SS Lazio's fans display a banner that reads, "Free Palestine" during the Europa League soccer match against Tottenham at the Olympic stadium in Rome 22 November 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Tony Gentile)
We, as European football players, express our solidarity with the people of Gaza who are living under siege and denied basic human dignity and freedom. The latest Israeli bombardment of Gaza, resulting in the death of over a hundred civilians, was yet another stain on the world's conscience.
We are informed that on 10 November 2012 the Israeli army bombed a sports stadium in Gaza, resulting in the death of four young people playing football...
It is unacceptable that children are killed while they play football. Israel hosting the UEFA Under-21 European Championship, in these circumstances, will be seen as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values.
Despite the recent ceasefire, Palestinians are still forced to endure a desperate existence under occupation, they must be protected by the international community. All people have the right to a life of dignity, freedom and security.The above are excerpts from a petition published on the website of Malian football star Frédéric Oumar Kanouté. It was addressed to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) in order to protest its holding next June’s European Under-21 tournament in Israel. The statement was endorsed by 62 players from leading clubs throughout Europe, including Eden Hazard of Belgium and Chelsea, and Frenchmen Abou Diaby of Arsenal and Jérémy Ménez of Paris Saint-Germain. (Ivorian striker Didier Drogba was initially listed among the signatories, but later denied supporting the petition.)
A photo was also published of players who signed the statement holding a banner saying “no” to Israel’s hosting of the tournament and wearing shirts emblazoned with the word “Palestine.”
This is not the first time that Kanouté, who spearheaded the petition, has taken a stand for justice. In January 2009, after scoring a goal for his former club Sevilla in a Spanish cup match, he lifted his jersey to reveal a t-shirt with “Palestine” written on it in several languages. He was yellow-carded and subsequently fined for conveying a political message.
Kanouté’s aim at the time, while Israel was in the midst of its bloody Operation Cast Lead on Gaza, was to alert the world to the injustice inflicted on the Palestinians. Two years on, and after another military Israeli assault, it would seem he has achieved some success, at least within the footballing world.
Subsequently, Marcelo Vieira, the Brazilian star of the Real Madrid defense, caused a stir when he posted a message of support for the Palestinian struggle against Israel on his Facebook page.
Argentine legend Diego Maradona acted in kind when he was filmed donning a black-and-white Palestinian scarf that had been given to him by an Arab fan while he was coaching the UAE side al-Wasl. Turning to the camera, he made a victory sign and chanted “Viva Palestine!”
Another great, former France and Manchester United star Eric Cantona, stood up earlier this year for Palestinian footballers detained without trial by Israel during player Mahmoud Sarsak’s 90-day hunger strike in protest at his three-year incarceration. Cantona campaigned on their behalf, and fiercely condemned UEFA, which is headed by his compatriot Michel Platini, for ignoring the issue and letting Israel host the under-21 tournament, writing: "Racism, human rights abuses, and gross violations of international law are daily occurrences in that country. It is time to end Israel's impunity and to insist on the same standards of equality, justice, and respect for international law that we demand of other states."
After Israel’s latest pounding of Gaza, Real Madrid’s Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo donated 1.5 million euros to help Palestinian children. Germany’s Mesut Özil voiced his solidarity with the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, and his anguish at the killing by Israeli forces of 12-year-old Hamid Abu-Dagga as he was playing football wearing a replica of Özil’s jersey. Arturo Vidal of Juventus – whose native Chile is home to a large Palestinian community and even has a first-division football club named Palestino – for his part tweeted his support for the Palestinian cause with the words: "No to Zionism and Israel! Free Palestine! That's a thought shared by me and all my mates."
Such sentiments have increasingly been expressed not just by football players in Europe, but also by fans of some clubs, notably Scotland’s Celtic and Lazio, Roma and Livorno in Italy.
The word of football, it would seem, is increasingly failing to conform to stereotype. It is about more than merely kicking about a ball, or stars basking in fame and fortune. Some of them, at least, appreciate that it can play an important and powerful part in promoting just human causes, Palestine included. For that, they deserve our appreciation.