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Soldiers without weapons

Mokhtar Tlili, Palestine’s Tunisian coach

Mokhtar Tlili, Palestine’s Tunisian coach

The Palestinian team face photographers

Palestine prime minister Salam Fayyad; Mokhtar Tlili and Palestinian Football Association president Jibril Rajoub face the press

A collective weight of expectation rested on the lonely shoulders of a man called Zidan. A storm had enveloped the Faisal Al-Husseini stadium in East Jerusalem’s Al-Ram district, as freezing sheets of hail hammered down on to the pitch, and into the face of the white-shirted midfielder. A whole people, if not yet a whole nation, held its breath.

Amjad Zidan stood 12 yards from goal, ready to take the crucial penalty that would either continue Palestine’s Olympic dream, or – more likely – condemn them to familiar disappointment. Yet few in the feverish, 17,000-strong Palestinian crowd ever thought they would get this close. The signs weren’t good after Palestine had lost 1-0 in Thailand in the first leg. But the Palestinians had reversed the score in Al-Ram, winning 1-0 on the night, levelling the tie 1-1 on aggregate after extra time, and then 5-5 on penalties. Now it was sudden death.

After more than a decade of movement restrictions, arrests, deaths, exile and homelessness, the Palestinian national football team were playing their very first competitive international on home soil, a preliminary qualifier for the 2012 Olympic football tournament.

“We need to expose the Palestinian cause through football and the values and ethics of the game”

In the grand narrative of global football fixtures, such a game would usually be little more than a footnote. But this was different. Since joining FIFA in 1998, Palestine – a national team without a nation – have had to play all their home games in exile; have seen their players from Gaza and the West Bank regularly refused permission by the Israeli authorities to play in crucial fixtures; and have not been able to run a national league for ten years due to the ubiquity of Israeli checkpoints. The recent, short history of Palestinian football has been defined by the troubles. But now, for the first time, Palestine enjoyed a true home advantage.

The crowd of young men behind the goal, the players in the centre circle, even the prime minister, Salam Fayyad, watching in the VIP stand, froze as they prepared for the ball to bulge in the back of the net. Zidan stood nervously in front of the Thai goalkeeper, awaiting his cue, the hail seemingly falling harder as the referee blew his whistle.

Just over 24 hours before the match, the Palestinians prepared for their first game. They had never hosted an official match before, so every aspect of the day was being run through in detail. While the Palestinian team trained, the ball boys were being taught that it is unsportsmanlike not to throw the ball back to the opposition’s players. Others were being instructed how to carry the flags of Thailand, Palestine and the Asian Football Confederation.

“Everyone is watching you: your mother, your father, everyone!” shouted the rotund Singaporean match official to a dozen or so teenagers dressed like West Coast skateboarders.

“Don’t play with the ball!”

“Don’t slouch!”

“Don’t look unhappy!”

An interpreter rattled the rules back in Arabic to the ball boys, unhappy and slouching, their hoods pulled tight against the cold.

The Palestinians have had to learn almost everything from scratch about hosting an internationally recognised match, things they should have learnt 13 years ago. It was back in 1998 that FIFA granted entry to the Palestinian Football Association, a controversial move that was designed in part as a spur to the then still-viable peace process. But when the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, it made playing football almost impossible. Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield made the West Bank difficult to negotiate, and the league was suspended. Such was the instability that no home internationals could be played. Instead the national team played in exile in Amman, Doha or Damascus.

But it was the Israelis’ treatment of footballers that caught the world’s attention. Players were regularly denied permission to leave the occupied territories to play fixtures. During qualification for the 2006 World Cup, most of the squad were denied permission to leave for a crunch game against Uzbekistan. Only nine players made it on the night.

It got worse after the Fatah-Hamas civil conflict in 2007, and today Gazan players are rarely allowed to leave the beleaguered enclave. Four were granted permission for the Thailand game, but eight were refused – half of the starting line-up according to Palestine’s Tunisian coach Mokhtar Tlili, who was himself denied entry to the West Bank until the night before the match. Even the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Qatari president, Mohamed Bin Hammam, was held at the Jordanian border.

Although the issue of player movement is still far from resolved, since 2007 every other element of Palestine’s footballing future has started to look brighter. A national stadium was built in Al-Ram – a district of East Jerusalem located on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier and a stone’s throw from Ramallah – on the site of an abandoned, flooded football pitch that was used for parking Israeli tanks during the Second Intifada. The professional West Bank Premier League has recently kicked off, as has the Middle East’s first 11-a-side women’s league. Much of that success can be put down to the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) president, Jibril Rajoub.

Rajoub is something of an enigma. He is on the central committee of Fatah, the party founded by Yasser Arafat, and is seen by some as a future president. Yet his brother is one of the top ministers in Fatah’s Islamist rivals, Hamas, dealing with religious affairs. Jibril Rajoub was Yasser Arafat’s national security advisor in the West Bank, known as an “enforcer” and loathed by both Hamas and Islamic Jihad for targeting its members. But he is also known as a moderate and backs a two-state solution. At the age of 17 he went to jail for throwing a grenade at an Israeli soldier. He wasn’t released until he was 34, but by the time he came out, he was a very different man. He had learnt Hebrew, translating some of the works of key Israeli Zionist thinkers into Arabic so that the Palestinians would “know their enemy” better, as one PFA official put it. During the Second Intifada he was injured when his home was attacked by the Israeli Defense Forces. Yet he now espouses the virtues of non-violent action. “I think this is a rational decision by the Palestinian political leadership to focus on football,” he said back at the PFA headquarters in Ramallah.

“We need to expose the Palestinian cause through football and the values and ethics of the game,” he told me. “I do believe this is the right way to make business and pave the way for statehood for the people. The non-violent struggle is more productive and fruitful to the Palestinian cause. In the current situation in the 21st century, this is the best means… to achieve our national aspirations.”

Football is the medium through which he fights these days. In fact, such has been his success in furthering the Palestinian cause through sport – he is also head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee – that, as one unnamed PFA insider put it, “he is popular and, more importantly, he is not corrupt. He will be the next President [of Palestine].” While Rajoub himself claims to have no presidential ambitions, he has left the door open, as any good politician would.

“My ambition is that sport has a national Palestinian identity. I have no personal ambition,” he replied when asked about any future political role. “For me the [political] position is an option, rather than an obsession. I was part of the freedom fighters, I spent 17 years in Israeli jails, I suffered a lot… I contributed to my people’s cause, I want my cause to achieve something. This is the ambition of a person like me.”

Many within the Palestinian government believe that football not only provides a symbol of nascent nationalism, but is also part of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s attempts to normalise the economic and civil institutions of the state so that, if the need arises, Palestine could announce unilateral independence as early as next autumn.

“People know Palestine throughout the world because of the national football team,” said Palestinian defender Nadim Barghouthi who, like the PFA, hails from Ramallah. “It is a perfect way to prove to the rest of the world that we are human beings. We are not terrorists. In the past, all the world thought that Palestinians threw stones. I consider the players to be soldiers without weapons. We are playing for freedom in Palestine.”

The bus from Ramallah hugged the silver, graffiti-scarred separation barrier as it approached the Faisal Al-Husseini stadium. The wall is a mere 100 metres from the pitch, the stadium barely four kilometres from Jerusalem’s Old City. Thousands made their way inside three hours before kick-off and the sky hung dark and ominous from the earlier rains, which had left the fans, the seats and the stands coated in a layer of light-coloured mud. Police wearing modern riot gear pedantically removed poles from Palestinian flags, confiscated fizzy drinks and checked for weapons, to prove that the Palestinians can organise a match to the newly required standards expected of competitive
international football.

But the numbers were too great; hundreds surged through the single metal door and into the stands, causing a crush. Fans scrambled up the sheer concrete walls, pulled up by other fans, to escape the dangerous ebb and flow of bodies until the police regained control.

Around the stadium, posters illustrated the importance that the Palestinian authorities place on football: huge posters of Yasser Arafat, the Dome of the Rock, President Mahmoud Abbas, Jibril Rajoub and FIFA President Sepp Blatter. A hastily erected poster of AFC chief Mohamed Bin Hammam hung from a nearby building.


“When this team plays, the people of Palestine are free, and these people [in the stands] are too,” shouted Motaz Abutayoon, a 21-year-old engineering student from the Askar refugee camp near Nablus. “The Israelis are not here. I am very, very happy,” he continued, as around him fans sang: “Jerusalem for the Arabs!”

“It was too much for Nadim Barghouthi, the ‘soldier without a weapon’, who ran down the tunnel with tears streaming down his face”

The ball boys successfully carried their flags on to the field, the national anthems passed off without incident and the politicians basked in the glow of international media attention. But it took 45 minutes for the stadium to explode into life when Abdul Hamid Abu Habib, a player from Gaza, volleyed in Palestine’s first goal. The stands erupted in song, chants, tabla drums and whistles. The captain took off his armband, kissed it and pointed towards the prime minister,
Salam Fayyad, sitting in the crowd.

“The national team is very important. It is a symbol of this country. It has that kind of significance, for sure. That [a player from Gaza scored] makes it all the more sweet,” said Fayyad while sheltering from the driving rain at half-time. But he urged caution. “We have the second half now. If the score stays as it is, we have an extra half hour of football.”

His words proved prophetic. Chances came and went until the final whistle blew at 1-0. Salam Fayyad, with his white and black keffiyeh wrapped around his neck, paced through the stand, watching every minute of extra time unfold. “I hate penalties,” he explained, rocking back on his heels with hands in pockets for protection against the freezing cold evening. “I won’t watch penalties. I’ll look this way!”

He pointed to the sky.

But he watched, as we all did. For Zidan – not to mention the crowd and the world’s press – there would be no fairy-tale ending. The whistle blew, and the spot kick was saved. Then Thailand’s Seeket Madputeh scored and sealed Palestine’s fate. The players, shattered from bombarding the Thailand goal and missing chance after chance, even after the away team was reduced to ten men, left the field with heads bowed. It was too much for Nadim Barghouthi, the “soldier without a weapon”, who ran down the tunnel with tears streaming down his face, inconsolable.

It is a common narrative for the Palestinians, of small, rare victories tempered by the reality of failure. Of one step forward, two steps back. Certainly Palestine’s coach Mokhtar Tlili found no comfort in the moral victory.

“This leaves a bitter taste in the mouth,” he said in the tunnel as the press and fans melted away, back to the buses ferrying people to Nablus, Jericho and Jenin.

“We played well. But my heart aches tonight. I wanted to show the Tunisian people, in the context of the revolution, and the Palestinian people that this was a victory for sport. It was a political victory, but I wanted it to be a sporting victory as well.”

Next June will see Palestine’s first qualifier for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil, again with the benefit of home advantage. But by then the political landscape will look very different. The Arab Spring has touched the conflict-weary people of the West Bank and Gaza. A few days after the match, protests broke out demanding national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. More significantly, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas announced that he would not stand when elections are announced in the next six months. Rajoub’s calling may come sooner rather than later. But Mokhtar Tlili wasn’t thinking about that as he walked alone down the tunnel, back to the dejected dressing room, his and Palestine’s Olympic dream over. This battle was lost, but the war is still far from over.

James Montague is the author of “When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone” (Mainstream).

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