Italian clergy on football peace mission in West Bank
AL KHADER, WEST BANK // Perhaps if he had heeded reason, Father Mario would have concluded that the combination of his opponents' youth and superior training outmatched his squad of fellow Catholic priests.
By half time, though, the 39-year-old Italian's faith trumped any sense of doubt he might have had. His team of middle-aged clergymen, visiting from parishes in Italy, had just held the 20-something players of the Palestinian national team scoreless during a match on Tuesday night in the West Bank village of Al Khader.
Never mind that the greying, slightly pudgy ecclesiastic footballers also had yet to score, let alone come close to breaking past through the fleet-footed Palestinian defence.
Their early success was a sign from above, Father Mario said, tongue in cheek, on the sidelines. "We have Jesus. It's impossible to make a goal against us!" he yelled, as gaggles of Palestinian fans, shouting football chants in both Arabic and broken Italian, crowded nearby.
But in the end, reality - and age - caught up with the priests: the Palestinians had unleashed a second-half offensive that resulted in nine goals. The priests managed to score one, but Father Mario, who played 10 minutes, was out of breath after the match and declined to comment on the reversal of fortune.
Organised by the John Paul II Foundation in Bethlehem, a Catholic non-profit organisation, Tuesday's match aimed to promote awareness of issues that face everyday Palestinians. Last Saturday, the Catholic Church raised its voice in opposition to Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands in a stinging communiqué.
For some observers, the mere presence of the priests in the West Bank was a small miracle in itself. It was one of four competitive matches that the Palestinian national team has been allowed to play at home since 2008. Before then, the conflict with Israel and the resulting security concerns prevented the Palestinian national football team from competing at home.
"We're happy to have anything like this that brings attention to our issues," said Hassa Sha'ar, the national team's former goalkeeper coach. "We are an occupied nation."
Walking the pitch after the match, he recalled the bloodstained days of the second intifada when the stadium was used not for football but as a makeshift hospital.
"It's hard to describe how terrible things were then," he said. "It's very difficult to describe."
While Palestinian football appears to be making a comeback, Al Khader stadium does not. It lacks loudspeakers, a scoreboard and proper seating, and the chain-link fence surrounding the pitch gives the impression of an ultimate fighting pit.
But the 5,000 people in attendance did not seem to care. Having fans yelling slurs and praise in Arabic - "Yella!" (Let's go!) - and Italian - "Que Cosa Fai?" (What are you doing?) - brought a sense a normalcy to a place that rarely experiences it.
And that was the point of it all, explained Father Bonifacio VI, a Filipino who played goalie and, professionally, works in Vatican City.
"We're here on a mission of peace, to demonstrate solidarity through sportsmanship," he said.
Then, in transition from priest to competitor, he interjected his thoughts as to why he and his 17 mainly Italian teammates lost so badly. "Look, we're 40 and they're [the Palestinians] all 20," he insisted. "They train every day. For us, when we're not working, we get to play, maybe, once a week."