Mark Steel: Three years in jail is some red card

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The Independent Online

The footballer of the week, setting up the most unlikely victory, is Mahmoud Sarsak who plays for Palestine. Three years ago, he was travelling to the West Bank to join his team when he was arrested by the Israelis and put in jail. If the match he was going to play in was on television, the coverage would have started with Ray Winstone's spinning head saying, "Odds coming up now", and a caption, "Never seen again – 6-4".

For three years, he stayed in jail, though never charged and no one told why he was detained until this week when the Israelis announced he was part of "Islamic Jihad". One possibility is this was to help the manager explain his selection process. Roy Hodgson would find it easier if he could answer questions about not picking Rio Ferdinand by saying "because he's in the armed wing of the People's Brigade for Freedom in Chechnya, and that can create discord in the dressing room". But Sarsak's treatment followed a pattern. Since the Palestine team was recognised by football's official bodies in 1998, they've faced many similar problems. In 2006, they were top of their World Cup qualifying group when the entire team was refused a visa for their match with Uzbekistan. I suppose the whole team was in Islamic Jihad, and they were employing that old terrorist trick of becoming the national football team, then qualifying for the World Cup from where it's a simple step to start an insurrection.

Players not being allowed to go to games created tactical difficulties, with the manager forced to experiment with a 0-0-0 formation that never quite came off (though I think they did draw with Scotland). It wouldn't have been surprising if analysis of their games went, "Palestine didn't once get into the final third of the opposition's half, and if we show you this bit of play you'll see why. There's a 50ft-high wall around the 18-yard box with a two-hour wait before being allowed to pass through the checkpoint, and the forwards just can't penetrate that sort of defence".

After three years in jail, Sarsak went on a hunger strike, and his case was supported by the international footballers union, Eric Cantona and Fifa. So on Monday, the Israelis agreed to release him, creating jubilation. When he comes out, we'll know he's a footballer, as he'll say, "Obviously, it's a great result for the lads but there's a long way to go and we've just got to take it one abhorrent incarceration at a time".

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