January 21, 2019

Political Football

If you are reading this newspaper on June 15, it is the same day Egypt is playing Uruguay in the World Cup. And true: Israel did not qualify, nor did the United States, so you might think I don’t have a dog in this fight. Yet I do: I hope Egypt wins this match. I hope Egypt wins a lot of matches. Its rivals in the group stage, other than Uruguay, will be host Russia and Saudi Arabia, who are not soccer powers. So Egypt stands a chance of advancing to the Round of 16 and beyond.

Why Egypt? Because it is a neighbor. And because it is an underdog. And because this will be its first World Cup since 1990. And because Egyptians deserve to have some joy. And because of Mo Salah. Mostly because of Mo Salah.

Mohamed Salah is Egypt’s star player and one of the world’s most exciting footballers. He scored the goal that made Egypt gasp — a 94th-minute penalty kick that sealed Egypt’s qualification to the tournament in the most dramatic fashion. Then he made Egypt gasp again — when he was injured and forced to leave the field in tears during the first half of last month’s UEFA Champions League final. 

His team, Liverpool, had advanced to the championship match thanks in large part to his great talent and goal-scoring prowess, so it didn’t stand much of a chance against Real Madrid without him. When he was injured, Egyptians gasped, not just because they realized that Liverpool was doomed. They gasped because they knew that Egypt would be doomed in the World Cup without him. 

But Salah is going to play in Russia. He told Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi that he is well on the road to recovery. So I can get ready to be dazzled by him. And I do so even though Salah would not be easily dazzled by me. 

He dislikes Israel. Or maybe it’s just pressure by fellow Egyptians to pretend to dislike Israel. We’ve known this since 2013, when he made a special effort to avoid shaking hands with players of an Israeli team. It was a big deal at the time, and was again a topic of discussion when Salah moved to play for the London club Chelsea, whose Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, is now an Israeli citizen. 

And then it came up again, just a few weeks ago, when the player inspired Liverpool to an exciting 5-2 victory over Roma in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal, in which Salah scored two goals and assisted on two others. This was a memorable game, watched by millions, one of which was Israel’s Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman. “I will be calling the chief of staff immediately to tell him to hire Mohamed Salah to the Israeli army,” Lieberman joked on Twitter. His joke ignited some furor. Arab-Israeli member of the Knesset Ahmad Tibi tweeted back sarcastically: “I’m sure he’d love to meet you, Mr. Lieberman. He will be happy to hear about … your plans for the Aswan Dam.” In 2001, Lieberman suggested, in his usually blunt manner, that Israel bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam in response to Egypt’s increased military presence in the Sinai Peninsula.

There you have it. The cliché: No mixing of politics and sports. And the reality: No mixing — unless you do mix them. Salah avoiding a handshake is politics. Lieberman drafting him is politics. Booing him is politics. Cheering him is politics. In fact, the Salah situation forces the Israeli World Cup enthusiast to mix sports with politics. Salah is too much of a star to be ignored. So one has to take a stand, for or against. One has to decide: Do you cheer the great footballer, or boo the not-so-great handshake avoider? 

Sports does not always trump politics. The United States’ decision to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics can be defended as principled and worthy. A decision by several European countries not to send officials to the World Cup in Russia in solidarity with Great Britain is also understandable. Many people would never cheer a racist athlete, or a team whose fans behave in an ugly manner. 

And yet, I will cheer Salah and Egypt, because of all of the above — and with a grain of political defiance. If some Egyptian fans do not want the support of Israeli fans, tough luck. They will get it, anyway. If Salah does not want the praise of Israeli enthusiasts, tough luck. He will get it in abundance. 

That is, of course, on the condition that he plays like a true superstar.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.