Arrested while he headed to football training, Mahmoud Sarsak’s football career took an unexpected turn one day in 2009.
The Palestinian international footballer was jailed crossing the border into Israel with the state claiming he had planted a bomb and was involved in terrorism. Incarcerated for three years, he was never charged with any crime or offence, and only released after a three month hunger strike.
His fitness plummeted as his body weight dropped by a third (from 70kg to 47kg). His promising football career – when, appropriately, he played as a striker – ended. His life changed.
Next week, eight days after UEFA kick off the politically-charged under-21 European championship in Israel, he will visit Falkirk on his road to recovery. Football though, now takes a secondary role in his life as he draws attention to the conflict in the land of his birth, and particularly focusses on the treatment of his fellow Palestinians.
“My position is the championships should not be hosted in a country like Israel. Football is about respect, peace and sport. That is not what I experienced from Israel. It is about respecting other cultures as they come together in fair competition, Israel is looking to wipe out the Palestinian culture and and doesn’t respect them,” he told The Falkirk Herald through an interpreter.
“This country is opposing the championship aims. FIFA and UEFA have the duty to respect the morals behind the championships. Israel violated my human rights therefore this competition is immoral.”
Sarsak has called for the tournament to be moved, but with the likes of Wilfried Zaha already training with Stuart Pearce’s England squad in Tel-Aviv, the appeals to UEFA president Michael Platini, echoed by football figures Eric Cantona and Fredi Kanoute, have fallen on deaf ears.
His imprisonment was used as an example, highlighting issues in the region which worsened more when the football stadium in Gaza, where Sarsak once represented his homeland, was bombed in December, as politics defeated football. The same happened to Sarsak, but he is embracing the change and raising political awareness has replaced football in his life.
“It killed sporting ambition, but the stadium can be rebuilt. The people who die in these incidents, cannot. That is what hurts.
“I used to play football, and studied at university, I worked in my family business. It all stopped.
“After prison, I had a virus because of my hunger strike. Since then I have regained some of my fitness, but just a little.
“The virus gave me time to decide I must tell others. I am able to tell about the violation of my rights by Israel, of myself and the Palestinians.
“I am not wanting publicity – just for people to know about the prisoners.”
Mahmoud Sarsak will speak next Thursday, June 13, in St Francis Xavier church hall at 7.30p.m.