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From Benzema to Cantona: Footballers express solidarity with Gaza victims

Several football players have voiced their support for the Palestinian victims of Israeli air strikes, prompting backlash from their clubs
Ittihad's French forward #09 Karim Benzema reacts after scoring a goal during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal at Prince Abdullah al-Faisal Stadium in Jeddah on 1 September 2023 (AFP)
Ittihad's French forward Karim Benzema reacts after scoring a goal during the Saudi Pro League football match between Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal in Jeddah on 1 September 2023 (AFP)

Is it possible to strip Karim Benzema of the Ballon d'Or? This is what Senator Valerie Boyer from the French right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party is demanding as a "symbolic punishment" in a statement where she also calls for him to be stripped of his French nationality.

French right-wing politicians are unleashing their criticism against the footballer, who is the fifth all-time top scorer for the French national team and currently plays as a centre-forward for the Saudi club Al-Ittihad.

During an appearance on the CNews channel, on Pascal Praud's show "L'heure des pros," French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin also took aim at the former French international.

"Mr Benzema is, as we all know, notably linked with the Muslim Brotherhood... We are confronting a hydra that is the Muslim Brotherhood because they foster an atmosphere of jihadism, as Gilles Kepel [French political scientist and Islam specialist] has pointed out," he said.

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Karim Benzema, 35 years old, is one of the few French public figures openly advocating for the Palestinian cause. On Sunday, he tweeted "prayers" to the people of Gaza and mentioned "unjust bombings," marking his first response to the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli air strikes continue to bombard civilian buildings and infrastructure in the besieged Gaza Strip for the 12th day, with the latest attack targeting a hospital on Tuesday killing at least 471 civilians, both patients and displaced people.

The latest round of hostilities between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza started when Hamas launched a surprise multi-front assault on Israeli communities on 7 October, firing thousands of rockets and sending fighters into Israel by land, air and sea.

At least 1,400 Israelis were killed in the incursion, including civilians and soldiers, and 199 people taken captive back to Gaza.

Israeli forces have responded by raining down a barrage of air strikes on the Gaza Strip, killing at least 3,478 Palestinians, more than a thousand of them children.

In the world of football, there are a few individuals who publicly express support for Palestine. On Tuesday, it was Eric Cantona, a former French footballer known for his social activism, who spoke out on Instagram in English, emphasising that "defending the human rights of Palestinians does not mean supporting Hamas".

In a post titled "Free Palestine," he called for "freedom for Palestinians from Israeli occupation, which has deprived them of their most basic human rights for 75 years".

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In 2021, the former Olympique de Marseille striker promoted the Hoping Foundation in its efforts to collect aid "to support emergency interventions in Gaza". Last year, he wore a special jersey, and the proceeds from its sale were intended for Palestinian refugees.

Meanwhile, Nabil Fekir, a player for Real Betis in Seville and a 2018 World Cup champion with the French national team, also expressed his support for the Palestinian people in a message posted on Instagram on Wednesday.

Fekir shared a photo of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem with the caption: "Unwavering support for the people of Palestine." He called for a return to peace and justice, also stating that the Palestinian population had been experiencing "apartheid for too long".

On Tuesday, after the bombing of the Al-Ahli al-Arab Hospital in Gaza, the Algerian player Islam Slimani, who plays as a centre-forward for Coritiba FC in Brazil, posted a photo of a burning corridor on his Instagram story with the caption "Free Palestine".

Punitive measures

But such gestures of solidarity do not come without a cost.

The renowned sports journalist Didier Roustan commented on TV5 Monde on Monday: "It's good that footballers have a political conscience; it's quite courageous to assert their positions, but they still have a lot to lose in this kind of debate."

Complaints were lodged with the ethics council of the French Football Federation on Sunday after the Nice player, Youcef Atal, shared a post containing "calls to violence" related to the conflict.

'El Ghazi took an unacceptable stance for the club regarding the ongoing conflict in the Middle East' 

- FSV Mainz statement

He was suspended by his club on Wednesday. Even though the Algerian international quickly removed the post and issued an apology, the club explained in a statement that they had chosen to "immediately" impose sanctions, as a "precautionary" measure before any actions taken by sports or legal authorities.

Sanctions were also imposed on Anwar El Ghazi, a 28-year-old Dutch international footballer, who was suspended by his club, Mainz, in Germany, for sharing a post expressing support for Palestine in response to Israel's military actions.

Since Tuesday, the player has been excused from his "training and match-related obligations".

"El Ghazi took an unacceptable stance for the club regarding the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Before making this decision, the club and the player engaged in deep discussions," the club explained in a statement.

Fifa President Gianni Infantino conveyed his condolences on behalf of the organisation to the presidents of the Palestinian and Israeli Football Federations in a letter sent on Friday, emphasising that Fifa aligns itself with "calls for an immediate end to hostilities and the immediate alleviation of the suffering of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples".

This article was originally published in French.

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