"[We are] saddened by the mixture of politics and sports.” So said a spokesperson for the Israeli Football Association in response to Monday’s news that the Turkish U-19 (under 19) soccer team canceled its match in Israel. Turkey’s team made the move following the Israeli Navy’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that left at least 10 dead and scores injured. Then on Tuesday, the Swedish Football Association announced that it would formally request European soccer's governing body to cancel Sweden's U-21 game in Israel later this week.
The SFA said that they felt morally compelled to make the move following the flotilla attack and "the harsh responses to those events in Sweden and around the world." SFA President Lars-Ake Lagrell said, "Like all human beings, we deplore violence and are shocked at what we saw…It's not pleasant to play in Israel at this juncture." On Wednesday it appeared that the game would in fact go forward as planned, with Lagrell saying, "Since the United Nations has not decided on any sanctions against Israel we are obliged to go ahead with the match under [European football association] rules.”
This certainly won’t be the last time we hear about countries, teams, or players holding up the flotilla killings as reason to ostracize Israel in the realm of international sport. The question, to pick up the ball from the Israeli Football Association, is whether it should “sadden” us to see politics and sports so brazenly intertwined? Should Israeli sport actually be a safe space from how its government conducts itself? In my mind, the answer is a simple one: hell no. Israel committed an act of state terror on an aid ship in international waters whose passengers included an 85-year-old holocaust survivor, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and hundreds of activists committed to delivering the most basic kinds of food and medicine to the Gaza Strip. It’s actually dangerous, in such a situation, to just “shut up and play” as if there is nothing to see behind the royal blue curtain.
International sport, to awkwardly paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, is politics by other means. It’s used explicitly by all nations as a tool to demonstrate diplomatic goodwill. But in the context of such a visceral crime, international diplomacy morphs into little more than international propaganda and sporting Stratego. If a team refuses to play Israel because they don’t want to be party to the public relations objectives of a state engorged with violence, then that is nothing to be “saddened” about.
But this raises another question: if one supports the boycotting of Israeli teams, then where do we draw the line? Would we praise teams refusing to play the United States because of the civilian death tolls in Afghanistan and Iraq? What about rejecting China as an opponent because of their labor practices or treatment of the people of Tibet? Should teams refuse to play any countries directly involved in what they perceive as injustice? Once again, I will say hell yes. These particular games that pit country against country – whether in the Olympics, the World Cup or other avenues of international competition – are exercises in what George Orwell famously called “war minus the shooting.” In his essay, titled The Sporting Spirit, Orwell wrote, ”I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”
This quote still holds the ring of truth but needs to be updated for the 21st century. Sports are still used at the service of nationalism. But in our globalized world of savage inequalities and dwindling resources, they are also used to present the poisonous relations between countries as somehow normal and even harmonious. And if it is business as usual between nations on the field of play, then surely everything must be A-OK when our heroes shower off the sweat and the cheering throngs wander home. But things are, as Marcellus Wallace said, “pretty f--king far from ok.” If a team wants to stand up and say “hell no” to business-as-usual in international sport, we shouldn’t ask why they are doing it. We should ask why more teams don’t.