In a world where mainstream media dumb down news reportage with inane sports metaphors, sometimes it takes sports to remind us of the gravity of the actual news. While the press acts like extras on Gossip Girl as they assess the latest machinations of Bill, Barack and Hillary, a soccer player aimed to alert the world to a humanitarian catastrophe.
Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Aboutreika of the Al-Ahly Pharoahs is the player who stepped up to this task. It’s a safe bet that Pharoah mania isn’t exactly sweeping the States. It’s also probably true that most readers don’t know Mohamed Aboutreika from Muhammad Ali, but the two men share more than a name.
After scoring in the Egyptian national side’s 3-0 victory over Sudan in the African Nations Cup, the player known as the Smiling Assassin lifted his jersey to reveal a T-shirt that read, “Sympathize with Gaza.”
For such a simple slogan, the reaction has been profound. Aboutreika received a yellow card for breaking world soccer’s ruling body FIFA’s year-old rule against political sloganeering on the pitch, and a suspension may be in the works. But then the unexpected: The confederation was flooded with emails from fans and even reporters expressing their support for Aboutreika’s actions.
“He is a good player and he belongs to all Arab and Muslim nations, and he reflected what is in our hearts,” journalist Ahmed Gamal wrote to FIFA. “We are asking you, in the name of human rights, to cooperate with us and support him. Please do not even think about any suspension for him, because your tournament will be fake and the whole Muslim world is supporting him. Please don’t make that mistake. We are all sympathizing with Gaza.”
The immediate solidarity was due as much to the man as the message. For those who care more about navel lint than the seditious, flag-burning world of soccer, Aboutreika isn’t some obscure sideline footballer. One of the top players in Africa, he’s known as the “Smiling Assassin” for his trademark ear-to-ear post-goal-scoring grin.
Like calling Walter Payton “Sweetness,” it speaks to Aboutreika’s personality more than his play. He’s a media favorite for treating fans and reporters alike with a rare respect.
He follows the Muhammad Ali credo: “I’ll never look down on someone who looks up to me.” If Roger Clemens can make a person feel like bathing in Listerine after meeting him, Aboutreika makes the people around him feel lifted for loving sports.
After his team won the African Champions League in 2006, the press lavished him with praise. But Aboutreika gently rebuked them, saying, “We need to stop this habit of praising [an individual] player. It isn’t Aboutreika, but the whole team who got the Cup. Without the others’ efforts, I can’t ever make anything. Football is a game played by many players. It isn’t tennis or squash.”
He has said: “Every athlete has a humanitarian role in society. He doesn’t live solely for himself, but for others too. I like to participate in charity work and try my best to help the poor and penniless. I’m also seeking to use soccer in humanitarian work.”
Quaint as this may sound, Aboutreika backs his words with deeds. He’s made fighting poverty the focus of his life out of uniform, appearing in an Egyptian public service announcement broadcast in which he said: “Hunger takes away a child every five seconds. We have to move immediately and lend each other a hand because every second counts. This is a game we have to win.”
For a person committed to fighting poverty, the need to raise awareness about Gaza is an act of obvious principle.” (John Edwards, take note.)
FIFA may have been horrified by this breach of politics/sport propriety, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happening in Gaza itself.
Like Gotham in Kurt Russell’s Escape From New York, Gaza has become a prison city, a scrap of land containing 1.5 million prisoners”men, women and children. Bad turned to dystopic on Jan. 18, when the state of Israel imposed a total Gaza blockade. Before this action, unemployment exceeded 40 percent. Now life in Gaza isn’t about finding work. It’s about basic survival.
“A stream of dark and putrid sludge snakes through Gaza’s streets,” wrote journalist Mohammed Omer. “It is a noxious mix of human and animal waste. The stench is overwhelming. The occasional passer-by vomits. Over recent days, this has been a more common sight than the sale of food on the streets of Gaza, choked by a relentless Israeli siege.”
All of this came home after hundreds of thousands of desperate residents fled Gaza through a breach in the border wall. As Al Jazeera reported, “If Gaza is the biggest prison on the planet, this is the biggest jail break.”
This is what pushed Aboutreika to make his stand. How novel to see a superstar athlete stand up and protest the wreckage of U.S. imperial policy in the Middle East. Tom Brady is more likely to call his new cologne “Gaza Mist” than acknowledge the humanitarian horror show underwritten by his tax dollars.
Against the expectation of star athletes and his own federation, Aboutreika has decided that while there’s a soul in prison, he himself isn’t free. Amid the graveyards dug by the West, a smiling assassin has taken a stand for survival and a measure of human compassion.
DAVE ZIRIN is a columnist for sports illustrated.com and the author of “Welcome to the Terrordome,” (Haymarket).