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August 29, 2016 1:38 pm

Human Rights Organization Welcomes Decision by Governing Soccer Body to Investigate French Team for Anti-Israel Discrimination

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St. Etienne soccer fans seen waving the Palestinians flag and setting off fireworks during a match against Beitar Jerusalem. Photo: @JulienMaynard/ Twitter.

St. Etienne soccer fans seen waving Palestinian flags and setting off fireworks during a match against Beitar Jerusalem. Photo: @JulienMaynard/ Twitter.

The decision by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) to investigate a French team for anti-Israel discrimination is a welcome step, an official from the international Jewish human rights organization that had urged the governing soccer body to take action told The Algemeiner on Monday.

“Politics is a factor in sports, but politicizing it impugns its values of fair-play and the pleasure of the game,” said Dr. Shimon Samuels, director for international relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center-Europe, who called on UEFA to hold the team St. Etienne accountable for banning Israeli flags during a match last week against Beitar Jerusalem at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard stadium, while allowing French and Palestinian flags to fly.

In a letter to UEFA’s president on Monday, obtained by The Algemeiner, Samuels demanded that the organization uphold its self-described neutrality on politics and religion, which is “now gravely endangered by Palestinian political agitation among local clubs.”  

“St. Etienne fans were permitted to wave French and Palestinian flags, while the visiting Israeli and Jewish fans were prevented from bringing the Israeli flag into the stadium,” he wrote. “We urge UEFA to protest discrimination and delegitimization of Israel in the banning of its flag. Harsh disciplinary measures must be imposed on St. Etienne by UEFA to show that attacks on fair-play and the values of the beautiful game can not be condoned.”

In response, the legal affairs division of UEFA’s Disciplinary and Integrity Unit notified Samuels in an email — seen by The Algemeiner — that “disciplinary proceedings have been instigated against AS St. Etienne.”

According to UEFA, the unit will be investigating the team for four infractions — illicit banners, the blocking of stairways, the throwing of objects and the setting off of fireworks.

UEFA maintains a strict ban on political displays at games and the presence of the Palestinian flag falls under the “illicit banners” infraction. A disciplinary decision will be reached during UEFA’s Control Ethics and Disciplinary Body’s next meeting on September 22.

According to Samuels, “UEFA is keeping its balanced position, which is an encouraging sign,” adding that the possible sanctions against St. Etienne could be far-reaching.

“The penalty against the club for not controlling its fans could go from a fine to a suspension for a number of games or for a whole season,” he told The Algemeiner. “France can follow up with UEFA’s ruling and possibly issue its own independent ruling and downgrade the club by disqualifying its points. This would result in a drop in its division status, which is very costly and can lose them a number of sponsors. This is hardly the position St. Etienne would want to find themselves in.”

While violence has “always been a problem in sports,” Samuels said, today’s pro-Israel fans must now deal with the “added factor of antisemitism,” which he said is increasingly rearing its ugly head.

St. Etienne’s behavior is the latest act of anti-Israel and antisemitic discrimination in the soccer world.

As reported by The Algemeiner on Friday, some 50 Polish fans of the Widzew Łódź team set fire to “Jewish” effigies and paraded around a banner calling for the burning of Jews.

Earlier in August, as reported by The Algemeiner, Scotland Celtic fans waved dozens of Palestinian flags during a match against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva, despite UEFA’s ban on political displays. UEFA said it will also be investigating that incident.

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