Gianni Infantino sparked controversy not by what he said but where he said it.

Infantino statements prove Jibril Rajoub inept in fields of Sport AND Politics 

Another week, another bombshell statement from FIFA President Gianni Infantino. For many, the content of his words- suggesting Israel and the UAE co-host a World Cup- overshadowed the location where these statements were made. 

Gianni Infantino made these statements at a Gala honoring Donald Trump’s former Ambassador to Israel. A man who, before taking the mantle, was the head of an organization that opposed the two-state solution and gave $2 Million per year to the Settlement of Bet El in the Ramallah Governante. 

To make matters worse, the David Friedman Center for Peace through Strength is housed in the hilariously named Museum of Tolerance which was built on the centuries old Mamila Cemetery in Occupied East Jerusalem

The controversy is not so much that Gianni Infantino made a state visit to Israel (his predecessor made several trips in 2015, 2011, & 2008) nor were his statements that shocking given the fact that FIFA Presidents have a panache for making absurd statements. There are several practical reasons why a joint bid between Israel and the UAE would not work. The Israeli state has zero stadiums that reach the minimum capacity of 40,000 and the UAE only has two, both of which are located in Abu Dhabi.

The World Cup hosts are also required to allow travel for fans who have tickets to the event. In fact, the Qatar 2022 committee had to suspend their regulations in regards to Israeli visitors as a part of their hosting duties. It is hard to foresee the Israeli government allowing freedom of movement for the theoretical ticket holding Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank. A population of nearly 5 million is prevented by Israel from travelling to Occupied East Jerusalem, using the airport, or visiting family and friends on the other side of the Green Line. 

In summation, the chances of this bid materializing, let alone winning the rights to host, is close to zero.

What is controversial is why the FIFA President who sees himself as something akin to the Secretary General of the United Nations would associate with a character like David Friedman. A man so toxic that The Washington Post described his Senate confirmation as a “sharply partisan vote was a notable departure from past votes to confirm ambassadors to Israel.” (Compare this, with the bipartisan praise, Biden’s pick is currently receiving).

Gianni Infantino’s appearance at the garish Gala was teased by none other than Palestine Football Association, whose President, Jibril Rajoub was slated for a visit the following day. In a desperate effort to protest or draw attention the PFA took the extraordinary steps of putting out this statement in English: 

Most international observers will be aware of Rajoub because six years ago he started a campaign to get Israel kicked out of FIFA. Except Rajoub did not start the campaign, he co-opted a grassroots campaign by European based activists to get UEFA to strip the 2013 U21 Championship from Israel. 

For all his bluster, Rajoub fell flat on his face, failing to articulate his argument in a rambling speech at the FIFA General Council, amended his own proposal just as it was on the verge of a vote (removing any danger for the IFA), and then bizarrely shook hands with his Israeli counterpart but only after screaming from the gallows into a microphone as if he was on the verge of a mental breakdown. 

A more shrewd political operator might have been able to mount a more serious campaign or at the very least garner concessions to the benefit of the sport in the country. 

Rajoub then repeated the trick three years later. This time a group of Argentine activists put together a very effective campaign explaining why Argentina’s national team should not play a friendly against Israel at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. True to form, and at the 11th hour, Rajoub swooped in to co-opt and assume credit. 

The PFA President would wind up putting one foot in his mouth whilst shooting himself in the other.  The campaign organized by the Argentine activists was well on its way to success until Rajoub decided to hold a media event where Messi’s jersey was lit on fire. FIFA fined him 20,000 Swiss Francs and suspended him for one year for his troubles

For as annoying as he can be to the head honchos at FIFA, Rajoub is seen as someone pliable. There is little to back all his bluster and even regional counterparts have been able to get him to bend to their will- which is exactly what he did earlier this year when- for no reason whatsoever- rearranged a qualifier to the benefit of Saudi Arabia and the detriment to his own team; (he also gave up Al-Am’ary’s hosting rights AFC Cup playoff vs. Al-Kuwait but that playoff was later cancelled and proved to be a moot decision). 

Rajoub’s lack of power is probably why he is prone to abuse those in his command. It is easy to bully journalists, footballers, and chairmen of modest football clubs; it is an entirely different matter to exert your will in the halls of FIFA. 

Fans and players alike wait for the end of the Rajoub era with bated breath but until a scandal like the ones that befell the Haiti or Afghanistan FA are exposed and covered- Rajoub will stay. It is highly unlikely any journalistic breakthrough is forthcoming as the Palestinian Authority and by extension, Rajoub, have cracked down heavily on dissent in recent months. The detention and killing of popular dissident Nizar Bannat happened in Dora, the PFA President’s hometown. Rajoub who used to head the internal security services that killed Bannat said that while “the PA assumes responsibility for Nizar Bannat’s death” and that “this is something you get upset about for one, two, or maybe three days and then you forget about it”. 

The reality for Rajoub is that he now is in a worse situation than the one he found himself in when he first took the role. On the political front, he has never been less influential. On the sporting front Gianni Infantino has made him look like a fool on at least two occasions before this week. In 2017 there was FIFA’s refusal to implement its own judicial precedence in Crimea to clubs in Israeli settlements. Two years later, Infantino attended Trump’s Peace to Prosperity summit in Manama in spite of Rajoub begging him not to attend

If it was not abundantly clear already, the emperor has no clothes but still somehow reigns over the beautiful game in Palestine.

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