South African Soccer Team Ignores Pressure to Cancel Upcoming Match Against Maccabi Tel Aviv
The South African professional soccer team the Orlando Pirates responded on Monday to demands that it should cancel its upcoming match against Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv in solidarity with the Palestinians, saying that by the “rule of law” they cannot boycott the Israeli team.
“Whereas it is easy for those that have taken sides and adopted causes to make calls and demands, we do not enjoy such latitude,” the Johannesburg-based team said in a released statement. “Solutions we seek need to be inclusive and arrived at through putting of heads together rather than apart.”
The Pirates are set to play a friendly match against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Thursday during its pre-season camp in Spain, the home country of their head coach Jose Riveiro. The camp involved clubs from Africa, Asia, Europe and Middle East.
On Friday, the South African Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Coalition penned an open letter calling on the Pirates to not play against Maccabi Tel Aviv, saying “there is nothing ‘friendly’ about playing a team representing apartheid Israel.” The letter further accused Israel of occupation, “institutionalized racism,” war crimes and compared its treatment of its Palestinian population to apartheid South Africa. The group also called on the South African Department of Sports, Arts and Culture to enforce a policy for a cultural and sporting boycott of Israel.
The South African BDS Coalition reportedly reached out to the South African Football Association and the Confederation of African Football in additional efforts to have the match on July 13 cancelled. The African National Congress said it backs the coalition’s demands.
In response, the Orlando Pirates explained on Monday that the match with Israel was organized by a FIFA match agent and since there is no official “boycott of any form” against Israel implemented by FIFA or the government, they must play Thursday’s game against Maccabi Tel Aviv, which includes Arab-Israel soccer players. The South African team further explained that while it is “naturally conscious of the plight of the Palestinian people,” it must follow FIFA and government rules.
“Orlando Pirates’ core functioning is governed by rules,” the team explained. “It is to the rules that Orlando Pirates went when confronted with calls to withdraw from playing Maccabi Tel Aviv. There is no cultural boycott or boycott of any form by either the South African government, FIFA or the host country that Orlando Pirates can base its refusal to play against Maccabi Tel Aviv on. Heeding a call from any other body would create a conflict within Orlando Pirates that would undermine the club’s values and history irreparably.”
The pro-Israel group the South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) on Monday called on the Orlando Pirates to “stand firm” in its decision and ignore the “hate and bullying” they face from BDS supporters.
“Instead of allowing South African sports teams to abide by international rules and participate freely in international matches, BDS is trying to harm a sports team like the Orlando Pirates, by pressuring them to cancel this positive sporting engagement,” the group said in a released statement. “Soccer can play a unifying and meaningful role in bridging the disconnect created by the inflammatory tactics of the BDS, which only seeks to sow hate and division. This dishonest attempt to dehumanize Israelis and bully South Africans must be rejected and condemned.”
In March, an Israeli rugby team was disinvited from participating in a competition in South Africa after supporters of the BDS movement pressured the South African Rugby Union, saying it “will have blood on its hands” if it allowed the “apartheid Israeli team” to compete. The Israeli team, the Tel Aviv Heat, was replaced by a team based in California that denounced the “discrimination” Israel faced.
In 2021, former Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane was harassed and received death threats from BDS supporters for traveling to Israel to participate in the Miss Universe pageant, held that year in the Israeli city of Eilat. The South African government also urged Mswane to not go to Israel and withdrew its support for the Miss Universe contestant when she ignored their pleas.