World Football in Focus - Bin Hammam Exclusive: Onus on Israel to Free Players

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The match at Faisal Husseini stadium in the West Bank town of al-Ram between Ramallah and Jerusalem was the first international to be hosted on Palestinian home soil (Getty)
(WFI) Asian Football Confederation President and FIFA Presidential hopeful Mohamed Bin Hammam tells INSIDER that this week’s first competitive international on Palestinian soil is “an historic moment for Asian football” and that he hopes it makes a difference in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Speaking in Ramallah, Bin Hammam added that Israel had a huge responsibility to allow Palestinian footballers freedom of movement, both in their home country and overseas.

“I would like to support the Palestinian athletes, especially the footballers, to gain their independence and gain their own character,” Bin Hammam told INSIDER.

“We hope of course by sport we can overcome the political differences between Arabs and Israelis.

“I hope the match Israeli officials and supporters watch the match and we can build the bridges between national associations and sports people.”

Bin Hammam cancelled a much-publicised conference appearance in Doha to witness the match between Palestine and Thailand’s Olympic teams. Palestine won 1-0 on the night, but lost on penalties with the scores tied 1-1 over two legs.

Besides the disappointing result, the match was undermined by Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian players cross from one occupied territory - Gaza - to another - the West Bank. The Palestinian FA requested 12 players be allowed to make the short but obstacle laden journey, but just four were allowed to pass..

When contacted by INSIDER, the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs would not comment on the banned players, only confirming the number that had been allowed to cross.

“It is a big issue for the AFC,” Bin Hammam admitted.

“Through FIFA we are trying to correspond and encourage FIFA to take actions. But so far there is very little. I think Palestinians playing here on their soils we’ll be demanding much, much more than we used to do in the past.”

The issue infuriated the Palestinians, whose manager said that five of the banned players would have played a role in Wednesday’s game.

“Politics has nothing to do with sport,” said Palestinian FA President Jibril Rajoub.

“The Israelis are using this as an excuse, which is false and baseless, just to justify their irrational ideology to our Palestinian athletes.

“Even people coming from outside are facing these difficulties.”

Indeed they did. INSIDER was detained at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport for two hours without explanation on Monday night. Even Bin Hammam – with his diplomatic passport – was stopped for a similar period.

“I spent at least maybe one and a half, two hours delayed on the borders. [It was] delays for nothing,” said Bin Hammam.

“If I am the president of a confederation and holding a diplomatic passport and held to be a responsible person and this is the way they are dealing with me, how do they treat people living under occupation?”

The issue over players not being allowed to join their Palestinian teammates was the key one that emerged from this week’s game.

“Because we don’t meet all the time it is hard to create a proper harmony between the team,” said defender Nadeem Basem Barghot. He left the field in tears at the end of the match.

Israel’s greatest player Mordechai Spiegler, who played alongside Pele at the New York Cosmos and scored Israel’s only World Cup finals goal in 1970, was one of the few Israeli faces at the match in Ramallah, having come to show his solidarity.

He said that he hoped things would improve, but that most Israelis were powerless in the teeth of such obstructions.

“We know about the situation, but it all belongs to the decision makers,” he said.

“We are citizens we are not making the decisions. We cannot tell our leaders what to do.

“We are witnesses and I hope that one day it will be better, that time will make the situation better. We know about the difficulties. We are human. We have to listen, to explain, to understand.”

With revolutions sweeping the Middle East, Bin Hammam said that it was a region where things could happen quickly or unexpectedly. He added that in the long term, the 2022 World Cup could help break down barriers across the region.

“The vision of Qatar 2022 is peace in the Middle East, and Palestine and the Israelis is the best example of where we’d like to see that -- this World Cup changing the lives of youth for the two nations,” he said.

“We wish for the World Cup in Qatar that the people of the Middle East see that we are holding something valuable and cooperate together in a good way to make this a success.”

In the short term he said that Palestine’s long-suffering footballers needed to make the best of a bad situation, but that they would have his full support. He said that he would ensure that all AFC sanctioned matches and competitions involving Palestinian teams would be played on their own soil.

“There is suffering and misery on the borders,” he said. “But these things shouldn’t stop us.”

By INSIDER’s James Corbett

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