Mark Steel: Three years in jail – that's some red card for Mahmoud Sarsak

I guess the Palestinians were trying that old terrorist trick of becoming a national football team

Mark Steel
Wednesday 20 June 2012 08:46
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The footballer of the week, setting up the most unlikely victory, is Mahmoud Sarsak, who plays for Palestine. Because 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 supposed to be playing 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 he was never charged and no one was told why he was detained, until this week when the Israelis announced he was part of "Islamic Jihad". So one possibility is this was organised to help the manager explain his selection process. Roy Hodgson would find it so much easier if he could answer questions about why he didn't pick 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 Mahmoud's treatment followed a pattern. Since the Palestine team were 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 this must be because 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 finals from where it's a simple step to start an insurrection.

This problem of the 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 using this system). It also suggested the Palestinian team was a reflection of the Palestinian state, a body in name only with few of the powers a normal state holds, and that can be prevented from operating at all whenever the Israelis choose to do so.

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 built around the 18-yard box with a two-hour wait before being allowed to pass through the checkpoint, and the forwards just couldn't penetrate that sort of defence."

After three years in jail, Mahmoud Sarsak went on a hunger strike, and his case was supported by the international footballers union, and by Eric Cantona, and by the world football body Fifa. So on Monday, the Israelis agreed to release him, creating jubilation across his country. 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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