x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

At the World Cup Palestinians relate to football

As the Homeless World Cup reaches its final stages, a Palestinian player believes his people truly define what the event is all about.

The highway south from Beirut towards the Al Buss Palestinian refugee camp, in the ancient port city of Tyre, was dark and littered with the tell-tale signs of a dysfunctional state. Every few miles army roadblocks, manned by heavily armed troops, stopped traffic. Flowery roadside portraits of Hizbollah's heroes – both dead and alive – were lit by passing headlights, the only illumination on the roads between the capital and the Israeli border. Potholes the size of dustbin lids, hidden by the blackness, sprung out of nowhere.

"Woah!" shouted Hisham Hammad as his 4x4 was clipped by a van, hit a pothole and almost careened into a billboard of the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Hammad steadied the car before peering over his glasses. "It is very bad here," he said. "Lebanon is sitting on a volcano." In the back sat his 18-year-old son, Adham, a footballer on his way to a training session. A conversation on Lebanon's chronic instability is not unusual, but it seemed a bit out of place while travelling to training for the biggest football tournament of Adham's life.

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Adham, a Palestinian born in Lebanon, plays for the team representing Palestine in the 2010 Homeless World Cup, a 64-team tournament being staged in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The teams' expenses are paid by the tournament's organising committee. The Palestinian team won three matches in the preliminary round, and triumphed in a penalty shoot-out Wednesday night in the secondary round. A 7-6 victory over Austria followed on Thursday, by which time the Palestinian side were being described as "the emerging favourites".

The championship game is scheduled for tomorrow. All the teams are there with the aim of raising the issue of homelessness on a global stage while trying to use football as a way of adding motivation and structure to lives that previously had none. But this isn't just a feel-good exercise; the tournament has spawned some notable football success stores, too. One member of the Brazilian homeless women's team, Michelle da Silva, was picked for Brazil's Under 20 national team.

Patrick Mbeu, a former goalkeeper for the Rwandan national team who fled his country and lived on the streets in France, now coaches at Paris St-Germain and is manager of the French homeless team. And then you have Bebe, the Portuguese enigma who failed to make his country's homeless team but was signed by Manchester United for almost £8 million (Dh46.2m) this summer. The definition of homelessness is, of course, necessarily amorphous when it comes to team selections for the tournament. In most western countries, it is associated with actual, physical homelessness; people living on the streets, on the very edges of affluent societies.

In the developing world, however, homelessness takes a different form. Brazil picks its teams from the favelas, Argentina from its villas miserias; areas of grinding poverty covered by corrugated iron roofs. But the Palestinians have stretched the definition of homelessness almost to breaking point. They have no state of their own, their people exiled throughout the Arab world and beyond. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in Lebanese refugee camps - as many as 200,000, according to the UN - that in many respects are far worse than any favela. Another 200,000 have found their way out of the camps and established lives elsewhere in Lebanon.

Almost five per cent of Lebanon's population live in the country's 12 camps: feral places, run by militias, where electricity is on for no more than six hours a day, open sewers run through the streets and disillusionment exists at dangerously high levels. The Palestinian team is made up of young men who inhabit those camps. Adham's family once lived at the Bourj el Barajneh camp. They now have a home near Beirut.

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"Did you know I studied international law in Kiev?" asked Hisham, himself a promising footballer in his youth who now organises football projects. "But I never finished." He said he returned to Lebanon in 1985, during the civil war, and the Amal militia attacked the refugee camp where he lived. "They burnt everything, my passport, my papers, everything. I couldn't go back. "So I became a fighter, to protect my camp." The car rocked towards the buzzing low light of Tyre, through yet another army checkpoint outside the Al Buss camp. "We don't know when the volcano will explode," Hisham said, as we arrived at the small turf cage, the venue where the team would be put through its paces. "It's crazy; every party is like a different country."

Sameh Zeidani is the man who assembled the team for the Homeless World Cup. As much, he said, to show the dire situation for Palestinians in Lebanon as to raise awareness of the Palestinian flag on the international stage. "We are going to prove to all the world that Palestinians have the right to play," Sameh said as he pulled on a pitch-side hookah, billowing the sweet-smelling smoke high into the air.

"It's a very hard here for the Palestinians. You know they cannot work here as a doctor or an engineer? Every time they want to leave the camp they have to pass many checkpoints. "Actually they are living in an army area. We cannot show the world how the situation is inside Lebanon. This is a very hard life for the Palestinians." He was asked why the government does this. "They say that the Palestinian, we do not want to give him the right to have a house, maybe it will help him forget his country," he said. "Forget Palestine. Or that he has a [plan] to be a Lebanese [citizen]."

But for Sameh, there's no question of forgetting his homeland. "We want our land. At the Homeless World Cup, a lot of people are homeless, but they are inside in their homes," he said. "The Palestinians are the real homeless people." The players patiently waited their turn as a two teams of local footballers played out an ill-tempered game. The coach, Abduallah Youssef, spent months picking the best players that the camps had to offer. But it was difficult. Once there was a separate Palestinian league, but the money ran out. And there are few opportunities in the Lebanese football league.

The Lebanese league has huge sectarian issues. Each side in the league is aligned with a different religious group, and every match was like a mini civil war, complete with crowd violence, until the government banned spectators from attending four seasons ago. Also, the Lebanese FA imposed a strict quota on first-division clubs: each club is allowed three foreigners, and only two Palestinian players.

"Yes, there's a problem as a Palestinian to play in a Lebanese team," said the team's star striker Ismael Mashaal, a student who comes from the Rashidiya camp."If I want to play it is hard. "I'm a student. If I finish my studies – I am a civil engineering student – I have to leave Lebanon. I am Palestinian and can't go to my country so I have to find another country. I will be homeless two times."

The situation, on paper at least, has improved slightly. Last month the Lebanese parliament announced that the Palestinians would finally get the legal right to work, as well as some worker protection. But, following intense lobbying from Christian groups, they are still barred from buying land, as well as being barred from certain professions like the law and medicine. Few believe anything will really change.

After training, the players finish with a match against some of the local men, waiting patiently on the sidelines, pulling on hookahs as they watched the team prepare for their trip to Rio. Tackles fly in, players are admonished for their failures when a goal is conceded, others feted when they score. One more goal is required to win it. But then blackness suddenly falls. The nightly power cut ends any hope of a result. The national team players feel their way out of the darkness, gingerly moving back towards the camps they call home.

sports@thenational.ae

Information: www.homelessworldcup.org