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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 19 August 2018

A club of heroes: Gaza's first amputee football team

Most of the 17 players were disabled as a result of Israeli gunfire or bombing

Mohammed Msabeh urges his teammates on as he watches a training session in Deir Al Balah, a town in central Gaza. Although he is not on the pitch, he too is a member of territory's first amputee football club.

Fifteen of the team's 17 players, who range in age from 14 to 40, were disabled as a result of Israeli attacks on Gaza. They call themselves "the team of heroes".

"I got injured while I was participating on the borders protests on May 4 and immediately the doctor amputated my right leg under the knee to save the rest of my leg," Msabeh, 18, told The National.

More than 4,000 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli fire during the weekly demonstrations that started on March 30. Another 140 have been killed while protesting to demand the lifting of Israel's Gaza blockade and the right of Palestinians to return to homes they fled or were driven from during the creation of Israel.

Msabeh had played for Al Awda, a club in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, since he was 15. But that ended after his injury.

"When I heard about this team, hope came back to me, because I can't image my life without football," said Msabeh, a fan of the Spanish club Real Madrid.

He did not even wait until his physical therapy sessions were completed before signing up. "To continue to practise my life as I used to is a big message that we will not bend to anyone," he said.

The team was set up just weeks before Msabeh's injury by Fuad Abu Ghaliun, 61, a former football player who is a member of the Paralympic committee in the Gaza Strip and chairman of the Palestine Amputee Football Association.

"The idea came to me while I was watching the final match of the European championship between Turkish and British amputees at the end of last year," said Abu Ghaliun.

The Deir Al Balah Rehabilitation Centre provided football kits and arranged time on the municipality playing field, but the team still lacks funding.

"Everything in the beginning is difficult, but with the will of the players we will try to reach local and international tournaments," Abu Ghaliun said.

Islam Amoon, seen with his son Dia, 4, and 3-month-old baby Mohammed outside their home in Buriej, plays in goal. Heidi Levine for The National
Islam Amoon, seen with his son Dia, 4, and 3-month-old baby Mohammed outside their home in Buriej, plays in goal. Heidi Levine for The National

Mahmoud Alnaouk, 39, was keen to join, but the team only accepts players who have lost one limb. He lost both legs during Israel's last war on Gaza in 2014, when more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians, and more than 11,000 were wounded.

"Because I couldn’t be a player I am doing the administrative work for the team," he said.

"We formed the first team in Deir Al Balah city and will form four teams from the other Gaza cities so they can play each other in a national championship, which will be the first in Palestine."

The team practises for two hours every Monday afternoon. Guided by their coaches, the players start with warm-up exercises, holding on to their crutches.

Volunteer coach Ahmed Abu Shareef, 48, says he devised routines specifically for each player.

"I did a lot of research to reach the best results with them. I studied each case individually to learn the type of exercise that will be suitable for each one, especially since some are amputated above the knee and others below the knee," he said.

"Most of the players have lost their right leg, and it is difficult for them to use their left leg in kicking the ball."

But the team is "full of energy and will, they want to do something that makes them happy", he said. "They don't allow their disability to affect in their life."

Islam Amoon, 27, is one of the two goalkeepers on the team. He lost his left arm in the 2014 war.

"When I heard about the team, I insisted on becoming a member. At the beginning it was difficult but with time I felt that I have a target in my life and I will do my best to succeed in it," he said.

"My real victory over my disability will be when I hold a cup that we win."

Abd Al Majid Abu Milak, 25, is the team's other goalkeeper. He lost his right hand in 2009 when he found an explosive device and took it home and tried to open it. Heidi Levine for The National
Abd Al Majid Abu Milak, 25, is the team's other goalkeeper. He lost his right hand in 2009 when he found an explosive device and took it home and tried to open it. Heidi Levine for The National
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