Standing for justice on the soccer pitch

February 8, 2008

Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Aboutreika proved that rules are made to be broken.

IN A world where the mainstream media riddles dumbed-down news reportage with inane sports metaphors, sometimes it takes sports to remind us of the gravity of the actual news. While the press acts like extras on Gossip Girl as they assess the latest machinations of Bill, Barack and Hillary, a simple soccer player has alerted the world to a humanitarian catastrophe.

Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Aboutreika of the Al-Ahly Pharaohs is the player that stepped up to this task. It's probably true that most U.S. readers don't know Mohamed Aboutreika from Muhammad Ali, but the two men share more than a name. After scoring a goal during Al-Ahly's 3-0 victory against Sudan, he lifted his jersey to reveal a T-shirt that read, "Sympathize with Gaza."

For such a simple slogan, the reaction has been profound. Aboutreika received a yellow card for breaking FIFA's year-old rule against political sloganeering on the pitch, and rumbles of a suspension started to simmer. But then the unexpected: The confederation was flooded with e-mails from fans and even reporters expressing their support for Aboutreika's actions.

Columnist: Dave Zirin

"He is a good player and he belongs to all Arab and Muslim nations, and he reflected what is in our hearts," journalist Ahmed Gamal wrote to FIFA. "We are asking you, in the name of human rights, to co-operate with us and support him. Please do not even think about any suspension for him, because your tournament will be fake and the whole Muslim world is supporting him. Please don't make that mistake. We are all sympathizing with Gaza."

The immediate solidarity was due as much to the man as the message. For those who care more about navel lint than the seditious, flag-burning world of soccer, Aboutreika is not some obscure sideline footballer. One of the top players in Africa, he is known as the "Smiling Assassin" for his trademark ear-to-ear grin after sending the ball through the goal. This is that rarest of nicknames, like calling Walter Payton "Sweetness," which speaks to Aboutreika's personality more than his play.

He is a media favorite for treating fans and reporters alike with respect rarely seen in his profession. He follows the Muhammad Ali credo: "I'll never look down on someone who looks up to me." If Roger Clemens can make a person feel like bathing in Listerine, Aboutreika makes the people around him feel lifted, instead of cheapened, for loving sports.

After his team won the African Champions League in 2006, the press lavished him with praise. But Aboutreika gently rebuked them, saying, "We need to stop this habit of praising a definite player. It isn't Aboutreika, but the whole team who got the Cup. Without the others' efforts, I can't ever make anything. Football is a game played by many players, it isn't tennis or squash."

This flows from more than interpersonal élan and a graceful touch. He has said, "Every athlete has a humanitarian role in society. He doesn't live solely for himself, but for others too. I like to participate in charity work and try my best to help the poor and penniless. I'm also seeking to use soccer in humanitarian work."

Quaint as it may sound, Aboutreika backs words with deeds. He has made fighting poverty the central focus of his life out of uniform, appearing in a Public Service Announcement broadcast throughout Egypt where he says, "Hunger takes away a child every five seconds. We have to move immediately and lend each other a hand because every second counts. This is a game we have to win."

For a person committed to fighting poverty, the need to raise awareness about Gaza is an act of obvious principle (John Edwards, take a note). FIFA may have been horrified by the breach of politics/sport propriety, but that is nothing compared to what is happening in Gaza. Gaza has become a prison city, a scrap of land that 1.4 million people are forced to call home.

Bad went to dystopic on January 18 when the state of Israel imposed a total Gaza blockade. Before this action, unemployment was over 50 percent. Now, life in Gaza is not about finding work, but basic survival. "A stream of dark and putrid sludge snakes through Gaza's streets," wrote journalist Mohammed Omer, for Inter Press Services. "It is a noxious mix of human and animal waste. The stench is overwhelming. The occasional passerby vomits. Over recent days, this has been a more common sight than the sale of food on the streets of Gaza, choked by a relentless Israeli siege."

All of this came home after hundreds of thousands of desperate residents fled Gaza through a breach in the border wall. As Al-Jazeera reported, "If Gaza is the biggest prison on the planet, this is the biggest jail break." This is what pushed Aboutreika to make his stand. How novel to see a superstar athlete stand up to the wreckage of U.S. imperial policy in the Middle East.

Tom Brady is more likely to call his new cologne line "Gaza Mist" than acknowledge the humanitarian horror show underwritten by his tax dollars. Against the expectation of star athletes and his own federation, Aboutreika has decided that while there is a soul in prison, he is not free. Amidst the graveyards dug by the West, a Smiling Assassin has taken a stand for survival.

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