Only A Game? - UEFA support of Israel U21 finals is shameful

Eden Hazard, Chelsea
Eden Hazard, Chelsea

European football’s governing body, UEFA, have again shown just how out of touch they are.

The final of the UEFA Under-21 European Championships will take place in the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on Tuesday but a few miles away in Gaza there are children suffering as a direct result of the Israeli armed forces.

When it comes to big sport events such as the World Cup and the Olympics ,there are always going to be those who will criticise the governing body’s decision to award it to a specific country or region.

If you are French then lament the Olympic Organising Committee’s decision to host the 2012 Games in London.

Paris was in direct competition with London for the rights to host the competition but that’s just about sour grapes and that’s where it ends.

Israel is a completely different animal altogether.

There can be no getting away from the fact that Israel has committed some heinous acts on the people of Palestine. Countless innocent men, women and children have been killed by the Israeli military over the years but for some reason UEFA still felt the time was right to let Israel host the most significant football tournament in the country’s history.

The whole point of football tournaments such as the U21 European Championships is that it brings people from all nations together.

Inclusion flies in the face of Israeli policy as they don’t recognise Palestine as a sovereign nation - their reaction at the United Nations last year when Palestine was recognised as a non-member observer state was nothing short of shameful.

The Netherlands U21s beat the German U21 3-2 on June 6 (only ten days ago). On the very same day, an United Nations independent expert said any attempt to distort the facts was to move away from the reality that Israel’s actions are endangering the lives of Palestinians every day.

Special Rapporteur Richard Falk said: “Neither Israel nor its proxies can justify the facts on the ground in occupied Palestine.

“So they distract, distort and defame to allow the violations to go on.

“Israel continues to annex Palestinian territory; Israel persists in demolishing Palestinians’ homes and populating Palestine with Israeli citizens; Israel maintains a policy of collectively punishing 1.75 million Palestinians through its imposition of a blockade on the Gaza Strip; and Israel prosecutes its occupation with impunity, refusing to accept the world’s calls to respect international law,” he said.

Richard Falk is independent. That’s not up for discussion. He has no vested interest in lambasting Israel. He’s calling it as he sees it so why can’t UEFA do the same?

Instead, UEFA have chosen to become just another one of what Falk describes as ‘Israel’s proxies’.

It’s beyond belief that a football governing body with as much clout and power as UEFA can get away with something like this.

Essentially, what they are saying is, you know what Israel, you might be killing innocent men, women and children in occupied Palestine but that’s ok with us, just make sure the football is good and we’ll be happy.

Where will it end? Will the 2026 World Cup finals take place in Syria or maybe UEFA could try and make amends by giving the next Under-21 European Championships to not-so- liberal Belarus.

Whether they like it or not, UEFA have a responsibility. When taking the decision to award a European finals competition to any country the organising committee have to take into account the financial reward the country will enjoy as a direct result.

Over 100,000 football fans have travelled from all over Europe to attend the finals in Israel.

So while Israelis are getting rich on UEFA’s decision to award the country with the finals, innocent men, women and children in occupied Palestine are without the most basic of medical supplies.

I am not alone in my disdain for UEFA’s decision to give the finals to Israel. A number of high profile footballers have signalled their frustration also.

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Arsenal’s Abou Diaby and Paris Saint-Germain’s Jeremy Menez were among those who argued the tournament would be “seen as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values” but the Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu summed it up perfectly when he said UEFA was acting to ‘whitewash’ Israeli racism.

There’s a discussion to be had here and UEFA must start giving answers to tough questions otherwise isolating groups of people will not be something exclusive to Israel.