In this devastating three-week monster aggression, as the Palestinian death toll jumps over 1,100, almost half of them women and children, the profligate of bloodshed from Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip has forced one athlete to take action. Then action was taken against him.
In his desire to express support for Palestine, Frederic Kanoute committed what is seen in some quarters as the ultimate sin: He displayed a black T-shirt on which the word “Palestine was printed in several languages. The Mali striker had lifted his Sevilla shirt over his head to reveal the ‘P’ word after scoring in the team’s Copa del Rey win over Deportivo La Coruna.
For showing he cares about the Palestinians, Kanoute was flashed the yellow card by the referee and was fined by the Spanish Football Federation somewhere in the neighborhood of $4,000.
Kanoute’s action and the reaction induced an instant flashback of a similar incident, in similar circumstances, involving our Egyptian football star Mohamed Abou-Trika showcasing his sentiments in last year’s Africa Cup of Nations. After he scored against Sudan, Abou-Trika lifted his jersey to reveal in bold green letters on a white background the words “Sympathizing with Gaza in English and Arabic. The referee promptly showed Abou-Trika the yellow card but not before the incident triggered a firestorm of debate in favor of and against the exposure, not of a T-shirt, but of political expression in sport.
FIFA deems lifting your jersey above your head unsportsmanlike behavior and must be met with a yellow card. But in addition, FIFA also flatly prohibits the entrance of politics, religion or racism into soccer. If Abou-Trika or Kanoute or any other soccer player would like to express a certain political opinion, FIFA hopes they would do so far from the pitch. Abou-Trika and Kanoute are strikers on the field; FIFA believes they should not be on strike on the field.
FIFA is understandably concerned that jerseys which display the political sentiments of their bearers in public will open a Pandora’s Box of footballers stripping off their jerseys to protest against anything, everything, everywhere, no matter how righteous the cause. The football field, it is predicted, will soon turn into a political minefield.
However, the powers that be in FIFA should show more compassion, or at least slightly bend the rules, or at the very least not draw up a set of rules for one episode, then scratch them out for another. 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 FIFA and the referee, lifted a finger or an eyebrow in protest.
Kanoute and Abou-Trika were not advertising cars or soda pop or potato chips, but a deliberate massacre of innocents while the rest are being pummeled into submission. To be sure, Kanoute did not do what he did to extol violence; even Israel’s ambassador in Madrid, who saw the Kanoute match, submitted to that belief. If anything, Kanoute sought to staunch more blood.
When Abou-Trika showed off his T-shirt last year, Gaza was under economic siege. Its people were being choked off from the rest of the world. It was strangulation without killing. Now, during Kanoute’s time, it is both. Israel is endlessly bombarding a densely populated tiny piece of land, whose inhabitants have nowhere to flee and a thousand of whom have now perished, with several thousands more maimed and wounded. All the while, the death toll of Palestinians rises inexorably. Gazans are not just living in an open prison; they are trapped in a shooting gallery.
We all sympathize with Gaza and we all want to play whatever part we can to help not just Gazans but all Palestinians suffering a brutal occupation.
Sometimes we want to help in whatever small way we can, but even that can be too much. You would have been prevented by security from entering Cairo Stadium last week to see the Ahly-Zamalek derby had you had in your possession a Palestinian flag.
For us, the pain of watching Gaza’s agony is multiple. Not just because Palestinians are our kin. Not only because we have seen it all before, generation after generation. Not solely because all the waves of global opprobrium have failed to stop the killing. But also because we have been able to do very little to relieve the suffering. And when we do try, we are punished.