Could soccer save Palestine by moving the World Cup to Gaza?

December 01, 2014

Could the World Cup, the planet’s most popular event, be the key to turn the focus in Gaza away from conflict with Israel and the lure of radical Islam?


[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach a piece of mine that appears in the print edition of the British paper The Guardian today. The idea may seem far-fetched at first, but if carried out (and I realize that is a very long shot), it could actually help distract people’s attention from the conflict with Israel and weaken Hamas’s power, while building an infrastructure to improve significantly daily life for ordinary Gazans.

Many people on both sides of the divide may not like this idea. But before submitting my piece, I ran it by both Palestinian and Israeli friends of mine and both sets of friends said they really liked the idea (a rare meeting of minds between the two peoples…)


A modest proposal: Qatar could win by letting Gaza host the World Cup

* Handing over the tournament voluntarily would allow the emirate to save face and play a lead role in bringing the Middle East together

By Tom Gross
The Guardian
December 1, 2014

The controversy surrounding the decision to allow Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, seems only to keep growing. Sunday brought revelations of a dossier of new allegations. There’s the allegedly corrupt means by which Qatar is rumoured to have “bought” the tournament, the deaths of more than 2,000 migrant workers who have toiled in slave-like conditions and, of course, Qatar’s weather. The tournament is to be held in summer when temperatures routinely soar above 40 degrees
centigrade, posing risks to the players as well as to millions of visiting fans.

Many people feel Qatar should not host the tournament. But how to bring this about with Qatar’s consent, without the emirate losing face – such an important consideration in the Arab world – and bringing multiple legal challenges?

Here’s one idea: Qatar should take the high ground by announcing that it will heed calls by an outgoing Fifa official for the tournament to be moved to other Arab lands. It should give the World Cup to Gaza. And Qatar should pay for it too.

The idea is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Gaza’s key problem is not money, but rule by militant Islamism, combined with hopelessness. Indeed, Gaza has received billions in aid over the years – but its corrupt Hamas rulers have never shared this properly with the population. The Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, among others, flies around in a Qatari-provided private jet. Recently Forbes rated Hamas “the second richest terrorist group in the world” – poorer than Isis but considerably richer than the Taliban and other groups.

As long as Hamas maintains its grip on the territory Israel will respond with force. So how to prevent the next Gaza war? For the first time in history almost the entire Arab world backed Israel – albeit tacitly – in last summer’s campaign against Hamas. The one exception was Qatar (as well as non-Arab regimes in Turkey and Iran).

And consider this. Football is almost a secular religion for millions of people throughout the world. I know from my own visits there that Gaza is no exception. (Readers may have noticed from photos during the recent conflict how many Gazans were wearing the shirts of leading European teams.)

What other force is great enough to pull Gazans from the lure of Hamas, restore a sense of pride and purpose, create thousands of jobs, and direct billions of dollars into the territory – to be used to transform the strip into a prime Mediterranean tourist hub? Hamas would, of course, object but football is such a powerful force in Gazan society that it would be hard even for its leadership to justify to its own people its continued focus on jihadi activities.

Such an idea may sound implausible at first, but only if you disregard other historical examples of the healing power of football. For example, the “Miracle of Berne” in 1954 when West Germany won the World Cup, a victory that played a role in reviving the country and accelerating its economic recovery. “In the days after the game,” Uli Hesse, the respected German journalist, wrote, “the country celebrated like seldom before and never since.”

Gaza is a small territory, but so is Qatar, whose population is smaller than Gaza’s. And if Gaza is too small to host all the matches, why not also allow Ramallah, Cairo and even Tel Aviv to host a few. The 2022 final should be played in Gaza, of course, and Gazans could rejoice in this, after decades of perceived humiliation. I suspect Israelis – so long as security was not an issue – would welcome the idea with great enthusiasm. It would, one hopes, buy eight years of quiet, economic development and reconstruction in which the focus in Gaza could be taken off conflict with Israel and radical Islamism. An unusual idea? Perhaps. But can anyone think of a better one?


This piece is also now on the Marker, the sister website of Haaretz:


(Readers’ comments on The Guardian website – and there are some quite amusing ones – are now closed until tomorrow morning. Unlike some other media, The Guardian employs staff in the daytime to ensure any racist or anti-Semitic readers’ comments are removed quickly.)


* If you “like” these dispatches on my public Facebook page here, you can also find other Mideast-related items that are not in these dispatches.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.