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Israeli team participating in world finals for FIFA soccer videogame was greeted at the opening ceremony in Riyadh with the playing of ‘Hatikvah.’

By Andrew Bernard, The Algemeiner

Israel’s national anthem was played in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh on Tuesday at an esports tournament with Israeli competitors, likely the first time in the country’s history.

An Israeli team competing in the world finals for the soccer videogame FIFA flew the Israeli flag and were greeted with Israel’s anthem Hatikvah at the tournament’s opening ceremony Tuesday after they arrived in Saudi Arabia on Friday. Israeli media reported that the gaming team, ranked second in the world, flew to Riyadh via the United Arab Emirates and entered the country on their Israeli passports.

This year’s FIFAe World Cup tournament is part of the larger Gamers8 esports competition organized by the Saudi Esports Federation and has a prize pool of $3 million. The tournament will run from 16-19 July.

Saudi Arabia has no official diplomatic relations with Israel and Israeli passport holders cannot generally travel to Saudi Arabia, though Israeli business figures, media personalities, and journalists have increasingly been able to do so in recent years. FIFA, the global governing body for soccer that also organizes the FIFAe tournament, reportedly negotiated with the Israeli and Saudi authorities to ensure that all participants, including the Israeli team, could compete.

The playing of Hatikvah, the lyrics of which are about the Jewish connection to the land of Zion and Jerusalem, and the participation of Israelis has been a controversial issue at sporting events hosted by Arab and Islamic countries that do not recognize Israel.

In 2017 before they established relations with Israel, the UAE played the anthem and raised the flag of the International Judo Federation after Israeli judoka Tal Flicker won gold at a tournament in Abu Dhabi. Flicker nonetheless sang Hatikvah by himself.

The UAE allowed the Israeli anthem to be played at the tournament the following year after another Israeli athlete won gold, which was widely interpreted as an early signal pointing towards the UAE’s eventual recognition of Israel in 2020 as part of the Abraham Accords.

The ability of Israelis to travel to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar was also a difficult sticking point in that nation’s hosting of the global soccer tournament. Some 30,000 Israelis are thought to have ultimately attended the event, which included the first direct flights between Israel and Qatar.

For now, the Israeli FIFAe team appears to be an exception in Israeli participation in Saudi-hosted events. According to a report in Axios, Saudi Arabia has refused to confirm whether they will allow Israeli officials to participate in a meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee slated to be held in Riyadh in September.

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