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Palestine's Big Visitor

Not Laura…But Ronaldo

by DAVE ZIRIN

Ronaldo is the Brazilian soccer player, who happens to be the most famous athlete in the world. However, due to the professional soccer blackout in the US sports media, Ronaldo’s name-recognition among American sports fans hovers somewhere between the WNBA’s Lisa Leslie, and the Whizzinator.

It’s a fact that our mainstream sports blather blithely ignores the sport known to the world as football– despite the fact that almost four million Americans under 19 participate in organized soccer leagues, a number far higher than baseball, basketball, or youth golf. In all honesty, I am not a big soccer fan — my anti-soccer indoctrination sealed at an early age – but I do understand its appeal and respect those like my buddy "Nicky the Chin," who know that Man U and Real Madrid aren’t cheap colognes.

Soccer-heads like Nicky also know that Ronaldo, far from being an athletic footnote, matters . Ronaldo matters because his global recognition and social import stretch to audiences the NFL and NBA for all their billions couldn’t hope to reach. To soccer-obsessed children, especially in the impoverished global south, Ronaldo is a demigod. His acolytes don’t need expensive sneakers or equipmentójust a ball and some friends– to imitate the utterly distinctive moves and motion of their hero.

But heroes don’t always rise to the level of heroism. This was seen last week when Ronaldo traveled to Palestine in his official capacity as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations He inaugurated a youth center in Ramallah and announced to a crowd of 1,500 people that his visit was part of a campaign for Middle East peace. He told a news conference, ìI hope that the sports movement will be revived in Palestine, and I hope to see a Palestinian soccer team when there will be peace." Then the star went to Tel Aviv and gave the same kind of speech to an Israeli audience, preaching ìsports, love, and understanding" like a thick-thighed Elvis Costello.

This was in many ways a highly scripted trip. But reality intervened when Ronaldo’s plan to visit the occupied Gaza Strip was thwarted by Israeli armed checkpoints.

The checkpoints prevented Ronaldo from granting the wish of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy named Hamad al-Nairib who lives in the Rafah refugee camp, Hamad once dreamt of becoming ìthe Ronaldo of Palestine," but such hopes were dashed when an Israeli cruise missile blew off one of his legs. Hamad wrote the following letter, urging Ronaldo to defy the travel ban on the Gaza strip, so the two of them could ìshake hands."

Here is the full text of Hamads letter. (Note: This letter has been widely published in the European and Middle Eastern papers but to my knowledge has yet to appear anywhere in the mainstream press in the United States.)

"Dear Ronaldo,

My name is Hamad al-Nairab, I am 12-year-old, live in the Refugee Camp of al-Shabboura in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah. I like football very much, and love you very much. I am one of the supporters of the Brazilian football team. Everyday, I watch football matches on TV to see you while playing football.

I used to play football in our quarter. I used to wear the yellow shirt with number 9. I hoped to visit Brazil to see you there, play with you and to take picture with you.

I had a dream to be older and older and to become a famous professional footballer like you, I had a dream to be the Ronaldo of Palestine. Dear Ronaldo, I cannot play football because I lost my left leg. On May 19, 2004, me and my friends participated in a peaceful march in Rafah. The Israeli helicopters hit us with missiles. A lot of friends were killed and others wounded. On that day, I lost my leg and my dreams dead. No more playing football.

I was so pleased and surprised when I heard that you are visiting our homeland Palestine. But, unfortunately, I will be not able to see you because of the Israeli checkpoints and my health condition. All of my friends love you so much, and love football, they hope just to see you even for seconds. Seeing you is one of their big dreams.

I invite you to visit Rafah and beg you to agree, to award me the opportunity to shake hand with you and to take pictures with you. And to see how much the people here love you. All of them talk about you and about your visit. I hope you will not disappoint the children of Rafah and all the people here who love you.

We are waiting for you, Hamad al-Nairab."

Hamad is still waiting, as defying travel bans was not on Ronald’s goodwill agenda. It’s hard to comprehend here in the states how deeply soccer is loved around the world. It is perhaps harder for us to digest that US made weapons are blowing the legs off of 12-year-old boys with universal dreams of athletic glory. But it is intolerable that Hamad’s dreams – dreams to meet Ronaldo, dreams to play soccer, dreams to walk — have become little more than collateral damage.

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" will be in stores in June 2005. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at whatsmynamefool2005@yahoo.com.