Away from Home: The Struggle for Football in Palestine

June 12th 2014, Maracana Stadium. To much fanfare, World Cup 2014 kicks off. Opening game – Brazil vs Palestine. Could happen? Perhaps not. But as Lewis Cheetham explains in his debut article for Just Football, duress is being met with progress:

Footballing associations across the world are inevitably faced with complications and disruptions which obstruct the development of their game each season. Take Serbia’s notorious hooliganism difficulties for example, or the destructive act of match fixing in many leagues around the globe.

These are serious ongoing problems in modern football, yet ultimately they still have the potential to be resolved. Unfortunately this cannot be said for the football I have the most passion for, Palestine’s. The vast array of devastation one small association has had to cope with is incredibly hard to digest, thus leaving the football here seemingly far beyond repair for some time now.

While the state battles for membership and recognition at the United Nations and supporters petition on their behalf, the fundamental task facing Palestine as an emerging footballing nation is, simply, getting to a game, let alone winning it. This has proven to be a very difficult task. For decades the limited resources to host home fixtures and work permit restrictions for travelling away has left football fans, coaching staff and players with the feeling of immense frustration and heartbreak on many occasions. This is all part of the seemingly neverending battle between Israel and Palestine.

The Palestinian people of West Bank and East Jerusalem have been living under Israel’s military occupation since 1967. Originally the conflict began just after the Second World War following the arrival of Israeli Zionists with an ambition for their nation to become the first Jewish state. Unfortunately, a string of merciless and unethical practices taken to segregate the Palestinian Muslims into more poverty stricken areas sparked major and enduring disputes. Since then no peaceful solution has been found. In more recent times, further steps have been taken away from the establishment of peace. An Israeli-built blockade sits along the Gaza Strip, breaking any attempt for the Palestinian people to get into Israel.

A place to play

Such ferocious conditions have resulted in repeated tragedy. Four Palestine international players’ lives have been taken in the last decade by Israeli attacks. This type of catastrophe is the reason why just nine domestic seasons have been completed in over thirty years of Palestinian football, and also explains why the national side was denied permission to play at home up until recently. Fixtures are often switched and hosted in Egypt, Jordan and Qatar as well as a few other countries close by. Not just because of the risk factor but also a lack of resources to support the necessary facilities required to host a match.

Having somewhere to play isn’t the only problem though, as Palestine are all too often left short on players. With the blockade in place, the only way out is negotiating with Israeli’s officials, something that always proves to be extremely difficult due to the strict regulations involved. The laws and policies constraining Palestine’s freedom have been compared to the ‘pass laws’ within South Africa during apartheid.

The fortunate few players who do eventually gain access to and from are usually left with little time to prepare and become part of a makeshift squad comprised of local amateurs and professionals. It is no coincidence then that this is linked with poor competition and such a low ranking for Palestine. In 2006, eighteen of the twenty-six man squad were not permitted access to play a game against Singapore forcing them to forfeit the game. Ever present captain for the last twelve years Saeb Jendaya was once turned away on grounds of being unable to provide exact details of where he would be staying.

There have also been countless occasions when the squad has arrived at a contest with just thirteen to fourteen players. The situation is simply unfair and demotivating. Incidents like this impede attempts at progression, as when Palestine lost a must-win World Cup qualifier 3-0 to Uzbekistan after only having 14 players available for selection. Unfortunately the Palestine Football Association itself has no authorisation and cannot contest the Israeli verdict over permits for players. The communication is worsened as the PFA chairman Jibril Rajoub was formerly convicted of throwing a grenade at Israeli forces when he was just seventeen.

Despite these desperate and complicated conditions the Palestinian players show a tremendous amount of passion for football. Since Palestine was officially recognised by FIFA in 1998 they simply haven’t given up in turbulent circumstances and earlier this year they were finally rewarded for their efforts with a first ever World Cup qualification match on home soil. A first home game in which they could finally be supported, praised by fans and appreciated as sportsmen representing their country, concepts taken for granted almost worldwide. It may have drawn little attention in the wider football world, but the 1-1 draw with Afghanistan was a true iconic moment which could spark new hope for the future of Palestinian football.

Palestine host Thailand in the second leg of their second qualifying round for World Cup 2014 today.

Lewis Cheetham is a new contributor to Just Football. Find him on Twitter @Palistinosoccer

(photo credit: Pragmagraphr on Flickr)

, , ,

One Response to “Away from Home: The Struggle for Football in Palestine”

  1. Jonathan F
    August 8, 2011 at 6:15 am #

    An illuminating piece Lewis, and interesting to read how a nation is trying to build it’s football in extremely trying circumstances. A shame Palestine lost in the end! Perhaps 2018/2022 could be more realistic targets….