Palestine and Football: Solidarity, Protest and Resistance

From its roots in the British working class to the presence of the Palestinian team in the Asian Cup, football has always been more than a game of twenty-two players. The history of football is rooted in the team, the club and the community, all of which have been symbols of unity, identity, solidarity and comradeship, indicative of community cohesion and emblematic of political affiliation and resistance. However, following the billionaires’ appropriation of the game since the mid-2000s and the emergence of the celebrity player, football seemed to lose its radical edge. Resistance, solidarity and identity became introspective as the loyal supporters of many English clubs demonstrated their opposition to owners who showed little regard for the community, the club or the game. Whilst these internal struggles remain at some clubs, recent years have seen a resurgence of football as site of political protest. For the Palestinian team, however, football has always been a symbol of resistance.

After several spirited performances, and before Palestine exited the Asian Cup, the team garnered huge support from thousands of non-Palestinian football fans who recognised that their support for the team involved a political expression that went beyond football. What they may not have realised was that the very existence of the Palestinian team has always been an act of political resistance. Established in 1928, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), was renamed the Israel Football Association with the colonial state’s formation in 1948. Fifty years after the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, during which thousands of Palestinians were killed and three quarters of a million displaced by the formation of the Israeli State, the PFA was re-formed.

The day before the Asian Cup began in Qatar, Palestinian striker Mahmoud Wadi learned that his cousin had been killed in Gaza. The players representing Palestine in the Asian Cup had not only survived Israel’s repeated attacks on their homeland, but were painfully aware that for every one of them representing Palestine on the field, dozens of other Palestinian players had been killed or maimed. They include: midfielder Tariq al Quto, who was killed in 2004; Ayman Alkurdi, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtaha, all killed in 2009, along with Saji Darwish who was killed by an Israeli sniper; and Ahed Zaqout, who in 2014 was slain in an airstrike. The same year, as they left a training session, Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abd Al Raouf Halabiya were stopped at an Israeli checkpoint and shot in the feet by Israeli soldiers. This single act of cynical, unfettered power epitomises the ruthless brutality of the Israeli war machine and its intention to end the dreams of the Palestinian people.

Although few may know of the long history of the oppression of the Palestinian people, many millions around the world can see how the Israeli State is currently perpetrating daily atrocities by bombing people in their homes, destroying ambulances carrying wounded people to medical facilities, and attacking hospitals, schools, refugee camps and places of worship. They can see how Israel is herding people like animals into ever-smaller enclaves and depriving them of food, water and medicines, and they can see that the ultimate intent is to break the back and spirit of an entire population.

While Western Governments offer unconditional support to Israel and critics are labelled ‘anti-Semitic’, people on the ground are filling the streets of cities around the world each week with chants and placards of protest. Football too is standing up on the terraces. Despite a Premier League ban on flags in October 2023, Liverpool fans held aloft a number of Palestinian flags, along with a large banner that read For God’s Sake Save Gaza. Even more impressive was the support for the Palestinians shown by Celtic fans, who also defied a ban to display a ‘sea’ of Palestinian flags during a Champion’s League game in November 2023. Amongst the flags, Celtic’s ‘Green Brigade’ unfurled large banners that read Free Palestine and Victory to the Resistance.

Some working-class football clubs are now expressing counter-hegemonic, empathic solidarity with other oppressed people, of whom the Palestinian people are the most acute example. Perhaps, in some quarters, football is returning to being more than just a game and the plaything of the super-rich. Perhaps the Palestinian flag on the terraces of some British football clubs marks a return to the principles of unity, solidarity and comradeship: an emblem of political affiliation and resistance.

About the author

Paul Gardner

Paul Gardner is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Curtin University and is Vice-President of the Western Australian Institute for Educational Research.

More articles by Paul Gardner

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