Football Finally Comes Home to Palestine

Posted on March 13, 2011

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Amongst the all too familiar barrage of reports detailing attacks, reprisals and bombings that emanate daily from the Palestinian authorities, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that last week marked a momentous step for Palestinian recognition in the eyes of the international sporting community: For the first time in their history, the Palestinian national football team played a competitive match on home soil.

Only recognised as a footballing nation by FIFA in 1998, international football has lived in exile throughout its short existence in the occupied territories.

On the evening of the 9th March 2011, ‘home’ matches in Amman, Doha, and Damascus gave way to the West Bank suburb of al-Ram, north of Jerusalem, to host the second-leg of a qualifying match for the 2012 London Olympics against Thailand.

Ranked 118th in the world but light-years ahead of the opponents in their political and footballing development, Thailand went into the return match with a one-nil lead. The deficit did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of over 10,000 home fans who, along with a veritable who’s who of Palestinian sports people, politicians and the world’s press, flocked to the Faisal al-Husseini stadium.

They included head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Mohamed bin Hammam, who stressed the significance of staging competitive international football in the occupied territories. “We want to support Palestinian athletes, especially footballers, to gain independence and character and it is possible, through sport, to overcome the political issues between Palestinians and Israelis. We can build bridges between the two national associations and sports-people through this match”.

Hammam, who is widely tipped to be standing against Sepp Blatter for the FIFA presidency later this year, hinted at the continued restrictions on movement between the West Bank and Gaza that has long hampered the progress of sporting development in the region. Before the game, only 4 of the 12 Gazan players called up by manager Mokhtar Tlili were able to register for the match. Israeli travel blockades prevented the rest.

But their absence and the unfamiliarity of the setting did nothing to hamper the first XI chosen on the night. After 90 mins, the home team finished one-nil winners to leave the aggregate score at 1-1. Befitting of the occasion, a penalty shoot-out ensued. Palestine were narrowly beaten 5-6 to be knocked out of preliminary rounds of Olympic qualification.

On this occasion at least, it wasn’t the winning that counted. The inauguration of home internationals is the first step on the road for unity and statehood in a country that continues to live under occupation and divided government. The Fatah-led authority of the West Bank recognises as much. Attending the match, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was hopeful of football’s potential to bring the inhabitants of Gaza, under the leadership of Hamas, and the Fatah-majority West Bank closer together. “It’s one of those nights when we are just happy to be staging such a match. We’re working on becoming a country”, he told the BBC.

Palestine are scheduled to play their second international on home turf in a qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup in June. Come the summer, it will be more than the politicians who will hope to hear the sound of football chants, not protest songs, on the lips of Palestinians.

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Posted in: Football, Soccer, Sport