x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Making history, on the pitch

Football is helping unite a community in the West Bank, with the national team finally able to celebrate.

Palestinian Children play football beside the separation wall that separate Jerusalem from West Bank in Qalandia refugee camp.
Palestinian Children play football beside the separation wall that separate Jerusalem from West Bank in Qalandia refugee camp.

When, in the sixth minute of the Palestinian's recent friendly football match, with neighbouring Jordan, the ball fell to Ahmed Kashkash, a ripple of excitement spread through the crowd. The speedy striker had already been at the heart of some of his team's most promising moves in an opening few minutes when the home side were tearing into their visitors at will.

He did not disappoint. Three of Jordan's back four were caught flat-footed on the centre line, and Kashkash knocked the ball over the head of the fourth. Then, with a burst of speed that made Jordan's defenders look like ships turning at sea, he was through on goal. One further touch took him past the goalkeeper and with his next he ensured his place in the history books as the scorer of the first officially recognised international goal for the Palestinians in the Palestinian territory.

The celebrations told several stories. The entire team, except goalkeeper Mohammad Shbeir, ran to celebrate with Kashkash by the corner flag. As one, they knelt and kissed the artificial turf and then ran, saluting, past the stand where the Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, football's world governing body, and Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian football federation celebrated with other VIPs and a large contingent of journalists from all over the world.

In the crowd, old and young jumped and cheered and hugged. Ten thousand people rocked the newly built Faisal Husseini Stadium with a roar that would have carried well past the nearby Israeli separation barrier - here a seven-metre high concrete wall that separates the Al Ram suburb of Jerusalem into a "Palestinian" and "Israeli" side. It was one of those moments when everything seemed possible, the kind of suspension of disbelief that sports, and football in particular, can so uniquely engender. The Palestinian team, 10 years after becoming a member of Fifa and, at 183, one of the lowest-ranked football nations in the world, were already out of the running for a place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

But the team from no recognised country had played and scored in front of a home crowd, under the spotlight of the international media and in their own national stadium for the first time. It was, as one rather jaded Palestinian journalist, now cheering as wildly as everyone else, had earlier remarked, "typical Palestinians. We have ministers and presidents and even a national football stadium. All this and still no state".

That was also, as Rajoub, the West Bank strongman, pointed out, immaterial. "Who wins is a marginal issue. The match is a message that even though Israel still behaves as an occupying authority, Palestinians will continue to seek their independence and freedom," he said. Two weeks later, in the rain-sodden narrow alleys of the Amari refugee camp in Ramallah, a group of boys were being harangued by a shopkeeper for kicking their ball a little too close to the bicycles hung outside his shop.

It had little effect. "We can play here or in the club," said Mustafa, 11, referring to the Amari sports club. "And when the older boys are playing at the club, we have to play in the streets." Neither the puddles of dirty rainwater, angry shopkeepers or the occasionally passing car seemed to put the children off a game that also lacked goals, boundaries or, apparently, teams. Their ball was a little coloured plastic thing, only a small step up from kicking a can around. When asked if they had a better one, Tareq, 10, said that "the boy with the good ball" was not home yet. "But you can get us one if you like. It's only 10 shekels (Dh60)."

Football is the world's most popular game. Fifa claim an average of one billion viewers for the past three World Cup finals. While the numbers are in dispute since collecting data in less developed markets is an inexact science, a walk down the alleys of the Amari camp provides an explanation for why the game is so popular and widespread. The World Bank estimates the real unemployment rate (including those who are under- employed) in the West Bank and Gaza at 30 per cent.

If it were not for international food aid and assistance, such as that provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in refugee camps such as Amari, some 60 per cent of Palestinians in the occupied territories would languish in poverty. But you only need something to kick to play football. The Amari camp, like all refugee camps in the occupied Palestinian territories, has its own general sports club, but football is the main draw. And Al Amari are enjoying a purple patch at the moment.

Top of the newly re-constituted Palestinian league, Al Amari's staff and fans were eagerly anticipating the top-of- the-table clash with local rivals Al Bireh (Amari won 2-1, with Kashkash scoring a last-minute winner). And in the club building, players were resting in preparation. "It's a very competitive league this year," said Ayman al Hindi, 22, a midfielder for the club and one of five national team players in the squad. "And Al Bireh is our derby. It's a big game."

This year only 22 teams are contesting the sole division in the league, which, strictly speaking, is not national since only teams from the West Bank compete. Gaza has its own clubs, but with restrictions on Palestinian movement, teams are unable to travel between the two areas of occupied Palestinian territory. There are plans to expand the league next year to include 44 teams in four divisions. But, for now, it is a stripped-down bare-bones competition with no home and away games. The game, for example, between Amari and Bireh, both Ramallah-area teams was played in Tulkarm, a northern West Bank city.

The neutral venue was just as well, said Hindi. "There has been trouble before with fans fighting," he said, smiling. "We are Palestinian, we can always make trouble. And this is football, all over the world it causes problems." The Palestinian football federation, established in 1928 when the Palestinians were under British mandate rule, are one of the oldest Arab sports federations. In 1934, a national team contested qualification for that year's World Cup.

But political upheavals throughout the 1930s, the 1948 war when some 750,000 Palestinians were displaced, and the 1967 war, when the rest of Mandate Palestine came under Israeli occupation, disrupted the development of a national league and team. The present football federation were not established until 1994 with the advent of the Palestinian Authority. Hopes for a negotiated settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict came shuddering to a halt in 2000 with the outbreak of the Aqsa intifada. The violence of the past years, along with Israeli restrictions on movement between the West Bank and Gaza and within the West Bank, disrupted any organised domestic competition and also delayed the completion of a national stadium and any possibility of playing international games in front of a home crowd.

The national team struggled on, even managing a ranking as high as 115 in 2006. But, with home fixtures being played in Jordan or Qatar and Israeli travel restrictions sometimes preventing a full squad from assembling, the team slipped down to their current position. Travel restrictions hit hardest in Oct 2007, when a full team could not be put out for the second leg of a World Cup qualifier against Singapore. The game was awarded to Singapore and the Palestinians were out of the 2010 World Cup.

This year's relaunch of the domestic league has offered the football federation a chance to re-organise what had become a chaotic situation with nearly 260 clubs serving four million Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. It has also brought new impetus to the sport. The impetus reached its climax with the game against Jordan, with the long-planned and long-delayed construction of a national stadium in Al Ram, built with Fifa assistance.

"We needed very badly to play at home," said George Ghattas, a former official with the football federation who has written extensively on the history of Palestinian football. "We needed to play in our country in front of our own people. It will be better for the sport and easier to compete in international tournaments." Still, Ghattas conceded, the way ahead is still not certain. No more games are scheduled, though there is talk of friendlies against Tunisia, the UAE and Turkey.

"Arab countries want to have assurance that their players will be able to make it here and back safely. It's still a long road," he said. "Football is very important in the Palestinian territory. "We have too many clubs, but that reflects how much passion there is for the game. "If you go to any open space you will see at least five or six people playing a game." With six million Palestinians living outside the occupied territories, there is a vast pool of talent that can be tapped into, something the national team have already done with players based in South America.

Many Palestinians have ended up in Chile and Honduras. In Santiago, the capital of Chile, alone there is a 250,000-strong Palestinian community, almost entirely from Ghattas's small village of Beit Jala just outside Bethlehem. The community spawned a football club, Palestino, who are now in the first division. "We have very good players outside the country. We could have a very good team," said Ghattas.

"But we also have many good players here. Against Jordan we only had one player from outside, Roberto Bishara." Kashkash is a tall player whose muscular frame belies his speed. In the Amari refugee camp, the boys all know him as Kashkash but his fame as the first, and so far only, Palestinian player to score at home is now no longer restricted to the camp and sits a little uneasy on the striker. "People come up to me in the streets to talk. That didn't happen before the game," he says.

Kashkash, 24, is from Gaza, where he grew up playing for the Hilal Club in Gaza City. As one of the big draws in the Palestinian team, the federation were keen to ensure his participation in the friendly against Jordan. Rather than risk him not being allowed to leave the Gaza Strip in time, the federation arranged for him to play for Amari, and, after contesting the West Asian Games in Tehran four months ago, Kashkash returned not to Gaza but the West Bank.

He has not been to Gaza since. "I am afraid that if I go won't be allowed back," he adds. He is missing his family in Gaza, his parents, two brothers and three sisters. Two older brothers are abroad, one, Mahmoud, is making his living as an accountant in Abu Dhabi. But football is his passion and he is more comfortable talking about the game than anything else. Conversations keep returning to to the Jordan friendly, a 1-1 draw that, at a time of Palestinian division, fostered a sense of unity for his people.

Kashkash was constantly on the phone to well-wishers, mostly from Gaza, where "everyone" had seen the match on TV. Ghattas said Kashkash's goal left had him speechless. "I really can't express what I felt. It was historic. It was very, very special," he adds. okarmi@thenational.ae