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The beautiful game: a history of whitewashing international crimes 

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In the summer of 1978, at the height of Argentina’s brutal right-wing dictatorship, the 11th FIFA World Cup took place amidst an outcry over granting legitimacy to a state that is now known to have been responsible for the disappearances of around 30,000 people.  With the world watching aghast at the atrocities taking place in the country, a growing movement emerged which argued that it would be wrong to reward a state that was carrying out such large-scale human rights abuses with the honour of hosting the world’s most prestigious sporting event.  Many countries debated whether they should boycott the competition, with the Netherlands prominently leading this charge.

Although a mass boycott did not materialise, and the Netherlands did ultimately send its team, two of the biggest football superstars of the time – Johan Cruyff (Netherlands) and Paul Breitner (West Germany) – refused to travel to Argentina to play in the tournament.  Despite Cruyff later appearing to cast doubt over his motives for doing so, he is reported to have said at the time: “How can you play football a thousand metres from a torture centre?”.  Regardless of the reasons, both Cruyff’s and Breitner’s decisions were likely a source of deep worry for the Argentinian dictatorship.

For the Junta leader General Videla, the prospect of a successful World Cup on home turf was a significant opportunity to portray the regime in a positive light to the rest of the world, and to whitewash its crimes. While the regime “disappeared” thousands of people, kidnapped children from their families and tortured and imprisoned its opponents, it hoped that the goals of the Argentinian national team on the field would drown out the screams of the torture chambers. As Eduardo Galeano documents in his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow, at the tournament’s inauguration ceremony, which was attended by Videla “only kilometres from where planes threw live prisoners into the bottom of the ocean,” then-FIFA president João Havelange declared to the cameras “Finally the world can see the true image of Argentina.” The tournament became the perfect feelgood distraction both for Argentina’s ever-suffering people, and from the international community’s growing scrutiny of the regime.

Exactly 40 years later, on the eve of another World Cup, the Argentinian national team once again finds itself at the centre of controversy, as the “beautiful game” is yet again used to whitewash widescale human rights abuses and grave breaches of international law.  However, this time the Argentinian squad is refusing to participate in the propaganda show of the right- wing Israeli apartheid government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.  Under pressure from grassroots activists around the world, and the BDS movement in particular, the team announced this week that they would not be playing a planned friendly match against Israel on Saturday June 9th in the Teddy Kollek Stadium in West Jerusalem.  By cancelling the match, Lionel Messi and his teammates have stepped into the shoes of Cruyff and Beitnar, with Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain declaring that the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) has “finally done the right thing.” 

Like the Junta 40 years ago, the Israeli government understands that cultural and sporting events help whitewash its oppression and subjugation of the Palestinian people.  Saturday’s match was to be a huge public relations coup for Israel, with the game to be played in Jerusalem (moved purposefully from Haifa by the government) featuring one of the world’s greatest players.  By relocating the match to Jerusalem, the Israeli government hoped to legitimise its claims over the whole of Jerusalem as its “eternal and undivided capital”.  These claims received a major boost from US President Donald Trump last month with the moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city, effectively legitimising Israeli’s continued annexation of East Jerusalem.  This was despite the fact that, under international law, East Jerusalem is considered illegally occupied territory, and according to the international community, is intended to be the future capital of an independent Palestinian state. Furthermore, under the 1947 partition plan and UN Resolution 181, which stated that Jerusalem should be a ‘Corpus Separatum’ placed under a special international regime, Israel cannot declare legal sovereignty over any part of the city.  Argentina’s cancelation thus strikes a small but symbolic blow to Israel’s conscious attempts to normalise this illegal move and distract from its actions in Gaza, where in recent weeks over 120 Palestinian protestors have been killed and 14,000 others wounded and maimed by the Israeli army as they call for their right to return to the lands from which they and their ancestors were expelled in 1948. The Argentinian team’s decision is a sign, that contrary to Israel’s wishes, the world cannot pretend that it is business as usual.

This week’s news is all the more striking considering the close relationship between the current Argentinian government, led by Mauricio Macri, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli cabinet – both of whom share a fierce hostility towards their indigenous and minority communities.  Historically (and aside for some strained years with Kristina and Nestor Kirchner at the helm), Israel and Argentina have long had a strong relationship. For example, Israel helped to arm and train the military dictatorship even after the US had stopped arms sales and while the Junta was at war with the UK over the Falklands/Las Malvinas.  These arms sales took place despite the fact they were being used by the Junta to kill and torture its own people, including thousands of Argentinian Jews. Today, with Macri in power, Argentina not only has arguably its most right-wing leader since the Junta but also its most Israel friendly.  As recently as September last year, Netanyahu declared on a visit to Argentina that Macri was “a true friend of Israel” and that “Argentina and Israel speak the same language.”

Israeli government officials have claimed that Argentina’s decision to withdraw from Saturday’s game was done out of fear of Palestinian “terrorist” threats against Messi. Others have suggested that, had the match remained in Haifa as planned, the team would still have played.  Whatever the reason, Netanyahu understands that this is a PR disaster, with reports emerging that he called Macri personally to demand that the match take place. Macri’s response, in which he claimed that he has no power over the independent AFA, is a hollow argument. As history has shown, governments understand all too well the political power of football; and it seems that this time, Israel has breached a red line that neither its political allies nor their footballers are willing to cross.


Hussein Samih

Hussein Samih is a British Palestinian currently working for a Palestinian led human rights NGO based in London.  He studied Latin American Studies at Nottingham University for his BA, and completed an MSc in Middle East Politics from SOAS in 2015. Both his undergraduate and postgraduate research looked at the relationship between Latin American governments and the Israeli state.

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16 Responses

  1. on June 8, 2018, 6:54 pm

    Watch “Argentina: Thousands march on Israel embassy in Buenos Aires on ‘Nakba Day'” on YouTube

    • Maghlawatan on June 8, 2018, 11:22 pm

      I was in Argentina near the Brazilian border a good while ago. I wanted to get some food but I didn’t have Spanish . I asked in English, French and German. Nothing.
      Then I tried Arabic. They were from Haifa. Wallahi

      Loads of Palestinians in South America. The sha’ab.

      • on June 11, 2018, 10:27 am

        So I’ve heard. Chile is but one example. Hope those from Haifa were friendly – I have plenty of relatives there.

  2. Marnie on June 9, 2018, 2:59 am

    “As recently as September last year, Netanyahu declared on a visit to Argentina that Macri was “a true friend of Israel” and that “Argentina and Israel speak the same language.”

    Forcing friendships. Seems like he never really knows the people he targets to be friends. And of course, should Argentina turn out to be not quite so friendly, it’s because they’re antisemitic; not because they’re humanitarian.

    • Citizen on June 9, 2018, 5:31 pm

      Seems to me Netanyahu know Americans all too well; as he told his people, “The Americans are easily moved.”

      • Maghlawatan on June 10, 2018, 12:11 am

        Nitin/Milikovsky/Netanyahu is a conman. And Americans will turn on Israel when the time is right Never trust a junkie

  3. Fabio Bosco on June 9, 2018, 7:51 am

    Messi’s greatest goal on World Cup’s eve! Congrats for the article!

  4. Ossinev on June 9, 2018, 1:56 pm

    Perhaps the Yahoo and all of his war criminal fellow travellers in the only democracy etc cabinet will double down and bid for something akin to the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games. I am sure that Sheldon Addledbrain would pay for it and hey if their bids are unsucessful they will always have the eternal only chosen comfort of wailing “Anti – Semitism” and “Sporting Terrorism”.

    Then again they may recall the discomfort of the great Aryan Leader witnessing all those Untermenschen winning all the medals whilst the chosen are left with SFA.

    Now if they were to stage a Propaganda Olympics they would of course annihilate the opposition and set world records across the board in the brainwashing events.

    • Citizen on June 9, 2018, 5:32 pm

      Germany won the 1936 Olympic Games in terms of total medals won.

  5. Yasmine on June 9, 2018, 3:09 pm

    I don’t understand. Messi did not embrace BDS and Argentinian officials explained the cancellation (probably falsely) as a result of death threats from Palestinians. So how is that a win for BDS?

    • annie on June 9, 2018, 4:37 pm

      Argentina’s decision to cancel an exhibition match against the Israeli national soccer team was the result of terrorists’ death threats against star player Lionel Messi and his family, Culture Minister Miri Regev said Wednesday.

      “The game was canceled for one reason only: threats to the life of the star Messi,” Miri Regev said Wednesday night at a press conference in Tel Aviv, referencing Argentine team captain Lionel Mess

      and then there’s this, more zionist claptrap:

      In an interview with Agencia Judia de Noticias, a Jewish news service, Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie said the threats had exceeded those of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

      !!!! and, as the author Hussein Samih pointed out, they presented evidence of this:

      Images on social media showed protesters outside the team’s Barcelona practice facility waving Palestinian flags and soccer jerseys dabbed with red paint resembling bloodstains.

      Jibril Rajoub, president of the Palestinian Football Association, said Regev’s claims were exaggerated. Speaking to an Israeli TV station, he said he did not make any threats and was involved only in peaceful protests. He said it was Regev who had politicized the match and emphasized that he would not have objected to the match taking place in Haifa.

      who to believe??? i can understand how certain people would make claims of “death threats from Palestinians”. we hear this kind of propaganda all the time. so what?

      it’s a win for bds because they canceled a show that was being promoted by the state :

      Regev also boasted that it was an incredible public relations coup for the country. She said that Messi would “kiss the Western Wall” and “shake hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” too.

      frankly, given the commonality of this dehumanizing outlandish hyperbole used routinely in israeli pr, i don’t think anyone (with a brain) actually believes palestinians made death threats against messi (including messi). if you find it confusing yasmine, so be it.

      this is a 100% a win for BDS!

      • MHughes976 on June 9, 2018, 4:45 pm

        The idea that the Argentinian team were terrorised is being proclaimed loudly by Israel but it isn’t the whole story since one of the leading players, Gonzalo Higuain, is clearly supporting the decision on BDS-type grounds. He can’t be entirely alone.

      • annie on June 9, 2018, 4:56 pm

        not just “one of the leading players” MHughes

        Officials over in Argentina have said that the players themselves were not too keen to travel and play in Israel which is what led to the eventual decision. “As far as I know, the players of the national team were not willing to play the game,” said Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie.

        get it? what led to the decision was players were unwilling to play.

        i just hope it’s a trend. please please please! and i hope it extends to eurovision next year in jerusalem. albeit, that’s less likely because unlike sports, eurovision is not made up of a country’s best musicians/performers. so if 10 of the best performers refuse to go, a country could probably find some apartheid denying band to represent them who will go.

      • MHughes976 on June 10, 2018, 3:02 am

        I wrote cautiously because Higuain’s statement seemed to be the only one at the time I looked that wias unambiguous – good for him – and in prop persona.

  6. annie on June 10, 2018, 1:19 am

    Hussein Samih, this is an excellent article! Thank you so very very much.

  7. Jane Porter on June 21, 2018, 1:39 pm

    I read somewhere that the argentinian team declared they were shocked and supported a gazan football-player ,during the right to return march, who was shot in the leg and was amputated. that was one of the reasons that decided them to cancel the game.

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