Homefield Advantage

by quavaro

I

This September, Palestinian leadership will likely go to the United Nations seeking membership and with it recognition as a state with set borders, a move fiercely opposed by Israel and the United States. The move has been driven by Salam Fayyad, former IMF official and current Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, who has been steadily building Palestinian institutions to prepare for statehood. Israeli officials oppose the bid and say that it would end the peace process and change nothing on the ground, while Palestinians on the ground have countered that the peace process has changed nothing on the ground.

1

In sport, playing on your home ground is certainly a different experience than playing away. In October of 2008, the Palestinian National Football team played its first true home game in the West Bank to a rapturous crowd, tying with Jordan. “When you are playing here, in front of your own people, in your land it makes a huge difference,” said midfielder Ayman Hindi. “We will play better”[1]. The Palestinian team has long faced–and continues to face–troubles with organizing matches and training because of restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but Israeli authorities allowed eleven players from Gaza to travel to the West Bank and play. However, the Palestinian captain, Saeb Jendeya, was denied entry because of Israeli “security concerns”. Jendeya said: “I’ve waited all my life for this. Imagine what it’s like. The whole world is coming. The head of Fifa is coming; it is the first match on Palestinian land. I’m the captain and I can’t play.” Mr Fayyad, meanwhile, urged more foreign teams to visit, explaining that it would be a message of solidarity to the Palestinian people.

In March 2011, Palestine played another home game against Thailand, and again the difficulties of creating a team from a dispersed nation were noted. Even when players from Gaza, the West Bank and Europe can be brought together for training, internal political divisions among Palestinians result in a team that is disjointed on and off the pitch. “We have problems understanding one another on the field and playing in harmony,” said Muhammad al-Sidudi, 20, a player from Gaza [2].

If the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN goes forward, it would likely enjoy wide support. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated, “We are facing a diplomatic-political tsunami that the majority of the public is unaware of and that will peak in September…inaction will deepen the isolation of Israel.” The New York Times notes, “Israel would be occupying land belonging to a fellow United Nations member, land it has controlled and settled for more than four decades and some of which it expects to keep in any two-state solution” [3]. Politician Hanan Ashrawi has said that what makes the current bid novel is the call for defined borders, namely the pre-1967 lines that divided Israel from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem.

2

In football and sport in general, teams playing on their ground, in front of their fans, win over sixty percent of matches. In their book Scorecasting, Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim explore the concept and dismiss the idea that the crowd have an effect on the performance of players, noting that statistics show that home and away players perform consistently in high-pressure situations (free throws in basketball, field goals in American football, and penalty kicks in world football). They eventually arrive at the conclusion that it is the referees, the structure around the players, that favors the home team in close call situations. With the fans “breathing down their necks”, officials favor the home team when any doubt creeps in. In the London Review of Books, David Runciman counters that the phenomenon is absent in individual sports such as tennis, but it is a clear factor in team sports [4]. Therefore, he claims, it is a belief that spreads from the fans to the team, who then rely on each other and press on for victory.

III

The Palestinian bid is without question risky and in the worst case might push tensions past the breaking point. Unstoppable social movements have rocked the Middle East in the past year, resulting in a stumbling abdication of power in Egypt, mass killings in Syria, and a civil war in Libya, while what I’d imagine would be an exhausted populace in Palestine awaits the moves of their leaders. The bid for borders could be disastrous, and it could effect real change “on the ground”. Israel might in effect be forced to play a diplomatic away game. Would it be cheesy of me to hope for an Israel-Palestine international friendly match some day?

3

The claims in Scorecasting and in Runciman’s article are not mutually exclusive, of course. Whether it is the referees or belief spurred by communal experience, or a mixture of both, playing at home is a clear advantage. The referee bias is still a compelling explanation, as is to some degree Runciman’s proposal of “belief”. In retrospect, watching a home team press on for a goal in injury time, I have thought at various times that the team was playing with incredible belief and confidence, and that the the referee was helping to extend the momentum when it was about to fizzle with a favorable free kick.

IV

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay “Our Poor Individualism”, notes that, “Plutarch mocked those who declared that the Athenian moon is better than the Corinthian moon; Milton, in the seventeenth, observed that God is in the habit of revealing Himself first to His Englishmen; Fichte, at the beginning of the nineteenth, declared that to have character and to be German are obviously one and the same thing.” Nationalism is absurd and dangerous in its excesses, yet there is something to be said for the way that national pride can unite and empower a people, just as team pride can spur a club to rally and achieve a fantastic result in the face of adversity.

A gaucho, symbol of the Argentine individualism of which Borges was alternately proud and embarrassed

Despite the disdain of opponents, the Palestinian bid for statehood is definitively “on the ground”. Indeed, borders separate, borders distance neighbors, and borders root nations to the ground out from the ether of abstraction. In recent history, Palestine has existed only within, in opposition, or in cooperation to Israel, but always as it related to Israel, leaving Palestinians a diaspora in their own land, an away team even at home. The borders would declare, “We exist without you.” The risk is that it will lead to violence and destruction, but the hope is that it will usher in a new era in relations between Israel and Palestine. As this article was being written, Israel moved to approve 1,600 new apartments in East Jerusalem, and indicated that approval for 2,700 more was on the horizon. The next day, an Israeli bus was attacked, leaving 7 dead and 26 injured. Today, Israel carried out air strikes on Gaza.

The literal translation of the word “apocalypse” is “lifting of the veil”, and it is associated with renewal and revelation as well as with destruction. So which kind of apocalypse will we see if the Palestinian bid for statehood succeeds in the UN? The proposed move may end the peace process as we know it, but the hope for Palestinians is that it begins a new kind of peace process where their position rises from supplicants to the powers that enclose them to equals at the table. If they can compete fairly, the incentive for violence may be diminished. If a country can exist, at least to the degree that other countries exist, it may be better able to negotiate its existence and reach its full potential.

A previous apocalypse for Palestine

4

The last coach of the Palestinian National Football Team was Moussa Bezaz, a French-Algerian who spent his career on French clubs [5]. The results during his tenure were mixed, and he left expressing high regard for the Palestinian team and its potential, saying that the strength of the team would explode if the eligible players of Palestine were gathered from all over the world; failing that, at least they might be gathered from all over Palestine.

If a team can exist, at least to the degree that other teams exist…

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/palestinian-football-team-held-to-draw-but-scores-a-victory-974419.html

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/football-finally-comes-home-for-palestinian-national-team-2236120.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/world/middleeast/03mideast.html?pagewanted=all

[4] http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n13/david-runciman/swing-for-the-fences

[5] see http://footballpalestine.blogspot.com/ for excellent details and analysis of his tenure

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