Skip to main content

Sports solidarity for Ukraine but not for Palestine

Solidarity for Ukraine, silence on Palestine: FIFA and IOC's so-called 'neutrality'
7 min read
09 December, 2022
While FIFA and the IOC profess to promote "neutrality" and insist "sports and politics shouldn't mix" when it comes to Israel's egregious violations of Palestinian human rights, they have leapt to enact sanctions against Russia. Why?

The blatant political double standards of both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have once again raised questions about the values and principles they claim to be devoted to upholding worldwide.  

Why were Russian football teams banned by FIFA as a response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine? Why did Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine – and his coach, Amar Benikhlef – receive a 10-year suspension from the IOC for refusing to face an Israeli opponent? Why such different responses from these two major international sports organisations with regard to Ukraine and Palestine?

FIFA: A discriminatory approach to "neutrality"

The importance of separating sport from politics is mentioned in the FIFA Legal Handbook which was updated in 2022. Article 4 states that FIFA will remain "neutral in matters of politics" and says:

Article 15 reiterates the necessity that member associations stay out of politics and prohibit discrimination. However, the FIFA and IOC practice discrimination themselves when it comes to which political situations they choose to remain neutral in, and which they will violate this regulation for, with the pretext of "making an exception."

Arsenal and Leicester City fans hold a Ukraine flag reading 'Football Stands Together' to show solidarity with Ukraine prior to a Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City in March 2022 [Catherine Ivill/Getty]

Regarding the Russia-Ukraine war, FIFA imposed sanctions on Russian teams and athletes because of their country's aggression against its neighbour. In stark contrast, when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, athletes who have shown political support for Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation have been punished with fines, and sometimes banned.

Suspension a response to Russian aggression, not Israeli

Many of the illegal settlements Israel has established across the West Bank since 1967 – in violation of international law - are home to football clubs. The Palestinian Football Association has long argued that these clubs should be banned from competing internationally. Jibril Rajoub, president of the Palestinian Football Association, said:

 "There have been Israeli clubs registered with the Israeli Football Association and registered in the occupied Palestinian territories since 1967. This violates the laws of the United Nations, but FIFA does nothing."

After Russia invaded Ukraine, FIFA and UEFA suspended Russia from all international competitions. Formula One also cancelled all its races in Russia in response to the Russia-Ukraine war. Ukraine's blue and yellow flag was suddenly on display everywhere in Premier League matches as fans, footballers and managers were given permission by the FA to show their solidarity.

Solidarity for some

On the other hand, Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine was suspended from international competitions by the IOC for 10 years for refusing to face his Israeli opponent in the Tokyo Olympic Games last year. FIFA, too, clearly considers the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to have no place in sports.

UEFA, governed by FIFA, has repeatedly issued hefty fines to Celtic football club and others, for fans' waving of Palestinian flags at matches to show solidarity with Palestinians.

The IOC, for its part, couldn't have moved more swiftly to show solidarity with Ukraine. In February this year, the same month Russia invaded, the IOC's Executive Board (EB) approved several decisions to prevent Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials from participating in any international sporting event.

The IOC statement also advised: "Wherever this is not possible on short notice for organisational or legal reasons, the IOC EB strongly urges international sports federations and organisers of sports events worldwide to do everything in their power to ensure that … Russian or Belarusian nationals, be it as individuals or teams, should be accepted only as neutral athletes or neutral teams. No national symbols, colours, flags or anthems should be displayed."

Israel obstructs Palestine football to FIFA silence

In 2019, in yet another display of double standards, FIFA took no action against Israel for preventing the FIFA Palestine Cup finals from taking place by refusing to allow Gazan players permission to travel to the stadium for the event.

The above examples prove that supposedly neutral sports institutions are very willing to take political stances, but that their decision to do so is influenced by the international political climate and their interests – and they rank the importance of a political situation based on these factors.

For the Palestinian people, sport is a tool with which they can establish their presence in the international arena and convey to the rest of the world the kind of existential threat they face every day.

Ukraine faced the same type of threat when it was invaded by one of the major world powers, which caused heavy losses to that nation and deep suffering. However, Ukraine has been vocally supported by international sporting bodies in contrast to Palestinians, who have been deprived of their rights to deafening silence and inaction from those same bodies.  

Palestinian lives: Cheaper than those in the West?

Palestinian midfielder Mohammed Rashid, who plays for the Indonesian club Persip Bandung, refused to stand with his team behind a banner stating "Stop War", in reference to Ukraine.

He explained: "I am against any war in any country, but people are dying every day in Palestine, Syria and Yemen. When war breaks out in a Western country, everyone stands with it, but when people die in Palestine, we are not allowed to demonstrate and stand in solidarity – or we are accused of mixing politics with sports. This makes us feel like our lives are cheaper than those in the West."

When Israel escalated its assault on the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem in mid-2021, with the state attempting to forcibly evict Palestinian residents in violation of international law, followed by a military bombardment of neighbourhoods and residential areas in Gaza, neither FIFA nor the IOC made any statement or expressed an opinion - they consider the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to have no place in sports.

Both institutions clearly and openly responded to the Russia-Ukraine conflict as though its specific circumstances merited exceptional treatment in line with their regulations – which do stipulate that the bodies may make "exceptions". But these exceptions are never made for Palestine, where, by the end of November, Defence for Children International Palestine (DCIP) reported that 33 children had been shot and killed by Israeli forces or settlers since the start of 2022 alone.

Palestine: Forever the exception

Despite FIFA and IOC statements as to how sports and politics shouldn't mix, countless political measures have been taken by international sporting federations. From FIFA's suspension of South Africa during apartheid to the boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to banning Russian teams and players because their country started a war today.

It is the Palestinian case which is forever the exception – the only case in which those showing solidarity with the oppressed are penalised and suspended from sporting competitions, with Fethi Nourine being the most prominent recent example.

Solidarity with Ukraine has been treated as a humanitarian necessity, and a patriotic duty, and sends a clear message about the importance of political stances in the arena of sports. However, this humanitarian "duty" is absent when it comes to Palestine, with the Palestine-Israel conflict given a wide berth.

Clearly, FIFA and the IOC do try to separate sports from politics, but only in specific circumstances, like with Palestine, where international sports institutions are anxious to avoid even expressing an opinion.

This is in line with their political interests within the international arena: they are aware that expressing a view contrary to the policy of the US (and its allies) could expose them to risks like boycotts by Israel's supporters and international lobbyists, especially in the US.

They are fully aware that the so-called "independence" and "neutrality" of international institutions, both sporting and otherwise, when it comes to political matters, is a malleable concept, which ultimately depends on the stance taken by the world's only superpower.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition with additional reporting. To read the original article click here.

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

Have questions or comments? Email us at: