Football in times of crisis: Palestine’s game endures in the face of tragedy

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In the final part of our series, Ali Khaled explores how Palestinian football attempts to cope while the Gaza Strip still lays in ruins.

Football, like everything else in Gaza, is touched by tragedy.

Google “Gaza football” and search results are as likely to show reports of an infamous slaughter of four children as they are to have any information on the Gaza Premier League.

On July 16 of last year, cousins Mohammed Bakr, 11, Ahed Bakr and Zakaria Bakr, both 10, and nine-year-old Ismael Bakr were playing football on a Gaza beach when they were struck down by gunfire from an Israeli warship.

They were among 2,251 killed in a 51-day onslaught by Israel. So was Ahed Zaqout, 49, one of Palestine’s greatest players, two weeks later, as he slept in his apartment. Tens of thousands were maimed or made homeless.

One year on, Gaza is still in ruins. Little has been rebuilt. Water and electricity are scarce in many areas, and building supplies hard to obtain. The strip remains isolated from the outside world thanks to an eight-year blockade by Israel that cuts off Gaza from land, sea and air.

The spectre of another war, too, is never far away for Gaza’s 1.8 million people.

There is little cause for cheer for the youth of Gaza; unemployment is 40 per cent and young people make up two-thirds of that number. For them, the foreseeable future is grim. Yet hope has come from a familiar source.

Against all odds, football, somehow, has continued to provide escapism for fans and an escape route for players.

The strip is home to 56 clubs, spread across a 12-team Gaza Strip League and first and second divisions, and played across five stadiums in the strip. Cooped up in an area of 360 square kilometres, many of the clubs represent nothing more than small, claustrophobic neighbourhoods.

The 2014/15 season, which kicked off only weeks after a shaky ceasefire with Israel was reached, was won by Ittihad Al Shujaiya (literally, “bravery”), a club based in a neighbourhood of the same name, and one particularly hard hit during the Israeli bombardment.

Al Shujaiya wrapped up the league title in May, with three matches to spare, and completed the double by beating Khadamat Rafah 3-0 in the Gaza Strip Cup final, played at Al Yarmouk Stadium on June 7.

Speaking to the television cameras at the final whistle, goalkeeper Eyad Dwema could barely contain his emotions amid scenes of wild celebration rarely witnessed in Gaza.

“We dedicate this win to our precious fans,” he said. “To this neighbourhood, to the destroyed homes, to the parents of the martyrs, to the parents of the injured. To this whole neighbourhood, to those made homeless, those who endured 51 days of war.”

Ibrahim Abu Sarem, vice president of the Gaza Football Association, called the occasion “unprecedented”.

“Today we are celebrating something never seen before in any of the competitions organised by the association,” he said. “We salute the fans of Shujaiya and Khadamat Rafah, fans who have come here to support their teams. We will go on making football flourish here.”

Shujaiya had succeeded the 2013/14 champions Gaza Sports Club, traditionally the biggest and most successful club in the strip.

Big or small, clubs in Gaza suffer financially in the best of times, relying on government funding and independent donations to stay in business. Unsurprisingly, since last summer the situation has become worse. Stadiums and pitches are in ruins, and the main Al Yarmouk Stadium is being rebuilt for the third time.

That the 2014/15 season went ahead was remarkable enough; that it was completed a minor miracle. Organised football was one of the few aspects of Gaza life to cut through the widespread destruction, often unbearable living conditions and a freezing winter.

Bassil Mikdadi, who also runs the Football Palestine blog and Twitter account, believes a strong football culture has existed in Gaza for decades, and endures even during times of difficulty.

“Given the difficult circumstances and lack of physical infrastructure the level of football is quite high,” he said. “From a sporting aspect, Gaza benefited greatly from being under Egyptian administration from 1948-1967 mostly because the Egyptian approach to player development and sporting infrastructure was replicated.”

Some of Palestine’s best players still come out of Gaza.

“As far as players from the Gazan League are concerned, there are a lot of standouts but they don’t get the same kind of coverage as their West Bank counterparts,” Mikdadi said. “The best player over the past couple of seasons has been Gaza Sports Club’s Anas El Helu.”

El Helu's once-in-a-lifetime goal against El Meshtal in the cup deserves a place among the 2015 candidates for the Fifa Puskas Award for best goal of the year.

Meanwhile, the great young hope is Bashar Abu Qeriya, 17, also of Gaza Sports Club, already called “the Gazan Messi”.

“Gaza tends to be the hotbed for football talent and many of the country’s best have been developed there,” Mikdadi said. “The Gaza Pro League is still producing quality players but due to the blockade not many get their chance to prove themselves on a bigger stage.”

The most accessible bigger stage for Gaza’s footballers is the West Bank Premier League (WBPL). A move to the home of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Football Association (PFA) – and where the national team matches take place – can be a gateway to joining clubs in Jordan and Egypt, or even the Gulf.

In Gaza, the amateur set-up means most players do not receive a full-time salary, but monthly bonuses that can range from a low of 50 shekels (Dh47.8) to over 500 shekels. Eyes naturally turn to the West Bank.

“The league in the West Bank has more money to throw around and can recruit players of Palestinian origin from abroad,” Mikdadi said, noting the Gaza league does not allow foreign players. “The WBPL also is a destination for many Palestinian citizens of Israel, many of whom stand to make more money than they would playing for a club in the Israeli second or third tier.”

One of last season’s top performers in the WBPL was Gazan attacking midfielder Abdelhamid Abuhabib, who scored 19 goals in 22 games for his club Merkaz Balata, who finished the season in runners-up position.

Abuhabib is an exception. For many Gazans who aspire to play in the West Bank, travel restrictions by both Hamas and Israeli authorities make even that seemingly modest ambition a logistical nightmare.

“Any move from Gaza to the WBPL is predicated on the player’s ability to get an exit permit and other forms of paperwork,” said Mikdadi. “The PFA can facilitate this for some players but often times Israel blocks these types of moves from happening.”

Not surprisingly, the national team preparations are constantly disrupted, though last year's triumph in the AFC Challenge Cup, a competition for Asian Football Confederation members categorised as "emerging countries", provided automatic qualification to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia, by far Palestine's greatest footballing achievement.

“The blockade on Gaza has impeded players from playing for the national team,” said Mikdadi. “Last year, Sameh Mar’aba was detained without formal charge for eight months upon returning from a national team training camp in Qatar.”

The striker eventually made his debut in June, scoring twice in a 6-0 win over Malaysia in a 2018 World Cup qualifier.

Movement is easier for West Bank residents, but even there red tape and bureaucracy are part of everyday life, with roadblocks and checkpoints often causing havoc to the WBPL fixture list.

Still, the WBPL is better organised and attended than its Gaza counterpart.

Hebron derbies between Ahli Al Khaleel, Shabab Al Khaleel and Shabab El Dharieh, who all play at Dora International Stadium, can attract capacity crowds of up to 20,000, according to Mikdadi, while regular matches can draw between 1,000 and 3,000 fans.

“Stadiums are safe and it is not uncommon to see women in the stands, although they are more prominent during national team games,” Mikdadi said. “The PFA does a good job of fining clubs when their fans misbehave which has stamped out a lot of antisocial behaviour.”

It is in Gaza, however, where football fanaticism thrives.

Football authorities are trying to harness the love of the game in a peaceful manner, among players and fans.

"The biggest interest in football in all of Palestine comes from Gaza, because they don't have any other way to express themselves," Abu Sarem told The National last summer. "We are trying to keep young people away from [violence], but at the same time the restrictions on the movement of players makes them hate Israel."

After their Gaza Cup final success, Al Shujaiya released a one-minute YouTube video of several players showing off their skills amid the ruins that remain untouched since last summer’s conflict.

At the end of the clip the players are seen lifting the trophy as a group of cheering young boys surround them. It is at once an inspiring and heartbreaking scene, a microcosm of where Gaza football, even life, currently stands.

“Playing football is not a way to make a living in Palestine,” Abu Sarem said. “You cannot support a family this way.

“We want to play because we want to tell the world that we exist, and that Palestine exists. The poor kids here in Gaza, they ask for footballs. This is the best way to put us out there in the world.”

It is in football, and perhaps only football, that young Gazans see a potential way out from the misery of life under siege. Only a lucky few will experience the joy of reaching that goal.

Palestine’s football history

– Palestine Football Association recognised by Fifa in 1998

– Highest Fifa ranking: No 85, July 2014

– Current Fifa ranking: No 119 (No 15 in Asia)

– Honours: AFC Challenge Cup champions, 2014

– Most-capped player: Ramzi Saleh (107)

– Domestic leagues: West Bank Premier League, founded 2010; Gaza Strip League, founded 1984

– Current champions: Shabab Al Dhahiriya (WBPL), Al Ittihad Al Shujaiya (GSL)

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