In the buildup to El Clasico, controversy came to FC Barcelona. Only a few issues are able to divide opinions like the Israel-Palestine conflict, and this time it is regarding the possible attendance of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli who had been in custody by the Palestinians for 5 years and who was freed as a part of a swap deal in 2011. The initial uproar in the Middle East included a radio station that stopped airing team updates, a petition from Catalan movement group BDS Catalunya who warned that they will stage a protest, and general protests emerging from most countries in the Arabian Peninsula.
The club reacted quickly by releasing an official statement and extending the invitation to three more public figures, this time from the other side of the conflict. They are Palestinian Authority Ambassador Musa Amer Odeh, Palestinian Football Union President Jibril Rajoub, and soccer player and activist Mahmoud Sarsak. The invitation is a follow-up to the request from the Palestinian Embassy in Madrid, Spain. FC Barcelona’s vice president Carles Vilarrubí was also quoted on an Israeli website, saying that “Barcelona is a place of unity, not divisions. This invitation [to Shalit] does not indicate in any way that Barca takes a position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Palestinian footballer and activist Mahmoud Sarsak has since announced that he will not partake in coming to the Camp Nou this weekend, saying, “I apologize to the fans and to the management of the club for not attending because of the invitation to Gilad Shalit,” Sarsak told a news conference at the headquarters of the Red Cross in Gaza City. He understood that the basis of the invite wasn’t a desire for “peace and harmony” but a response to protests. Sarsak himself was the subject of a detaining without charge by Israel and was sentenced to prison in 2009. However, after refusing food for 90 days and with organizations like Amnesty International, FIFpro and Sepp Blatter requesting his release, Israel finally released him in July 2012.
Sarsak was quoted as saying, “I cherish the invitation of a great club like Barcelona but not [as] an invitation for normalization. I know that the invitation was issued after heavy pressure on FC Barcelona so that it could get out of its dilemma, but the Palestinian people are not and will not be a means for [others] to get out of their dilemmas.” This means Sarsak also rejected the request from the Palestinian embassy to attend the game. “I announce my readiness to meet Barcelona or any other Spanish club outside of the context of a joint invitation with Gilad Shalit, inviting me as a Palestinian athlete who experienced… the suffering of a hunger strike for freedom and dignity,” he said.
The whole situation took the club and some supporters by surprise, but perhaps they should have seen it coming. The sponsorship from Qatar foundation, no matter how neutral Qatar seems to be, and Barcelona’s recent successes carry a hefty baggage. That baggage includes an additional fan base in the area and the opinions that come along with them. As the area’s awareness of the club grows, broader coverage of the club’s movements means every action that FC Barcelona takes will be looked upon from myriad points of view.
The anger manifests from the fact that FC Barcelona is the most popular football team in the Palestinian territories. The Blaugrana colors can be seen worn by many children and adults in the West Bank and Gaza, with Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta heralded as their personal heroes. Palestinian television broadcasts the team’s games and Spanish League matches in general, which all receive very high ratings.
This isn’t the first time someone has tried to portray FC Barcelona as tipping more to one side of the conflict either. When Joan Laporta was president, in 2009 he attended the wedding of a daughter of player’s agent Pini Zahavi in Israel and visited the wailing wall. The pictures that emerge created a huge stir, but on a smaller scale.
Perhaps every culé can do everyone a favor by separating the person from the institution. After all, FC Barcelona is comprised of many elements in the Catalan region and as the club grows bigger it will absorb many more. The club should not be taken into account for a person’s point of view and actions. If we take a further look on Barcelona’s regional history, we can see that this region has been one of the foremost places for peaceful union between religions and cultures. The most recent example is the Barcelona process which was successful in promoting dialogue between the two conflicting parties.
FC Barcelona is trying its best to fulfill its fair share of social responsibilities and we can rest assured that as an institution, the club is neutral to any social or regional conflict in the world. Let this case be a reminder to all of us too that no matter what our personal beliefs and opinions are, we leave our differences behind when it comes to supporting FC Barcelona. The club has shown it through its actions and now, it’s our turn.
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