Why are the people of Gaza apparently nuts about Barcelona Football Club?
The question arose when I asked where I might be able to watch the big champions league match between Barcelona and Arsenal.
First, dear reader, a confession. I am an Arsenal fan, and this is an important game. When I explained this to a colleague in the Al Jazeera Gaza office, he looked concerned. “You must be very careful, it could be dangerous to watch that game,” he said.
It’s true, I had heard that Gaza could be dangerous, in various ways, but had not anticipated that watching a football match on TV, or my allegiance for Arsenal, would be a flash-point. “Everyone in Gaza is crazy about Barcelona, so you might want to keep a low profile,” he warned.
After a week of driving round this crowded, impoverished and fascinating place, I can confirm that there are an awful lot of Barcelona replica kits being worn in Gaza, many of them bearing the name of the Argentinean superstar, Lionel Messi.A friend of mine says that people in Gaza support Barcelona, because they share a passion for the welfare of children, (Barcelona, atypically in the world of football, has rejected lucrative shirt sponsorship deals from major companies, and instead chooses to wear the logo of the UN’s children’s fund, UNICEF, for free).
No prizes for guessing that my friend works for UNICEF. Nice theory, but I suspect the truth is more obvious; people in Gaza support Barcelona because they appreciate great football.
Not only that, but Barcelona are winners, and people here don’t have too much to smile about. (Another intriguing theory I’ve heard is that the Palestinians of Gaza, proud of an identity forged under such difficult conditions, admire Barcelona because of its ties to Catalan nationalism, which has thrived despite disapproval from Madrid).
Of course, the passion for a foreign football team may also be a reflection of how the people of Gaza are starved of any domestic action.
Due to political tensions between Hamas and Fatah, all high level cup and league games have been suspended in Gaza since 2007.
But this week, there was good news. Football administrators here have overcome their differences, and just announced the resumption of competitive matches; the first game takes place later this week. (Watch out for a TV report on this in the next few days on Al Jazeera English from my colleague Casey Kauffman).
So, will the resumption of live football in Gaza weaken the hold of Barcelona on people’s imagination? Somehow, I doubt it. Gaza might have to come up with its own Lionel Messi first.