Why a joint UAE-Israel World Cup taints the beautiful game
Gianni Infantino is the Donald Trump of the football world. He likes to shake things up, but not in a breath of fresh air sort of way. Think more hornet's nest.
I was reminded of this when I heard the FIFA president's latest idea suggesting Israel might co-host the 2030 World Cup with the United Arab Emirates.
Infantino, of course, had been by Trump's side at the White House on the day the Abraham Accords were signed in August 2020, normalising relations between Israel and the UAE, as well as Bahrain. The agreement crossed a line established over many decades whereby Arab states refuse to cosy up to Israel while the Palestinian problem remains unresolved.
"Gianni Infantino is the Donald Trump of the football world"
Trump, of course, hailed the signing as bringing peace to the Middle East when all it did was drive a wedge between those Arab countries prepared to betray the Palestinians and those that were not.
In fact, the Abraham Accords were as big a betrayal of the Palestinians as Trump's own Middle East Peace Plan six months earlier which had recognised Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements and Jerusalem as Israel's "undivided capital".
Not such much a breath of fresh air as a tearing up of a rule book, repeatedly rubber-stamped by the United Nations, which granted the Palestinians an independent state of West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem along the borders that existed between 1948-1967.
Infantino's idea for the 2030 World Cup is straight out of the Trump textbook; an idea that does not seem to recognise that there is a Palestinian problem and which at the end of the day is nothing more than a slick PR move.
In a sleight of hand, he suggests: "With the Abraham Accords, why should we not do it (2030 World Cup) here in Israel with her neighbours in the Middle East and the Palestinians?"
Just how does he envisage the Palestinians might get involved? FIFA stadiums require a minimum seating capacity of 40,000 spectators so there is not much room for one of them in an area the size of the Isle of Wight already crammed with two million people.
Does he not realise that in the past Israel has bombed Palestinian sports stadiums and prevented football players in the Gaza Strip from travelling to play with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank?
No, this would be an Israel-UAE World Cup – paid for with the wealth of two countries currently planning $1 trillion worth of economic activity by 2031.
You need to look no further than those alongside Infantino in Jerusalem where he made the announcement to see in whose interest such a plan would be.
The line-up reads like a roll call of shame of those who drew up the ludicrous Trump peace plan: the former US president's son-in-law and the main architect of the "roadmap to peace", Jared Kushner, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The only person missing was Trump himself.
No wonder the Palestinian Football Association stayed away, calling the ceremony "a total affront to the values of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence, both endorsed by FIFA statutes."
The Palestinians were furious at Infantino attending the opening of "The Friedman Center for Peace through Strength" in Jerusalem, named after the former US ambassador to Israel whose policies led to them severing ties with the US.
David Friedman was responsible for Trump taking the Israeli stance on virtually every policy, most notably moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognising the holy city as, de facto, Israel's undivided capital, as well as giving up on any idea of a two-state solution.
The Palestinian FA headquarters, built by FIFA, destroyed by the israelis. (Old Pic from an old story i wrote for sofoot) pic.twitter.com/ggm7UogphS— Pierre Koetschet (@PierreKoetschet) October 14, 2021
If Infantino cannot play with an even hand he should stay out of Middle East politics.
He should not be appearing in promotional videos for Saudi Arabia, as he did in January. saying "a lot has changed" in the desert kingdom
Try telling that to the women's rights activists still behind bars in Riyadh or those dying of malnutrition in Yemen after six years of Saudi bombs.
But however offensive Infantino's plans are they cannot be dismissed because of his ability to get what he wants through the FIFA Congress.
What drives Infantino is money - $5.4bn was raked in at the 2018 World Cup – which is then distributed amongst the poorer member countries in Africa and Asia in return for their support.
"If Infantino cannot play with an even hand he should stay out of Middle East politics"
The fact that 166 out of 211 countries voted in favour of a feasibility study on a Saudi plan to hold the World Cup every two years – yes, more money - shows how much support that highly controversial idea has, even though the two main confederations - UEFA and it's South American counterpart, CONMEBOL - are against it.
Faced with only mustering 65 votes between them football's two biggest regional powers are now threatening to boycott the event saying: "A World Cup without European or South American players, good luck with that".
It's why Infantino cosied up to Trump telling him that the US was "on the verge of becoming the soccer power in the world" and he wants to relocate FIFA headquarters there from Switzerland.
In 2026 we've got the prospect of a World Cup in the US, Canada and Mexico which has been expanded from 32 to 48 teams, bringing FIFA an extra $1bn from greater television rights and sponsorship.
As a revenue-spinner for Infantino, it is a mouth-watering prospect as would be the wealth of mega-rich UAE as a co-host for Israel.
The same obviously cannot be said of the Palestinians, a million of whom live in poverty. Let's hope the member countries of FIFA vote against this disgraceful proposal if it ever comes before them.
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.
Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood
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