Palestine support shows players increasingly inclined to make a stand

Football’s transformation includes players being a more truthful version of themselves

In protest against Israeli violence in Gaza, Manchester United's Paul Pogba and Amad Diallo, and Leicester City's Hamza Choudhury and Wesley Fofana held up the Palestinian flag following recent matches in the Premier League and FA Cup final.

It was a bold and challenging gesture to make, especially for Pogba and Diallo. The Manchester United pair work for a club owned by American billionaires, the Glazers. The founding member of the organisation, the late Malcolm Glazer was born in New York, the fifth of seven children of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants.

In 2016, his son Bryan Glazer donated €3.28 million for the renovation and conversion of a historic building in Tampa, Florida into the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Centre.

After Manchester United’s match with Fulham, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer declined to alter the political mood or bust out diplomatic moves. Instead he jumped to the defence of his two players, explaining that his team is one of different backgrounds, different cultures and different countries.


Team changing rooms were hothouses for suppressed emotions, casual racism, places where honesty was mistaken for weakness

PSV Eindhoven's Israeli forward Eran Zahavi responded too. He posted an edited picture of the pair on Instagram, replacing the Palestine flag they were carrying with one from Israel.

Pogba is French born to Guinean parents. While he plays for France, his two brothers Florentin and Mathias play with the Guinean national team. He is Muslim. Diallo was born in Abidjan in Ivory Coast and immigrated to Italy as a child. He is Muslim too, as is Choudhury, who has played for England and has Bangladeshi-Grenadian ancestry, while Fofana is French-born of Malian decent.

What has been evident for some time in football, in Europe at least, is a power shift from the boardroom to the pitch and the bathing of traditional monochrome British football culture in a multicultural wash. With that comes attitude and some enlightenment.

Players, with Mo Salah, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford all assuming dignified social postures, have been empowered and have come to believe in themselves as much as functions of their beliefs and experiences as bland corporate faces in clubs like Manchester United or Liverpool.

In the past, cheesy photo opportunities of football stars visiting a children’s hospital or handing an oversized cheque to a local charity would do it.

But team changing rooms were hothouses for suppressed emotions, casual racism, places where honesty was mistaken for weakness and any political views outside the traditional norm seen as perilous and threatening.

Largely, footballers were emotionally constrained and conservative, politically inert. There were exceptions, like Bill Shankly and Robbie Fowler.

Homophobic abuse

In 1997 Fowler had just scored his second goal in a European Cup Winners Cup against Norway’s Brann Bergan when he lifted up his Liverpool shirt to reveal a T-shirt with the slogan “Support the 500 sacked dockers”. For that he was fined 2,000 Swiss Francs by Uefa.

It was Fowler again whose actions in an incident inspired a tirade of homophobic abuse at Graeme Le Saux in 1999. Le Saux complained to the referee and linesman, who saw the incident but took no action. The Chelsea player was then booked for time-wasting. Not just the players but officials were also complicit and capable of contradiction.

But the goalposts have moved and continue to do so. For every note of irresponsible arrogance, every shot of a millionaire footballer spilling from a night club into a Lamborghini, there is a Rashford using his name, image and money to embarrass a government into extending free school meals to children.

If nothing more, the players have prompted people to ask serious questions about a difficult problem

There is a Mesut Ozil taking aim in 2019 at Muslim countries for their silence over the persecution of Uighur Muslims in China, his club Arsenal distancing itself.

In 2019 a study – Can Exposure to Celebrities Reduce Prejudice? The Effect of Mohamed Salah on Islamophobic Behaviors and Attitudes – conducted by the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University in the United States, found the number of hate crimes in the Merseyside area had fallen since Salah joined Liverpool in the summer of 2017.

Over the previous two years there were 18.9 per cent fewer hate crimes than predicted, and a 53 per cent fall in anti-Muslim tweets among Liverpool fans.

Last June, on the day Premier League matches resumed after lockdown, every player, referee and official took a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

That came almost three years after American footballer Colin Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing league owners of collusion to keep him out of the league for doing exactly that.

The Glazer family, through their ownership of the NFL side Tampa Bay Buccaneers, would have been party to Kaepernick’s grievances.

At Manchester United, they could if they wished take action against Pogba and Diallo. But the Premier League is not the NFL and Europe is not the USA.

The sport has seismically shifted and whatever side people pick, Palestinian or Israeli, the majority of public sentiment probably rests with 63 dead children in Gaza.

If nothing more, the players have prompted people to ask serious questions about a difficult problem. That kind of interrogation cuts both ways and different sides will be taken. Football’s makeover is players being a truthful version of themselves, a pose that would never have been tolerated in the past.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times