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Left Sports Review: Palestinian National Football Team – Resisting Israeli Occupation

By Hatem Abudayyeh

Palestinian National Football Team

The Palestinian National Football (soccer) Team functions, or barely functions, under more difficult conditions than any other team in the world. Players from Gaza cannot travel to the West Bank or Jerusalem, West Bankers cannot travel to Jerusalem or Gaza and neither Gazans nor West Bankers can enter the 1948 Palestinian territories (now called ‘Israel’).

So although 2.2 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, with 1.1 million in Gaza and another million in the 1948 areas, a consolidated team that can practice together is impossible to field. Add to this dilemma the fact that finely manicured pitches (forget finely manicured, there are hardly any grass fields at all) are impossible to come by in the West Bank or Gaza and it becomes painfully obvious that football (although loved by Palestinians and other Arabs across the world) is another casualty of the U.S.-supported Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Goal of Dreams, a movie directed by Jeffrey Saunders and Maya Sanbar and screened, amongst other places, at the Chicago Palestine Film Festival, chronicles the trials of the Palestinian team as it unsuccessfully attempts to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. In scene after powerful scene, viewers experience the humiliation afforded the Gazans as they try to cross the border and join their teammates training in Egypt. As the Israelis constantly reject these attempts, the rest of the team, which includes one Palestinian American from New York and a number of Chileans of Palestinian ancestry, could not scrimmage because, without the Gazans, they did not have the requisite 22 players to do so.

We see the frustration on the faces and in the words of the players in Egypt, those stuck in Gaza and on their mismatched Austrian coach – unable to unite in sport because of the repressive and restrictive policies of the Israeli government. The coach, Alfred Riedl, laments as he hysterically endeavors to instruct the players who do not share a common language with each other or with him, “We don’t even have a country! We have to practice here [in Egypt] and friends are killed regularly…we don’t know what we are, who we are.”

More recently, the Palestinian Gaza under-19 team was banned from playing in Britain. According to the BBC’s Mike Sergeant, the players were told that their visas were blocked by the British consulate in Jerusalem because of the risk that they would not return home to Gaza.

This devastating news, compounded by the U.S./Israeli economic and military siege on Gaza (where unemployment and poverty are at all-time highs) and the fact that Gaza’s main football stadium was destroyed by Israeli fighter jets last year, is further example of the national oppression that faces Palestinians every day, even in the ostensibly ‘pure’ realm of international sporting competition. Because although football is one of the few sports in which Palestine has a national team, officially recognized by FIFA, the world governing body of football, in 1998, there is no domestic league in Palestine and no free movement of players within and outside Palestine.

But just as the Palestinian people continue their struggle for liberation, the Palestinian National football Team (and others all around the world who support Palestinian rights) is resisting all attempts to prevent it from competing. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign in England has initiated a petition campaign to “Kick Israeli Apartheid Out of Football,” and last year, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign organized thousands of fans to protest and wave Palestinian flags when the Israeli team played Ireland in Dublin.

At the end of Goal of Dreams, the Gazans finally make it to Egypt and then to the World Cup qualifying game against Uzbekistan. Although they lose badly, millions of their countrywomen and men are watching, the team transforming into a manifestation of national pride and the dignity of a people in exile, fighting for justice, freedom, statehood and Return. As Murad, the Palestinian American, realizes the political significance of his team’s quest, he describes his yearning to simply play for a team with “Palestine” on its jersey.

Left Sports Review is being circulated electronically by Fight Back! News Service. We welcome your comments at [email protected]

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