We interrupt what would have been a story on the Africa Cup of Nations to bring you this special report. We re still in Ghana but we focus on what has become the famous or infamous – depending on where you stand – Gaza t-shirt of our biggest football star Mohamed Abu Treika.
In the game against Sudan, after he scored, Abu Treika lifted his jersey to reveal in bold green letters on a white background the words Symathize with Gaza in English and Arabic.
The referee promptly flashed Abu Treika the yellow card but not before the incident triggered a firestorm of debate in favor of and against the exposure of political expression in sport. Similar incidents came to mind, like when Ghanaian player Pantsil waved a mini Israeli flag in a game in the 2006 World Cup, to show his fidelity to the Israeli soccer camps he trained in. Nobody, including the referee, lifted a finger or an eyebrow in protest.
Or what soccer players advertise on their jerseys – chips, sodas, cars. Admittedly these are paid for by the products displayed. Neither Abu Treika nor the Egyptian team nor the Egyptian federation got one piaster from the Gaza slogan.
The referee in question, Coffi Codja, was one of only two African referees (Essam Abdel-Fattah of Egypt was the other) to represent the continent in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, so he is a distinguished adjudicator by all accounts. We re sure Codja has nothing against Gaza or the Palestinians in general but was simply applying FIFA rules, which state that neither politics, nor religion nor racism should have anything to do with football. If Abu Treika or any other soccer player would like to express a certain political opinion, FIFA believes he can always talk to the press or appear on any number of TV talk shows. Abu Treika s position is that of a striker – somebody who scores goals – not on strike on the football field.
But like it or not, the sports world is strewn with political interventions, many of them coming in the biggest sports spectacle of them all, the Olympics. We saw in 1968 in Mexico John Carlos and Tommy Smith standing on the podium, black gloves encasing clinched fists raised high in support of the black civil rights movement.
The massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by PLO gunmen defined the 1972 Munich Olympics.
African countries, including Egypt, boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics in protest against South Africa and its apartheid policies.
Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Jimmy Carter s decision that the US boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics, along with around 75 allied countries.
What followed was a reciprocal tit-for-tat Soviet boycott and those of its satellite states of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
What would be the state of US-China relations at present had not it all began at the ping pong table in the early 1970s?
We all sympathize with Gazans as the Israeli siege chokes them off from the rest of the world. We all want to play whatever part we can to help not just Gazans but all Palestinians suffering a brutal, monstrous occupation. But FIFA is understandably concerned that Abu Treika s jersey lift will open a Pandora s box. If Abu Treika was allowed to get away with it, soon you ll have footballers stripping off their jerseys to display protests at the situation in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon. The football field will soon turn into a political minefield and soccer will no longer be the main issue. As such, FIFA does not allow anything a display stronger than a Hi Mom sign.
But that doesn t mean Abu Treika was necessarily wrong. Celebrities can draw attention to a cause better than most politicians. Being arguably the third most important soccer tournament after the World Cup and the European championships, the ACN is watched by a good part of the world. Abu Treika s action was seen by millions around the world and many of those millions know next to nothing about the Palestinian problem. Thanks to Abu Treika, some of them now know.
Abu Treika most likely knew that he would get cautioned for his efforts. And he knows he will not be able to lift his jersey again for that would mean another yellow card and automatic suspension for one game which would be a big loss since Egypt has reached the delicate and definitive quarter-finals.
It s a good thing Abu Treika scored; had he not we might not ever have seen his Gaza t-shirt. He certainly would not have received a yellow card, but we think the caution was worth it when compared with the publicity Gaza got. And actually, Abu Treika received what was probably the best card he ever received in his life.