Football in Palestine, an incredible story.

Dreaming with others is the beginning of reality, according to Dom Helder Camara. Who knows if the power of collective dreaming will be enough, for Palestine, to continue and hope to reach a berth in the 2014 World Cup. To accomplish this mission, they’ll have to come back after an away 1-0 loss to Thailand, in their first official match under the new coach, Winfried Schaafers.

It will be a deja vu for Palestine. On March 9, in fact, the clash against Thailand represented more than the first step for two minnows on the road to the qualification for the London Olympics. Forty-nine years after the Palestinian FA’s formation and 13 after its formal recognition by FIFA, that game was the first competitive international match ever played on Palestinian soil.

As it happened on Saturday, Thailand had won 1-0 at home in the first leg. As it will happen next Thursday, that match had been played at the pompously called Faisal al-Husseini stadium in Ram, named after the founder of the General Union of Palestinian students died in 2001.

The stadium is in a populated Arab suburb, north of Jerusalem, just 100m away from the West Bank barrier, used four years ago as a parking lot for Israeli tanks during its incursion to the Gaza strip. It’s a very symbolical location, given that travel restrictions for players living outside the West Bank are the main problem the team has to face. When qualification for the 2006 World Cup began, for example, only nine players had the chance to travel to Doha to face Uzbekistan. It’s emblematic of the remaining difficulties the case of the midfielder Suleiman Obied, 29, born in Gaza who hasn’t seen his family since three years.

For that historical first home clash to Thailand, Israel denied eight Gaza-based players to make the short travel to Ramallah. However, four were permitted to pass: their approval came directly from General Eitan Dagot, the highest Israeli military authority in the Palestinian territories. One of them, Abdulhamid Abuhabib scored the only goal of the match that drove Palestine to the penalty shots: in the end, Thailand won 6-5.

History of football in Palestine

Football in Palestine dates back at least from 1906 when a team of young Jewish faced a group of visiting French sailors. Prior to the creation of the Palestine Football Federation, in the British Mandated Palestine there were no less than 65 social and sporting clubs. Shabab Al Arab of Haifa was one of the best known among them; there, one of greatest star of the time, Jabra Al-Zarqa, was playing when he received an offer to play for Arsenal.

The period prior to World War II was the Golden Age of Palestine soccer, second only to Egyptian and Turkish movements in the Arab world. The war in 1948 paralyzed any kind of sports activity, then in the ‘50s many Palestinian clubs became part of the Jordanian Football Federation that profited from the influx of former Palestinian stars like Ibrahim Nusseibeh, Abdel Rahman al-Habbab and Rushdi Abu Ghazaleh. In addition, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency tried to create a structure that looked like the system of Palestinian clubs that had previously existed, but it didn’t suffice to avoid the Palestinian diaspora, that caused the widespread distribution of an unthinkable amount of talent in countries where football was already extremely developed.

Between 1948 and 1997, Palestine had an unofficial national side that participated in various tournaments like the first Pan-Arab Games held in Alexandria, Egypt in 1953. In 1966 they were invited to take part in the second edition of the GANEFO Cup (Games of New Emerging Forces) in Cambodia in 1966. The first edition, four years before, was set up by Indonesia as a counter to the Olympic Games. Established for the athletes of the “emerging nations”, mainly newly independent socialist states, the Games strongly involved politics and sport. They were organized as a protest against the IOC censure for the politically characterized Asian Games hosted in Jakarta for which Taiwan and Israel were refused visas leading IOC to suspend Indonesia.

After the Oslo peace accord, it took place a friendly match between Palestine (with players selected from the local leagues throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank) and the Variété-Club the France (including Michel Platini, Maxime Bossis, Alain Giresse as well as rugby star Serge Blanco and tennis legend Yannick Noah). In front of 10,000 people, on October 8, 1993, in Jericho Palestine won 1-0: Mahmoud Jarad Sinno scored the decider. Two years later the PFA became a provisional member of FIFA. In August 1994, Al-Wakra, a club from Qatar, became the first Arab team to be allowed into the Palestinian Territories to play a friendly at the Yarmouk Stadium in Gaza against Palestine.

The rebirth of the national team was hugely due to the late Argentine coach Ricardo Carugati. Arrived in Palestine in 1997, as part of the UN White Helmet Initiative Project, to develop sporting activities and to find another meaning in his life after the death of his daughter, he spent four months in refugee camps. Carugati was asked to coach the national side for the friendly against Jordan for the inauguration of the Jericho Municipal Stadium built thanks to the help of the UN and the Japanese government. 20,000 spectators watched the goalless draw, among them the PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. Carugati came back at the end of the project, but was recalled back and his contract was extended for a further six months and later a year. Then, he went coaching the Jordanian side but died after a heart attack in 2001. He had however led Palestine to a bronze medal at the 1999 Pan Arab Games (with the help of the Arab-Israeli coach Azmi Nassar): along the way, Palestine had knocked off Qatar, Syria and UAE, surrendering to Jordan.

In the meantine, on June 8, 1998, Palestine had become a full member of FIFA. The outbreak of the second Intifada caused new restrictions and national team players were prevented from traveling abroad. In spite of all the obstacles, in the unsuccessful search for a berth in the Asian Games and the 2002 World Cup, Palestinians managed however to knock off Malaysia and Hong Kong. 

2008, the Year Zero

Three years ago, one of the leading political figures, the former head of the Preventive Security Force Jibril Rajoub, 58, who had spent 18 years in the Israeli prisons, was chosen to lead the Palestinian Football Federation and the Olympic Committee.

According to Le Mond (October 2008), “his main success is the boost given to the championship, paralyzed since 2000. Thanks to long-time contacts in the Israeli security services, he obtained that Palestinian clubs could almost freely circulate in the West Bank. Motivated to improve the level of the game, he imposed the creation of a second division, found a handful of private sponsors and persuaded the Arab channel ART to broadcast some matches”. The main sponsor is Jawwal, the first Palestinian provider for communication services, owned by Munib al Masri, the richest local businessman, which guarantees $500,000 a year.

Such a progress couldn’t have been accomplished only with his fruitful as naive enthusiasm. Rajoub, in fact, was helped by the French Jerome Champagne, who had worked with Sepp Blatter for 11 years and was hired as a counselor for sports development.

Thanks to his contribution, football academies have been built practically everywhere, even in some poor refugee camps. Last May, the foundation stone of a Centre of Excellence for Under-15 and Under-18 players was laid. In Hebron, one of the symbols of the occupation, French federation and the municipality coworked for the inauguration of a modern sports centre in the poor area of Tarek Ben Ziad. On 11 February 2011, the PFA kicked off the first women's league with six teams participating.

Palestinians are hungry for football. When Al Jazeera broadcast La Liga big matches, bar became overcrowded. Real Madrid and Barcelona are the most popular teams. So, it’s not a coincidence that President Mahmoud Abbas visited Barcelona on July 21 to discuss the possibility to open a Blaugrana school in Palestine. The team official Carlos Fellarobi gave a positive feedback.

Players participating to the West Bank Premier League gains between $2,000 and 4,000 where the average salary amounts to about $1,000.

The stars of the national team, however, play abroad. Ahmed Keshkesh, 26, the beloved attacker, and his partner Fahed Attal, 25, in Jordan; the promising left winger Hisham Alim 19, in Sweden, in the Malmo youth team, where Ibrahimovic started his career.

But the most symbolic presence Omar Jarun, an American defender born in Kuwait City to a Palestinian father and an American mother. Raised in Georgia and graduated in 2006, he turned professional with the Atlanta Silverbaks. In 2008 he spent the entire season with the Vancouver Whitecaps before moving in the Polish second division, to Flota Swinoujsce and then to Pogon Szczecin. On March 2011 he came back into the Usa, to Tampa Bay.

“Before 9/11” he said, “there were no problems, really. I had always established myself as an American from the Middle East. By looking at me, I look like a white boy. You don't get judged immediately like my father does. Like an Arab. But after 9/11 it was very difficult. My dad would tell me: 'Be careful what you say.' I would get double, tripled-checked at the airport. You know it's for safety for the country, so I don't have many complaints about it.”

Recently he had signed a contract with the Polish club Arka Gdynia, under Petr Nemec, the manager who brought him to Poland the first time. His main focus, anyway, remains using sport to break down borders. “Sport brings countries together and I don’t know a better way for the world to know about Palestine apart from this soccer team” he explained CNN. “Coming from outside, I feel that this is such a big step for this country. We can show that the Palestinians are normal people”.

His attitude elicits the power of the Arab mindset, as symbolized in the words of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran; “Trust in dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity”.