International chess masters are embroiled in a controversy over the World Chess Championship to be held in Libya next month as a row with Israeli players over visas had generating repeated calls to hold part of the tournament in Malta.
However, in what was seen as an unexpected move from Tripoli Gaddafi has invited the Israeli players to Libya and Malta is no longer needed to host the games. Colonel Gaddafi guaranteed “entry visas to all the 128 qualified participants.”
“Consequently, all the games of the championship will be played in Tripoli, Libya and no parallel event will be organised in Malta,” FIDE said in a press release on 27 April.
The World Chess Federation’s (FIDE) decision to hold the championship in Libya – a long sworn enemy of the Jewish state - was immediately met with criticism, particularly because of security concerns and visa problems for the Israeli players who are banned from entering many Arab countries. The tournament is scheduled between 18 June and 13 July.
In order to accommodate the Israelis, FIDE had previously reached an agreement with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi – the sponsor of the event – to stage the knockout championship in two parts, one in Tripoli and one in Malta, at Libya’s expense. The former pariah state will be forking out some US$2.2 million for the event, including US$1.5 million in prize money.
The prestigious competition unites the top chess players from around the world and its winner will play a match against Russian world champion Garry Kasparov.
The general invitation, signed by President of the Libyan Olympic Committee Mohammad Muammar Gaddafi (the Libyan leader’s son), promising “all necessary organizational and security measures” was also sent to the Israeli chess team in the same week that Colonel Gaddafi made a historic visit to Brussels following his decision to break with the past and return to the international fold.
The invitation hit the headlines in international media. “Libya invites Israel to international chess competition”, wrote Israeli daily Haaretz. “Israeli chess team invited to play in Libya,” reported UPI, adding that publicity accompanying secret contacts between the two countries the previous month had hampered “signs of Libyan readiness for a thaw with Israel.”
However, there was to be another twist to the story. Last Wednesday, in typical Libyan regime style, Col. Gaddafi’s son denied that he had invited Israeli chess players to participate in the Tripoli world chess championship.
“We did not and will not invite the Zionist enemy to this championship,” last Wednesday, according to an Associated Press report from Tripoli he said. “We know the Zionists will seize such occasions to enter Arab society … but we will not give up our principles even if that leads to canceling the tournament in Libya.”
Ironically, in the same week, Libyan authorities refused visas to Maltese businessmen wanting to enter Libya. They were told by the Libyan embassy that they needed “invitations” from Libya to enter the country, breaching an agreement signed last month with the Maltese government.
Gaddafi’s statements prompted the Israelis’ outrage, and demanded that FIDE moves the championship from Libya. American players withdrew their participation.
“We demand that it be held in a country that will accept every nation without discrimination,” said Israeli Chess Association spokesman Yerah Tal, noting that in Europe, Israel is ranked second in chess after Russia. “After he used those terms, calling us the Zionist enemy, it is another game entirely.”
The President of the Malta Chess Federation, Geoffrey Borg, who is helping the Libyan Olympic Committee organising the championship, told MaltaToday that he was asked by the Israelis and chess federations from other countries whether the Maltese chess community would be willing to host part of the championship here.
“Of course we were willing to host the games, we offered our hospitality to the international chess community,” he said. “All the chess federations were for Malta hosting part of the championship as an alternative site, and it would have really raised our profile, with possibly even the final taking place here.”
But Malta remains a tiny pawn on this political chessboard. The final say rests with Libya as the event’s sponsor, and with FIDE, which is somehow insisting that the invitation to all participants “is still valid.”