the balance,  European football’s governing body is busy demonstrating the bankruptcy of the idea that sport has nothing to do with politics.

A vigil for Mahmoud Sarsak outside Ramle prison

Replying by email to journalists who inquired on Friday about the Palestinian call for Israel to be stripped of hosting the under-21 championships next year, UEFA’s media services department said the organisation was “of the opinion that football – and sport in general – are building bridges between nations and communities and that political matters should not interfere with the practice of the game.

” We are therefore committed to offer all of our 53 member associations – including the Israeli FA – their national teams, clubs and supporters, the opportunity to participate in our competition and in the development of football acrossEurope.  And it is with this in mind that the UEFA Executive Committee awarded the organisation of the final tournament of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship 2013 to Israel.”

In other words, despite international outcry at the unlawful detention without charge or trial of Sarsak and other Palestinian footballers, among 4000+ other political prisoners held in Israeli jails, UEFA rewards the state which perpetrates these outrages.

The Palestinian Football Association, previously wary of angering the Israel authorities on which it depends for facilities to bring a Palestinian team to the  London Olympics,  specifically called on UEFA to dismiss Israel as youth championship host.

“We ask your excellency not to give Israel the honour of hosting the next UEFA U21 Championship in 2013,” PFA President Jibril Rajoub said in a letter to UEFA president Michel Platini.

“For athletes in Palestine, there is no real freedom of movement and the risks of being detained or even killed are always looming before their eyes,” Rajoub wrote, noting that in addition to Sarsak, Olympic squad goalkeeper Omar Abu Rois and Ramallah player Mohammed Nimr were also being held by Israel without charge.

The Jerusalem Post put its own spin on the story, accusing the Palestinian Authority of politicising the situation and demonstrating  how vital the 2013 U-21 games are to Israel’s attempts to sanitise its tainted image.

“European soccer’s brightest talents are set to grace Israeli soccer stadiums next June after Israel beat out Bulgaria, Czech Republic, England and Wales to host the Under-21 championships and the IFA (Israeli Football Association) is confident the tournament will go ahead as planned,” JP said

It quoted the IFA: “We are certain that FIFA and UEFA will not mix politics with soccer and are certain that the Under-21 European Championships will take place, as decided, in Israel next summer.”

UEFA should understand that the only “bridges” built by its complicity with Israeli propaganda are the Jewish-only roads  that link the illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank to the institutionally racist state.

Sport cannot build bridges when one community wields state power to imprison and oppress another. The idea that politics can be separated from sport in this situation is clearly untenable.

The UEFA media statement rings particularly hollow given Platini’s refusal even to acknowledge an appeal a year ago from 42 Palestinian football clubs in Gaza calling on the organisation not to reward Israel for its racism and illegality.

On Friday (June 15), the Red Card Israeli Apartheid campaign reminded UK Sports Minister Hugh Robertson of this, handing in a letter summarising the burgeoning support for  the Palestinian footballers.

The campaign urged Robertson to act upon an earlier letter to him and Platini, signed by eminent figures including former football legend Éric Cantona, filmmaker Ken Loach, Michael Mansfield, QC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and writer Alice Walker. They had addressed racist oppression in Israel as exemplified by the treatment of Sarsak and called for an end to Israel’s impunity.

Recent days have seen a growing chorus of calls from footballing organisations and individuals calling for Mahmoud Sarsak’s release:

FIFA, the International Football Association,

FIFPro, the World Association of Professional Footballers

Thirty six French footballers including Frederic Kanoute, Nicolas Anelka and Abou Diaby 

Gordon Taylor, president of the Professional Footballers’ Association in the UK, told a campaign supporter by email:

“As the founding member of FIFPro and Executive member of the Board, we fully support FIFPro’s call for the release from prison of Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak.”

By rejecting calls from Palestinians and their supporters, UEFA is actively encouraging the state of Israel to continue perpetrating human rights abuses and defying international law. In this it is only following the example of Israel’s allies among the major colonial powers, especially the United States.

While 25-year-old Mahmoud Sarsak awaits death or deliverance in an Israeli jail, U.S. President Barack Obama honored Israeli President Shimon Peres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. According to CBS, “Obama praised Peres for using his outlook on the Middle East to fortify the relationship between the United States and Israel.”

In the face of such hypocrisy and injustice, activists in many countries have been inspired to hold protests at sports ministries and Israeli embassies and in Scotland, at Tynecastle Stadium, where Israel’s national women’s team went down to an 8-0 defeat on Saturday  in a women’s Euro qualifier.

The petition for Sarsak’s release is building signatures, though many more are needed.

All this has started, at last, to gain some exposure in UK and international media, allbeit considerably less than would be the case if the imprisoned sportsmen were anyone other than Palestinians held in Israel.

In addition to embedded links above, there were fair reports by Agence FrancePresse and Associated Press

Intelligent football commentary:

 A former MP had a letter published in the Guardian newspaper :


A blogpost on the Amnesty International website highlighted the issues:


Here are some other examples of coverage:











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