Do sporting boycotts of occupied Palestine help or hurt Palestinian sport?

Do sporting boycotts of occupied Palestine help or hurt Palestinian sport?
Lebanon's Nejmeh refused to enter the occupied West Bank, forfeiting its match to Hilal al-Quds, as derbies played out across the region.
5 min read
02 Apr, 2019
Palestinian champions Hilal al-Quds have been let down by Arab teams refusing to play [Getty]
It's been a while since the Middle Eastern football scene faced such a busy weekend.

Derbies - crucial and roiling matches symbolising fierce rivalries - took place one after the other in a rare combination of fixtures.

It started on Friday evening with an exciting match in Sharjah, UAE, where the local club continued a terrific season with victory against second-in-the-table Al-Jazira.

Some 18,000 fans at the Sharjah Stadium saw Igor Coronado score two penalties in the first ten minutes, with Khalfan Mubarak scoring one back for Abu Dhabi-based Al-Jazira.

Mohamed Shehi nailed Sharjah's third, with Fares Jumaa getting one back to make it 3-2. A decisive win for the Century Club from Sharjah that takes them closer to a first title since 1996.

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the local derby pitted Al-Nassr, the second in the table, and Al-Hilal, top of the league, in a footballing volcano. Almost 70,000 fans filled the King Fahed Stadium, creating an electric atmosphere.

Morocco's Abderazzak Hamedallah scored first to put the Nassrawies ahead, but Abdullah Abulayhi soon equalised for Hilal. Brazilian centre-back Bruno Uvini scored a header in the 77th minute, but two minutes later Salem al-Dawsri scored a beautiful and rare goal to make it 2-2.

The referee added seven minutes of stoppage time - and what a finish this game had. Al-Nassr pressured Hilal, but Ali Al-Habsi stopped them again and again. A corner in the 96th minute found Uvini alone in the box, and with another header, the Brazilian sent the ball into the back of the net - 3-2 to Al-Nassr, putting the club above Nassr to top the table and in pole position for winning the title with just five match days to the end of the season.

In Qatar, Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail met for a derby which turned out to be the game of the season

On Saturday, Tehran was fixated on Azadi Stadium, with Persepolis and Esteghlal playing the local derby - one of the greatest rivalries in Asia. This time it was also an important match in terms of the league - with four clubs in the running for the title - the capital's rivals alongside Tractor Sazi and Sepahan.

It took Persepolis twenty minutes to get on the scoresheet, with Ahmad Nourollahi scoring the first and only goal of the match.

In Qatar, Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail met for a derby which turned out to be the game of the season - a victory for Al-Sadd would have clinched the Qatari title. It started fine for Sadd with a goal from Baghdad Bounedjah - who if not him? But Youssef al-Arabi, Duhail's Moroccan striker, had oher ideas. With a stunning brace, Al-Arabi led the reigning champions to a 2-1 lead.

In stoppage time, Al-Sadd were more lucky than durable. The Whites enjoyed an own goal by Murad Naji on the 95th minute to level the score, 2-2. Al-Sadd will have to wait another week to complete their quest of winning the Qatari title.

In Israel, Maccabi Tel Aviv hosted their arch-rivals Maccabi Haifa for a coronation match.

In an unattractive match, Tel Aviv scored through Aaron Schonfeld's shoulder to five Vladimir Ivic's squad a 1-0 advantage, which they kept until the end.

Winning the title in March means Maccabi Tel Aviv's championship is the earliest title ever settled in Israeli football. Furthermore, they are the first team in the world to win a domestic title in the 2018/19 season.

On Sunday, Beitar Jerusalem hosted Ittihad Abnaa Sakhnin for the El Politico of Israeli football. But a dull game saw the two teams leave the field after a 0-0 draw, in what was most likely to be the last match between these two great rivals for some time.

Sakhnin is going through their worst season in years, replacing six coaches, sat alone at the bottom of the table.

Who's supporting the Palestinian cause?

On Monday, Nejmeh, the Lebanese club, was supposed to play Palestinian champions Hilal Al-Quds at the Faisal Husseini Stadium in Al-Ram near Jerusalem, as part of the AFC Cup group stage.

As expected, Nejmeh refused to travel to the occupied West Bank, as have many Lebanese and Middle Eastern teams in years past. Lebanon's law declares a Lebanese citizen can't enter the occupied Palestinian Territories for sporting or cultural activities. It counts this as an act of "normalisation" with the political situation in these areas and with the state of Israel.

In past years this boycott was seen as an act of solidarity by Arab football teams, but for Hilal Al-Quds and Palestinian football, it's no longer that simple. Palestinian football is on the path of progress. After a long wait of more than 60 years to be accepted as a FIFA member, and 20 years waiting to be allowed to host international matches on home soil, recent years have seen a massive boost for Palestinian football.

The UAE, Oman, Pakistan, Timor Leste, Al-Shorta, Al-Quwa Al-Jawia, Al-Muharraq, Al-Suwaiq and Fanja have all come to play in Palestine.

Last month, Al-Wehdat, another high-profile Arab team, arrived in Jerusalem to play against Hilal Al-Quds in the AFC Cup.

A representative of Nejmeh's management said the Palestinians' approach was 'wrong, disrespectful and unacceptable'

In response to Nejmeh's boycott, Hilal Al-Quds management has demanded the Asian Football Confederation give the Palestinian club the full points and a paper victory of 3-0 as a result of the Lebanese forfeit.

Their claim, according to the club's officials, is that Hilal as a club - and Palestinian football as a whole - has to grow and advance. Sticking to such blinkered stances won't help the process.

In an interview with Al-Kass TV, a representative of Nejmeh's management said the Palestinians' approach was "wrong, disrespectful and unacceptable". He also tried to throw Syria's Al-Jaish into the discussion, mentioning that they wouldn't be showing up in Al-Ram either.

Due to their country's security situation, the Syrians are hosting in Bahrain, and Hilal is so far willing to accept that compromise.

Fans on both sides, the Lebanese and the Palestinians, are supporting and criticising the boycott/forfeit at the same time. Images went viral on Lebanese social media showing Hilal's logo - with Al-Aqsa - but with a kippah and a Star of David.

The important question remains whether the Palestinian cause that Nejmeh is claiming to support is no longer helping Palestinian sports to grow?

The solution seems far away, with the AFC yet to make any specific statement or a decision on the matter.

As time goes by, it seems things only will get worse for Palestinian football without a long-term resolution.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here.