Nicholas Blincoe is no stranger to Palestine. Married to Palestinian filmmaker Leila Sansour, he has spent a significant part of his time living in Bethlehem, a town of historical significance which he profiled in the acclaimed Bethlehem: Biography of a Town in 2017. When he felt homesick, he would resort to following “English things,” which included soccer games played by Manchester City. Getting hooked on soccer sparked his curiosity to learn more about its history in Palestine. In September, the Israeli government cancelled the FIFA Palestine Cup that was going to take place in the West bank. The Gaza’s Khadamat Rafah club was denied permits to travel a few miles to play Nablus’ FC Balata. This is but one example of the interconnectedness of politics and sports in Palestine.
Laura Albast spoke with Blincoe earlier this month to discuss his most recent work: More Noble Than War: A Soccer History of Israel-Palestine. The book, released in the U.S. on October 29, presents a thorough examination of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of social clubs, sporting institutions, and soccer administrators.
Through records, conversations, and pictures, Blincoe unravels a narrative of ambition, nationalism, and violence that dominated the game for Jewish and Palestinian teams in the 20th century.
I’m curious about the process of writing the book. You spoke to family members, former players, individuals who’ve been involved in both politics and soccer, examined letters and pictures. Can you tell me about any challenges you faced in collecting information?
Not particularly. In some ways, I was very cautious. It’s not as though I sailed into the center of a lot of Beitar fans (Beitar is an Israeli football association, closely linked to the Revisionist Zionism movement and forerunner of the Likud Party), and started asking questions, perhaps the book would be more lively if I had done that. But I was always interested in the history, and it’s not that difficult to get people to talk about the history especially as this is such an unusual angle. It’s still the history of Israel and Palestine, and it still tells the same story, [but it has] a unique perspective looking at it from social clubs, and sporting institutions and from football stars and always football administrators, so it all begins to look very different.
I [received] help [from] some Israeli academics and journalists, and I had a huge amount of help [from] Palestinians of Israel. I never went to Gaza which is a huge omission It’s not really that history is written by the victors, but the victors can get more information. I found a lot of online records on the Israeli side but online records on the Palestinian side were sketchier. I was helped by historians like Issam Khalidi, and [I was very dependent] on newspapers at the time. And again, Palestinian records were confiscated, literally taken out in boxes by the British army.
There are weird things about Israel’s grip on the sport. There’s a strange subterranean history to Israeli football [where] Russians who [weren’t] necessarily Jewish were involved, English[men] who weren’t necessarily Jewish were involved, although many of them were, and therefore I’m saying it’s really, surely for the first 50 years the history of the English engagement.
“Unlike the early Palestinian teams, the boys of Orloff’s club (Jaffa gym club, first Jewish sports club) did not see football as an exercise in diplomacy: a way to reach out and make new friends. Where the English-educated schoolboys of Jerusalem looked outwards, the Russian Yishuv turned inward, only playing games among themselves.From More Noble Than War: A Soccer History of Israel-Palestine by Nicholas Blincoe
It looked like the initial rivalries were among the Jewish teams themselves rather than between them and the Palestinian teams. You mention that in the 1920s where the Palestinians saw the game as an act of diplomacy, the Yishuv kept to themselves. I was curious whether this stems from the cultural background of the players. What can you tell us about this?
It’s true, on the Palestinian side certainly until the late 1920s [and] 1930s, football was elite. There were no problems with Christians and Muslims, they came from the posher cities like Jerusalem and Jaffa at the time. That changed in the 1930 as dockers, Marxists and political activists got involved on the Palestinian side. But on the Jewish side, the Maccabi (sports club) members were Russians and they were very separatist; that was their culture. They didn’t form sporting organizations to play the world, they formed them to play world Jewry and local Jewish teams. I think one of the greatest stories in my book is how the Hapoel Tel Aviv (socialist sports club) emerged out of the youth team of the Maccabis because they were just so angry at being passed over. They got an offer to join Hapoel which is the labor trade union. They weren’t the same as the Maccabis because they had an idea of the international and they wanted to go out and play other socialists but in Palestine they only ever played Jews. The only Jewish political movement in pre-state Israel that wanted to play other teams was Beitar which is because they were fascists, they wanted to play other teams just to prove that they were better, so that was their angle.
“The politician Ahmad Tibi, who represents Tayibe in the Israeli parliament, has argued that the popularity of soccer is a symptom of poverty. But this ignored the fact that sport has always carried a prestige among Palestinians.”From More Noble Than War: A Soccer History of Israel-Palestine by Nicholas Blincoe
You introduce in the beginning that soccer was a game of the elites in the 1920s, then you write how the game has been embraced by the working class and how Tibi referred to it as a “symptom of poverty.” Is soccer, in this context, a tool to ghettoize or distract, or does this not apply to the Palestinian case?
I don’t think it is a way to ghettoize Palestinians. This is a peculiarity of Palestine that soccer began as an elite sport. If the British had gotten to Palestine earlier maybe they’d be playing rugby or cricket. The game also started as such in Argentina where it was an elite [game] and then public schools’ taught people how to play it. The Palestinian [elites] played a very bad version of the game, but it was revolutionized in the 1920s and 30s as it became the working-class sport. This maybe a little bit too romantic for my taste to say this but there are plenty of football historians who will say that there’s something innately socialist about football because they’re playing as a team.
In my experience living in Bethlehem, football did two things: it offered me a way to talk about an important history which is the history of the Palestinian struggle and the history of the creation of Israel in the 20th century, and it also presented a new way of looking at this history. It would be too strong to say it’s a more optimistic [outlook], it isn’t, but there are optimistic bits of it like FIFA being the first international organization to recognize Palestine. That was important. And Palestine has a rather good team.