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Football in Palestine: power, conflict, and hope

A tale of occupation, corruption, yet also considerable admiration.

That the Palestinian national team competes on the international stage is an inspirational story in itself. Any success, despite the adversity faced, is a feat deserving of attention.

A true David and Goliath story played out in the same region (if we believe the Bible), the Palestinian national team have consistently overcome the odds to develop the beautiful game in their land. The history of Palestinian football is long, complex, and riddled with ambiguity. It is a saga reflecting the social and cultural climate of the region itself.

Palestine’s early football footing

Palestine – in Association Football capacity – joined FIFA in 1998. However their footballing journey can be traced back at least seventy years before. Uri Levy of Babagol credits the introduction of the game in Palestine to “Arab and Muslim students who studied in Istanbul, Lebanon and Syria… as well as the first Jewish immigrants who came mostly from Ukraine and Russia.”

There is a distinct correlation between the formulation of association football in Eastern Europe and the “development of the game among the Jewish population in Palestine.” In 1928, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) was formed, establishing national team in what was then known as Mandatory Palestine.

However, the team was made up of exclusively Jewish residents. Only one Arab volunteered for the team but the PFA found tenuous reasons to boycott his involvement. At that time, it was normal for Jewish team to travel round the middle-east. They would face teams including Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt.

The PFA (in the non-Arab capacity) became the Israeli Football Association (IFA) after the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. This caused an irreparable schism in many societal institutions, and football was not exempt. A separate Arab Palestinian team was formed, albeit under the umbrella of the PFA. Yet they would not play their first competitive game until 1953.

Indeed, early investments in Palestinian football by the Arab Higher Committee were largely ‘deconstructive’ but the formation of a league did eventually ensue. Thus, a period of development and growth began for the fledgling national team. Their path thereon would be consistently hampered by inadequate facilities, wars, and other political issues.

International recognition

Following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993-95 (a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation) the Palestinian Authority was created and tasked with the governance of the West Bank and the Gaza strip. This represented a degree of recognition of Palestine within the International community and they were eventually admitted into FIFA in 1998.

Many argue that this was Sepp Blatter’s attempt to make his mark on the Israel-Palestine conflict. According to Bassil Mikdadi, founder of “He thought he could win the Nobel peace prize for his work in football.”

This raised many questions about the ulterior, altruistic motives behind Blatter’s push to introduce Palestine to FIFA. However, whatever the intentions, “Palestinians owe a lot to Blatter” says Levy. The funding and exposure that subsequently followed has been paramount to the growth of the game in Palestine.

In 1998, FIFA had more member nations than the UN. There was also a growing feeling within Palestine that they were close to being officially recognised within the international community by obtaining their own state. Regrettably, according to Mikdadi, it was “an aura of possibility which proved to be a false dawn.”

Yet, success within the football sphere was on the horizon. The sliding doors moment was securing qualification for the 2014 Asian Cup by winning the AFC Challenge Cup. This is a tournament offering a pathway for emerging and developing countries to reach the big stage (akin to the new UEFA Conference League).

The importance of this achievement cannot be understated. “They were not supposed to win it” exclaimed Mikdadi. Allowing Palestine to compete at the Asian Cup gave them much needed exposure. Crucially, it also changed the attitude toward the national team internally and especially from the PFA.

Under guided leadership?

It had long been thought that high ranking PFA officials had not always supported the team, publicly nor internally. However, in recent years Jibril Rajoub, President of the PFA, “has done a magnificent job in bringing Palestinian football up to the standard of international competitions” says Levy.

Indeed, the construction of the Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium in the West Bank capitalised on the growing support for the national team. It also fostered a strong sense of pride and unwavering support from its citizens. This culminated in a victory over Uzbekistan, deemed a traditional big team in the region. This was as well as another appearance at the Asian Cup in 2019; this time through a more orthodox qualifying method.

Palestinian football is at a crossroads. As recently as 2018, they were ranked 73rd in the world, seventeen places ahead of Israel. However, progress under Rajoub has stagnated and continued success is dependent on a number of matters. There is a need to modernise the game, especially technologically to “connect Palestinian football to modern football.”

For instance, neither the West Bank League nor the Gaza Strip Premier League can be found on Wyscout or Instat. This means that much of the talent within these leagues falls sorrowfully through the cracks. Thus the pathways to Europe become seemingly impossible to navigate.

Palestinian football has been mis-managed for some time, stemming from the school of thought that Rajoub doesn’t always prioritise football when making decisions. This is evident when FIFA sent then anti-racism adviser Tokyo Sexuale to Palestine to investigate the participation of Israeli-settlement teams within the Israeli Premier League.

Sexuale and FIFA had precedent to act following FIFA’s intervention in Russia after the annexation of Crimea. Russia had attempted to absorb the Crimean teams into the Russian League. FIFA blocked the attempt on grounds that it was occupied territory.

Logic would dictate that the situation in Palestine would result in a similar intervention given that the settlements are classed as illegal under international law. Mikdadi believes that it was Rajoub’s over-politicisation of the Palestinian football arena which created fear and reluctance within FIFA. Ultimately this dissuaded them from getting involved.

Team politics

Another complication in this football arena is the recruitment of Arab-Israeli players to the Palestinian national team which, until this moment, has seldom occurred. There is an unwritten rule that players playing within the Israeli League will not be selected to play for the national team, regardless of whether they have Palestinian citizenship. Many of these players grew up in the Israeli academies and systems which are far superior to those found within the West Bank League. Interestingly, 40% of players within the Israeli Premier League are Arab players and Levy states that the refusal to touch these “highly successful players” is preventing Palestine from reaching the next level.

Speaking exclusively to First Time Finish, Nazmi Albadawi, an American-born Palestinian player, says he hopes that this will change. Two of his teammates including goalkeeper Rami Hamadeh have recently moving to the Israeli league. He described (in a doubtful tone) that “it would hurt us if we didn’t have them moving forward” as they are “two great guys [and] great players that I’m hoping we continue to call back in the future.”

Another sizable hurdle to success is the Israeli occupation and their control of certain borders in the West Bank and Gaza. Albadawi explains that when he meets up with his teammates, he has to fly either via Israel or Jordan. This incurs travelling through various security checkpoints in order to get to Palestine.

What is more difficult is leaving the country for away games. As a holder of an American passport, Albadawi feels “blessed and fortunate” that it only takes him a few hours to get out of the country. Conversely, for his teammates it is normal to leave 24 hours before he does in order to pass through security checkpoints and get out of the country.

He recognises the immense sacrifice of his teammates and has huge respect and admiration for them, especially as they “never complain.” He also acknowledges that this can turn a regular travel day into three or four days. This of course adds undue stress on the team going into crucial World Cup qualifiers.

Levy agrees with him. The occupation “is a massive hurdle for the development of Palestinian football” and cites stories of careers being halted for a year, plus kick-off’s being delayed due to the questioning of referees at checkpoints. “To say it doesn’t impact football would be a lie.”

Despite the various obstacles, and allegations of corruption which have plagued Rajoub’s leadership, Levy states “what they’ve achieved in the last decade is unbelievable.”

Walking in the right direction

Small things like introducing a price for tickets and obtaining sponsors have helped grow the game incomprehensible amounts. One thing which remains constant in spite of all these challenges is the support of the fans. Albadawi fondly recalls the atmosphere at the World Cup qualifying. A 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia where “people were trying to climb the fences to get into the stadium” contributed to it being “one of the best environments I’ve ever played in.”

The Palestinian star also insists that he has always felt supported by the PFA and that the upper echelons of leadership do value and appreciate the team. He went on to say, in gest, that the only thing that could be improved is the amount of bonuses they receive. Especially after their successful exploits against Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia.

It’s also dismissive and detractive to suggest that their achievements are perceived to be more impressive due to the population size of Palestine – a mere 5 million. After all, it only takes one glance at Uruguay, a nation of roughly 3.5 million people, who have 2 World Cups to their name and a consistent conveyor belt of elite level talent.

The hope is one day, that players like Albadawi will have the opportunity to grace the top European leagues. Change should be on the horizon soon and with the team making good early progress in the 2022 WC qualifiers, there is still hope that they can make it to Qatar.

Their potential is huge and if we focus on the macro, rather than the micro, the past twenty years have been an amazing achievement, deserving more of a spotlight.

The history of Palestinian football highlights the connection between football and nationalism. It’s not particularly romantic, nor pretty but is a story which tells the tale of a whole population, through the lens of the beautiful game, in a way like no other.

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