Gaza gets a kick out of revived soccer

Most days you’ll find Hazim Enseo, 11, with a yellow soccer ball tucked under an arm, hanging out around Gaza City’s Beach Club to watch his favorite soccer team practice kicks, blocks and headers.

Enseo, born in the adjacent refugee camp, is one of Al Shate team’s biggest fans. He boasts that he’s met half the players in person and has already signed up to play for the club one day, though, at under 5 feet tall, he’ll need a few years to grow.

His obsession with the team has always lacked just one thing: seeing Al Shate win. It’s not that Al Shate keeps losing. It just hasn’t been playing. No one in Gaza has.

Professional soccer was one of the first — and to sports fans, most painful — casualties of the rift between the Palestinian factions of Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip. Amid political infighting and then outright military clashes, competitive soccer, once Gaza’s most popular pastime, stumbled to a halt.

Now, in what some hope will prove to be a baby step toward Palestinian reconciliation, Fatah and Hamas have agreed to settle their differences, at least on the soccer field.

After a three-year dry spell, during which Gaza soccer fans had to settle for rooting for Egypt or Barcelona on TV, the Palestinian Football Assn. held its first match in March: Al Shate versus Rafah, two of Gaza’s most popular teams. It was the opener of 240 games now scheduled in Gaza, leading up to July playoffs.

Enseo, of course, was there, racing home after school and catching a bus to the Gaza stadium to watch his team for the first time in official action.

“It’s so much better than TV,” he said. “It’s amazing how fast they run.”

Unfortunately, Al Shate lost, but Enseo is looking forward to the next match, and the day when he might join the team on the field.

“I’m going to be a footballer,” he said, casually bumping the ball off his foot and catching it again. “I’m pretty good.”

In this beleaguered coastal enclave, where poverty is rampant and fears are rising about renewed clashes with Israel, the resumption of soccer is a reassuring sign, a small but significant step toward normality.

“It shows that, at least in some areas, things are stabilizing,” said shopkeeper Mohamed abu Sharkh, 47.

Soccer arrived in Gaza with British colonialists in the 1920s, and the Palestinian Football Assn. won international FIFA recognition in 1998.

There are 300-plus clubs scattered throughout the Palestinian territories, more than 250 of them in the West Bank and more than 50 in Gaza, which, though smaller, has earned a reputation for producing stronger players and more victories, officials said. Historically, Gaza players have made up about half of the Palestinian national team.

The problem is that most of the league teams are sponsored by political movements, chiefly Fatah and Hamas. So when Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 and the unity Fatah-Hamas government collapsed, Hamas quickly moved to take over or chase out most Fatah-affiliated entities. That included about 16 Fatah-sponsored soccer teams, according to Ibrahim abu Salim, head of the football league in Gaza.

Competitive play ceased in Gaza, although games continued in the more stable Fatah-controlled West Bank.

It was just the start of many problems for Gaza’s soccer league. Because of Israeli and Egyptian border restrictions, players from Gaza who competed on the national team were unable to leave the strip for international matches.

During Israel’s 22-day offensive 16 months ago to stop Hamas rocket fire into civilian communities in southern Israel, a soccer stadium in Rafah was hit by an Israeli missile. Elsewhere, three soccer players were killed in clashes.

After months of negotiations among the soccer clubs and the Palestinian leadership, Hamas and Fatah reached a compromise that placed the 16 disputed Fatah teams under the control of a joint Fatah-Hamas committee, Abu Salim said.

A resolution was supported by some high-placed soccer fans in Hamas, including Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a former player for Al Shate.

“From now on, we hope to keep politics out of the sport,” Abu Salim said. He said the compromise on soccer matches might even create a foundation for broader reconciliation.

“We know we can’t solve all of the political problems,” he said. “But maybe soccer will bridge the gap.”

Gaza’s soccer clubs are just happy to be playing again. Many temporarily shut down as players quit or moved to the West Bank.

“The hardest part was keeping the team together,” Al Shate team director Nur abu Hasnin said. “You can’t keep a soccer player from playing soccer.”

As other teams went on hiatus, Abu Hasnin insisted on gathering Al Shate for practice at least once a week.

Now, with the prospect of actual games, Abu Hasnin said he’s had little problem getting players to turn out three times a week or more.

“I can’t describe how frustrating the past three years have been,” said a sweaty, breathless Al Shate captain Hamada Shbair, fresh off the field after a 90-minute practice.

Shbair, 30, is also on the national team, though he hasn’t been permitted to leave Gaza since 2008.

“It’s hard to just practice and practice, and never compete,” he said. “Practicing will never give us the ability to become good players. It’s competition that makes heroes.”