Palestinian national soccer team finally plays at home
Normally, a friendly soccer match between teams ranked 112th and 180th in the world wouldn’t be much occasion for excitement.
But Sunday’s face-off between the Jordanian and Palestinian national teams was far more than a soccer match. It was the first time the Palestinian side had played in the West Bank -- in effect its first actual home game after years of playing as the home team in Jordan and other neighboring Arab countries.
For the players and fans who packed into a newly built stadium, the match was a passionate display of nationalism and a welcome relief from the daily rigors of four decades of occupation.
“We’re representing a nation. We’re representing a flag,” Palestinian coach Izzat Hamza said. “We have to defend our flag.”
The outcome of the match (a 1-1 tie) seemed secondary to the mere fact that it was taking place -- and where. The stadium, which isn’t finished, stands within 200 yards of a massive concrete barrier built by Israel.
Technically the match took place in a tiny community called Al Ram, between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah. But Palestinian soccer officials seized the opportunity to plant a flag for adjacent East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want for the capital of a future independent state.
“Having the match in East Jerusalem is important,” said Jibril Rajoub, head of the local soccer federation and former Palestinian Authority security chief for the West Bank. “It has historic dimensions for the whole Palestinian cause.”
The estimated 8,000-plus fans who packed into the 6,500-seat stadium reveled in the occasion. Flags and patriotic banners waved from every direction, and drummers led chants that often mixed sports fanaticism with nationalistic fervor. Among the crowd slogans were “Oh Palestine! Jerusalem is Arab,” and “By length, by width, Palestine shakes the earth” -- which sounds much better in Arabic.
The stadium atmosphere was raucous two hours before kickoff and peaked when Team Palestine’s Ahmed Kashkash scored the first goal about 15 minutes into the match.
“It was one of the most emotional moments of my life, scoring a goal for Palestine in front of Palestinians,” said Kashkash, a 22-year-old Gazan. “It was great to come here, but I wish that all of Gaza would be able to come.”
Several of the national squad’s players hail from the Gaza Strip, which Israel has virtually sealed since the militant group Hamas took control last summer.
Getting them out required months of negotiations, and the last five Gazan players received permission to join their teammates only two days before the match.
Palestinian soccer officials complained that the Israeli delays made it impossible for some Gazan players to get enough practice and integrate into the team.
“Giving them a permit two days before the match is the same as not giving them anything,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk on the record.
The Palestinian squad is young (average age: 20) and slightly hodgepodge, reflecting the varying circumstances of a people partially in diaspora.
Besides the Gaza players, many are from the West Bank, where a local soccer league recently restarted after an eight-year hiatus, and some were drawn from Palestinian communities overseas.
Starting left fullback Roberto Bishara is from the long-established Palestinian community in Chile. Bishara, who speaks no Arabic, plays for a Chilean team named Palestino (Spanish for Palestinian). He missed a crucial league match to play here.
“It’s a huge honor to play in Palestine, where my parents and grandparents were born,” said Bishara, who was making his first visit to the West Bank. “The people here deserve a bit of happiness.”