When considering the role of football in Palestine, it’s crucial to understand the broader impact that arts, culture and leisure can have on occupied and subjugated peoples.
With regards to Palestine specifically, football is the biggest sport nationally, both recreationally but also professionally. It’s one of the few arenas where Palestine is recognised as a state, something which is symbolically very significant to Palestinians.
Just as resistance is often demonstrated through culture via art, music, literature, having and supporting the Palestinian national team is a crucial part of their resistance.
Football is an avenue through which they are able to narrate their own collective memory and affirm their existence, which is perhaps the most visible form of resistance for occupied people.
Israel has a long history of explicitly targeting Palestinian football precisely because of this. From bombing football stadiums and destroying infrastructure, detaining professional footballers under administrative detention to shooting the feet of footballers who are passing through checkpoints, it has been a constant battleground.
The story of Mahmoud Sarsak, a footballer who went on hunger strike while detained by Israel became fairly well known when high profile members of the football community including Eric Cantona publicly called for his release.
As well as being an important part of their resistance, football is something that unifies those living under occupation along with those in the diaspora. The national team is representative of Palestinians living all over the world and serves to unify even those whose political affiliations may vary.
Despite the significance of football to Palestinians, it’s crucial that we also recognise the ways in which football can be used to depoliticise the occupation and perpetuate the narrative that both sides are equal in this conflict.
Recently, Barcelona attempted to have a “peace match” between Israel and Palestine, which was a gross misrepresentation of the situation. Additionally, western NGOs often use sport programmes with children and young people in the West Bank to sanitise the occupation.
There is no level playing field for Palestinians and trying to erase the politics of their suffering only serves to help the oppressor.
More broadly, I think we have to take a step back from valorising football both in Palestine and generally. Although it is a brilliant and universal hook to connect with people and harness collective power, it is still a sport that reproduces the same hetero-patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy prevalent in the rest of society.
I think when we consider the use of football as a useful tool to break boundaries and engage with people, we also have to recognise the complicity of how the industry of football perpetuates inequality.