x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

For once, the Palestinians are at home with patriotic fervour

In the grand scale of global football fixtures, last week's Olympic qualifier against Thailand – their first international on home soil – is only a footnote. But this is different.

Home supporters in the stands beneath a giant poster of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestine leader.
Home supporters in the stands beneath a giant poster of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestine leader.

The collective weight of expectation rests on the lonely shoulders of a man called Zidan. A storm envelopes the Faisal al Husseini Stadium in East Jerusalem's Al Ram district as freezing sheets of hail hammer onto the pitch and into the face of the white-shirted midfielder. A whole people, if not yet a whole nation, hold its breath.

Amjad Zidan stands 12 yards from goal facing the crucial penalty that will either continue Palestine's Olympic dream or condemn them to familiar disappointment.

Few in the 17,000-strong Palestinian crowd ever thought they would get this close: all even after two matches, extra time and penalty kicks. Now it is sudden death.

________________________________________________

Also

Benzema the man with the Midas touch at Real Madrid with mentor Mourinho
Hammam is Qatar's sporting ambassador for peace in the Middle East
In Torres we trust: Ancelotti
________________________________________________

After more than a decade of movement restrictions, arrests, deaths, exile and homelessness, the Palestinian national football team are playing their first competitive international on home soil, a preliminary qualifier for the 2012 Olympic football tournament against Thailand.

In the grand scale of global football fixtures, such a game is little more than a minor footnote. But this is different. Since joining Fifa in 1998, Palestine - a national team without a nation - has had to fight for the right to play the game.

From having to play all their home matches in exile to seeing players from Gaza and the West Bank regularly refused permission by the Israeli authorities to play to not being able to run a national league for 10 years due to the ubiquity of Israeli checkpoints, the short history of Palestinian football has been defined by the troubles. But now, for the first time, they enjoy true home advantage.

The crowd of young men behind the goal, the players in the centre circle, even the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad, watching in the VIP stand, freeze as they prepare for the ball to bulge in the back of the net. Zidan stands nervously in front of the Thai goalkeeper, awaiting his cue, the hail seemingly falling harder as the referee blows his whistle.

¿¿¿

Just over 24 hours earlier, the Palestinians prepared for their first game. Having never hosted an official match before, every aspect of the day was being run through its paces.

While the Palestinian team trained, the ball boys were taught how it is unsportsmanlike not to throw the ball back to the opposition players. Others were instructed how to carry the flags of Thailand, Palestine and the Asian Football Confederation for the first time.

"Everyone is watching you - your mother, your father, everyone," shouted the rotund, Singaporean match official, to a dozen or so teenagers dressed like skateboarders.

"Don't play with the ball!"

"Don't slouch!"

"Don't look unhappy!"

An interpreter rattled the rules back in Arabic to the ball boys, unhappy and slouching, hoods pulled tight against the cold, the light fading.

The Palestinians have had to learn almost everything about hosting an internationally recognised match from scratch, something that they should have learnt 13 years ago.

It was back in 1998 that Fifa granted entry to the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), a controversial move that was designed in part as a carrot for the then still viable peace process.

But when the second intifada broke out in 2000, it made playing football almost impossible. Israel's Operation Defensive Shield made the West Bank difficult to negotiate, and the league was suspended. Such was the instability. No home internationals could be played, and instead the team played in exile in Amman, Doha or Damascus.

During qualification for the 2006 World Cup, most of the squad were denied permission to leave for a crunch game against Uzbekistan. Only nine players turned up. It got worse after the Fatah-Hamas civil conflict in 2007.

Today, Gaza players are rarely allowed to leave the beleaguered enclave. Four were granted permission for the Thailand game, but eight were refused, half of the starting line-up according to Mokhtar Tilili, Palestine's Tunisian coach, who was himself denied entry to the West Bank until the night before.

But since 2007, Palestine's footballing future has looked brighter.

A national stadium was built in Al Ram on the site of an abandoned, flooded football pitch used to park Israeli tanks during the second intifada. The professional West Bank Premier League has recently kicked off, as has the Middle East's first 11-a-side women's league. Much of that success can be put down to Jibril Rajoub, the president of the PFA.

Rajoub is a senior member of Fatah, the West Bank's most powerful political party, and is seen by some as a future Palestinian president. Yet his brother is one of the top ministers in Hamas, dealing with religious affairs no less.

He was Yasser Arafat's national security adviser in the West Bank, known as an enforcer, and loathed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad for targeting its members. But he is also known as a moderate and backs a two-state solution.

At the age of 17 he went to jail for throwing a grenade at an Israeli soldier. He wasn't released until he was 34, but by the time he came out, he was a very different man. He learnt Hebrew, translating some of the works of key Zionist thinkers into Arabic so that the Palestinians would "know their enemy" better, as one PFA official put it.

During the second intifada he was injured when his home was attacked by the Israel Defence Forces. Yet he now espouses the virtues of non-violent action.

"I think this is a rational decision by the Palestinian political leadership to focus on football," he said back in Ramallah, where the PFA headquarters are found. "We need to expose the Palestinian cause through football and the values and ethics of the game. I do believe this is the right way to make business and pave the way for statehood for the people. The non-violent struggle is more productive and fruitful to the Palestinian cause. In the current situation in the 21st century, this is the best means ... to achieve our national aspirations."

So football is the medium he now fights through. And many within the Palestinian government believe that football not only provides a symbol of nascent nationalism, but is also part of Salam Fayyad's attempts to normalise the economic and civil institutions of the state so that, if the need arises, Palestine could announce unilateral independence as early as next autumn.

"People know Palestine throughout the world because of the national football team," said the Palestinian defender Nadim Barghouti.

"It is a perfect way to prove to the rest of the world that we are human beings. We are not terrorists. In the past, all the world thought that Palestinians threw stones. I consider the players to be soldiers without weapons. We are playing for freedom in Palestine."

On the day of the game, the bus carrying the team from Ramallah hugged the silver, graffiti-scarred separation barrier as it approached the Faisal al Husseini Stadium. The wall was a mere 100 metres from the pitch, the stadium barely four kilometres from Jerusalem's Old City.

Thousands crushed inside three hours before kick-off, the sky hung dark and ominous from the earlier rains, coating the fans, the seats and the stands in thick, lightly coloured mud. Police wearing modern riot gear pedantically removed poles from their Palestinian flags, confiscated fizzy drinks and checked for weapons, all to prove that the Palestinians can organise a match to the newly required standard expected of competitive international football.

But the numbers were too great. Hundreds surged through the single metal door and into the stands, causing a crush. Fans scrambled up the sheer concrete walls, pulled up by other fans, to escape the dangerous ebb and flow of bodies until the police regained control.

Around the stadium, posters illustrated the importance that the Palestinian Authorities placed on football - huge images of Yasser Arafat, the Dome of the Rock, President Mahmoud Abbas, Jibril Rajoub, Fifa president Sepp Blatter. A hastily erected poster of Mohamed Bin Hammam, the Asian Football Confederation president, hung from a nearby building.

"When this team plays, the people of Palestine are free, and these people [in the stands] are too," shouted Motaz Abutayoon, a 21-year-old engineering student from the Askar refugee camp near Nablus. Around him, fans sang: "Jerusalem, for the Arabs!"

"The Israelis are not here. I am very, very happy."

The ball boys carried their flags on to the field, the national anthems were played, and the politicians basked in the glow of media attention.

But it took 45 minutes for the stadium to explode into life when Abdul Hamid Abu Habib, a player from Gaza, volleyed in Palestine's first goal. The stands erupted in song, drums and whistles. The captain took off his armband, kissed it and pointed towards prime minister Fayyad, sitting in the crowd.

"The national football team is a symbol of this country. It has that kind of significance, for sure. That [a player from Gaza scored] makes it all the more sweet," he said while sheltering from the driving rain. But he urged a word of warning. "We have the second half now. If the score stays as it is, we have an extra half-hour [of] football."

Chances came and went until the final whistle blew at 1-0. Fayyad paced through the stand, watching extra time unfold. Combined with Thailand's 1-0 victory in the first match, a 1-0 result would send the match to extra time and penalty kicks.

"I hate penalties," Fayyad said, rocking back on his heals with hands in pockets for protection against the freezing early evening cold. "I won't watch penalties. I'll look this way." He pointed to the sky.

But he watched, as the penalties finished even, too, at five-all.

Then it was sudden death - one penalty at a time.

****

The whistle blows, and Zidan's spot kick is saved. Half the crowd is gone before Thailand's Seeket Madputeh converts his penalty and seals Palestine's fate. The players, shattered from bombarding the Thailand goal, missing chances even after Thailand was reduced to 10 men, leave the field with heads bowed. It is too much for Nadim Barghouthi, the "soldier without a weapon", who runs down the tunnel with tears streaming down his face, inconsolable.

It is a common narrative for the Palestinians: rare victories tempered by the reality of failure.

Certainly Tilili does not find comfort in the moral victory. "This leaves a bitter taste in the mouth," he says in the tunnel as the press and fans melted away, back to the buses ferrying people to Nablus, Jericho and Jenin.

"We played well. But my heart aches tonight. I wanted to show the Tunisian people, in the context of the revolution, and the Palestinian people that this was a victory for sport. It was a political victory, but I wanted it to be a sporting victory as well."

Tilili walks back to the dejected dressing room, the Olympic dream over. Next June will see Palestine's first qualifier for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, again with the benefit of home advantage. This battle is lost, but the war is still far from over.

 

sports@thenational.ae