Calls grow to sanction Israel as Iceland boss admits Euro 2024 play-off concern

Coach Hareide says tie should not be happening, while Palestinian FA ask Fifa to take action

Iceland manager Age Hareide speaks to the media ahead of the Euro 2024 play-off match against Israel. Getty Images
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Age Hareide, the head coach of Iceland, has his reservations about the fixture he guides his team into on Thursday night in Budapest, Hungary.

“If you ask me from a personal point of view,” Hareide said in the build-up to the play-off semi-final for this summer’s European Championship, “I’m hesitant to play against Israel, given what is happening to women, children and other innocent civilians in Gaza.

“We shouldn’t have to play this game, as far as I am concerned. But we must. The consequences for Iceland would be heavy if we did not.”

Hareide’s observations, answered with vehement criticism from within Israel that he had made no mention of the Hamas-led attacks on Israeli territory on October 7 that preceded the sustained military assault on Gaza, were raised more than once at Wednesday’s Israel-Iceland pre-match press conference. The Norwegian, while stating, “I am interested in politics”, insisted: “I don’t take sides. We are playing against footballers and I have nothing against the Israelis.”

The issue of whether Israel should be participating in a major sporting event was, Hareide added: “Up to the football politicians to decide.”

Up to now, their stance has been clear. Neither Uefa, the European body overseeing Euro 2024 and its high-stakes play-offs, nor Fifa or the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have moved to impose sanctions on Israel.

On Wednesday night, the IOC presided over the draw for the groups at this summer’s Paris Olympics’ men’s football tournament, with Israel, Egypt, Morocco and potentially three more Mena countries all involved in another politically-fraught event.

Yet the call for football to impose a boycott on Israel grows ever louder.

Last month, the West Asian Football Federation, whose 12 member nations include Palestine and the UAE, called for a ban on Israel or its clubs taking part in international competitions. Meanwhile, on Tuesday Fifa received an official letter from the Palestinian Football Association demanding the world governing body take action against Israel for what it calls “explicit violation of Fifa laws”.

The letter cites the deaths during five and half months of conflict of “at least 99 football players”; the Israeli Football Association’s integrating of clubs based in the occupied territories into its structures; and “a legitimate concern that some football associations may refuse to play against Israel, jeopardising the efficient running of matches”.

The Palestinian FA propose the case for sanctions against Israel is heard at the Fifa Congress in May. The focus may intensify over the coming week. Should Israel, who have never lost to Iceland in five meetings since the country was invited to compete within Uefa in the early 1990s, triumph in Budapest, its national team will be 90 minutes from the sort of global stage they have not known for over half a century.

The last senior tournament finals they reached was the 1970 World Cup. Beat Iceland and they would play off directly against either Bosnia-Herzegovina or Ukraine on Tuesday for a place at Euro 2024 in Germany, escalating, at the very least, security concerns for the tournament organisers.

“In these crazy times where, geostrategically, the world is going crazy, the biggest concern is security,“ Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin told The Telegraph. “Stadiums, I’m sure will be protected properly, but fans will be all around cities and towns.” Security issues have already meant Israeli clubs playing their ‘home’ games in Uefa competitions elsewhere; they are in Budapest for their play-off because it was deemed unsafe to play in Israel.

Should Israel come through against Iceland, the last hurdle for reaching Germany would be in either Sarajevo, or if Ukraine beat Bosnia, in Wroclaw, Poland – Ukraine are also playing their ‘home’ matches in borrowed venues because of ongoing conflict there.

And with both Ukraine and Israel effectively exiled as national teams, a play-off final between the two would in turn concentrate attention not only on security issues but a double standard that football’s governing bodies are increasingly accused of.

Since Russia’s military escalation of the war in Ukraine two years ago, Russia have been banned from senior competitions; no such action has been taken against Israel over Gaza.

Hareide, the Iceland coach, was asked to remember how swiftly the Russia ban was applied during the last qualifying campaign for a major tournament.

Several European Football Associations refused to play Russia or its club sides very quickly after the Ukraine conflict spread in February 2022. Uefa and Fifa then imposed bans on Russia taking part in their competitions, excluding the national team from the 2022 World Cup and Euro 2024.

Yet a tacit disapproval of those sanctions continues to be expressed by various countries. Serbia will tonight play a friendly match in Moscow against Russia. Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Cameroon, Kenya and Cuba have all played against Russia within the last year.

But the umbrella football confederations they belong to remain as firm in their exclusion of Russia from competitions as they are adamant that Israel continues to take part in them.

Updated: March 21, 2024, 4:36 AM