Mohamed Salah’s response to the Israel-Gaza conflict should set the tone for sport moving forward, according to a former sports PR agent and academic.
The Liverpool and Egypt forward called for “world leaders to come together to prevent further slaughter of innocent souls” in the wake of a fatal blast at Gaza City hospital last month.
The 31-year-old is one of many athletes with a high-profile social media account to comment on the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organisation by the governments of both Britain and the United States.
The current conflict came after Hamas gunmen launched an unprecedented assault on Israel from the Gaza Strip on 7 October, killing more than 1,400 people, with the Israel Defence Forces carrying out retaliatory strikes on Gaza since, resulting in over 10,000 deaths, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-controlled enclave.
“Salah is an example of someone who was under severe pressure to take sides because of his nationality,” Ian Bayley, now a senior lecturer in sports journalism at Staffordshire University, told BBC Sport Africa.
“But he took a step back and said: ‘What I stand for is peace and an end for suffering’.”
Bayley points out that Salah’s statement “hasn’t been enough for some people” who feel the two-time African Footballer of the Year should use his vast influence to take “a more political stance”.
“When he eventually released a message, he was lauded by many for its humanitarian tone and yet criticised by others who thought his stance should been more pro-Arab and pro-Palestine,” Bayley explained.
“But he can’t do that because he will have a social media policy with his club.”
When Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur spoke on the issue earlier this month, her stance was less ambivalent.
“I have decided to donate part of my prize money to help the Palestinians,” the world number seven said at the season-ending WTA finals in Mexico.
“It is not a political message, it is humanity. I want peace in this world.”
Bayley also welcomed Jabeur’s message, saying “any gesture that contributes towards the easing of human suffering has to be applauded, as long as it is made on the grounds of humanity and is not political”.
“The more difficult issue is that the conflict has polarised views to such an extent that any gesture, however well-meaning and intentioned, is inevitably going to draw both praise and criticism,” he added.
So what do the responses of Salah, Jabeur and leading Africans tell us about the political position sportspeople find themselves in? And what dangers are involved in using their platforms to promote their views on major issues?
Social media ‘the great changer’
Since the war began on 7 October, there has been a substantial outpouring of support for the Palestinian cause among sports clubs, players and supporters across Africa, particularly in North Africa.
Ahead of a friendly against Cape Verde on 12 October, Algeria’s football team walked onto the pitch wearing keffiyehs, a headdress associated with Palestinian resistance, with captain Riyad Mahrez among players to later parade the Palestinian flag on the pitch.
“There haven’t really been any Algerian celebrities who haven’t spoken out to at least express their sympathy with the suffering going on in Palestine,” said Algerian football journalist Maher Mezahi.
“What you have to understand is that Algeria was colonised for 132 years by the French and over one million Europeans had settled in Algeria by 1962, so many Algerians see the Palestinian plight as synonymous with their past.”
Mezahi called Salah’s statement the “most interesting dynamic in terms of a celebrity being pressured to speak out” with Carole Kimutai, a digital media strategist in Kenya, saying the pressure stems from today’s modern world.
“When issues like racism, sexuality, conflict, religion, abortion et cetera come up, sports stars can choose whether to publicly speak or keep out,” she told BBC Sport Africa.
“But when the issue is closer to home, the public will expect the personality to speak up. Gaza is close to Salah. This clearly demonstrates the many interests players like Salah have to juggle in their sports careers.”
So with the Liverpool star, whose home city of Nagrig in Egypt is less than 350km from Gaza, having urged restraint in order to protect Palestinian lives, was it any surprise when Premier League club Crystal Palace came out to back Israel?
Not so in the opinion of a leading professor of sport and geopolitical economy.
“Two of their owners are Jewish and a third is an American with very strong links to the American Jewish community,” said Simon Chadwick of the Skema Business School.
“The ownership and cultures of clubs are very significant, and so we are getting these very different approaches.”
In Israel, Brazil’s 2012 Olympic medallist Felipe Kitadai offered the country “love and all my support” despite reportedly looking to leave a nation that has been his recent base while football international Manor Solomon is among those to have criticised Hamas on social media.
With first-hand experience of war after being in Kyiv on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Tottenham Hotspur’s Solomon recounted how his family and friends have been through “hell” because of the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict.
“Social media is the great changer of the dynamic,” said Bayley.
“If this conflict had been 30 years ago, it’s fair to say that footballers would not be under the pressure they are as a direct consequence of what goes out on social media.”
“It’s an impossible, classic rock-and-a-hard-place situation for any footballer in a situation like we have now, which is almost unprecedented.”
The dangers of posting
Three years ago, Jabeur received death threats on social media after she chose to put politics to one side by playing Israel, a country her government does not recognise, in an international tennis tournament on behalf of Tunisia.
Stepping into the political sphere, whether global or otherwise, has recently proved risky for others too.
Legendary basketballer Lebron James had been criticised by many after posting in support of Israel following the Hamas attack of 7 October, with “sell-out”, “clown” and “shame on you” among the more printable responses.
After coming out in support of Israel, boxing great Floyd Mayweather has also received similar treatment, and then there are several current footballers who have received disciplinary action from their clubs for their posts.
Algeria defender Youcef Atal was suspended by Nice, with the French club unimpressed by a post, which he has deleted and apologised for, it deemed anti-Semitic. The 27-year-old was eventually handed a seven-match ban by the governing body which runs Ligue 1, the French top flight.
Noussair Mazraoui faced criticism after sharing a pro-Palestine video on his Instagram, with his club Bayern Munich having a “detailed and clarifying conversation” with the Morocco international who subsequently said he will “always be against all kinds of terrorism, hatred and violence”.
In Germany last week, Dutch winger Anwar El Ghazi had his contract terminated by Mainz for a social media post about the Israel-Gaza conflict which the Bundesliga club perceived to be pro-Palestinian.
“What we’ve not seen in England so far is the kind of episodes that we’ve seen in France or Germany where Muslim players have made pro-Palestinian statements and been suspended,” said Chadwick.
“But the longer the situation goes on, the more sensitive these issues become. There is always the potential for a club, player, sponsor or organisation to make a statement, one side or the other.
“Increasingly in the 21st century, we seem unable to divorce or decouple football from the wider context.”
It is a viewpoint which the words of Bassil Mikdadi, editor of the Football Palestine website, appeared to reinforce when he appeared on the BBC’s The Sports Desk podcast.
“We are in a situation of such dire humanitarian crisis that there is actually something actionable that we can ask people to do, which is to call for a ceasefire, which is a non-partisan position,” he said.
“Footballers are part of our communities, so it makes sense for them to ask for it.”
Yet those being pressured to speak do not always do so. For those brave enough to venture a public opinion, Bayley has this advice.
“We must always keep in mind the power of sports and high-profile sportspeople to influence,” said the former journalist with a deep interest in the relationship between sport and the media.
“If they want to say something, it’s up to the players to consult with their clubs and make sure they have absolute clarity on what they can and cannot say.”
DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.