Football in Gaza is a form of peaceful resistance

Football in Gaza is a form of peaceful resistance

Orlando Crowcroft visited Gaza and published his view on football there in the Nation.   He quotes Gaza Sports Club captain Assim Abu Hassi as saying that players feel that football is the best way to put Gazans out there in the world.  The full report is here.

GAZA CITY.   As the sun set over the beach in Gaza City, the commentary for the World Cup match between Greece and Ivory Coast blared across the city from dozens of shore-side shisha cafes and coffee shops. On the sand, matches were projected onto huge screens and clusters of Gazans sat on plastic chairs, engrossed in the action.

In Gaza, football is a big deal, and during World Cup season conversations eventually gravitate towards who supports whom. Algeria, the only Arab club in this year’s tournament, is a favourite, as well as Brazil and Spain, the latter — before their early exit this year — due to Palestinian passion for Real Madrid and Barcelona.

But even in normal times, Gaza’s love for the beautiful game is palpable. The 360 square kilometre Gaza Strip is home to 56 football clubs spread across three divisions, with league games attracting between 25,000 and 30,000 fans. The strip is home to just five stadiums — the sixth was bombed by the Israelis in 2012 — which host between them over 500 games a year.

On the night that Greece and Ivory Coast kicked off, The National was at the training ground of Gaza Sports Club — the city’s oldest league team. The 30-strong team boasts some of Palestine’s best players, a few of whom have competed overseas and in the West Bank for the national team. It won the domestic league in 2010 and finished third last season.

With the new season starting in September, its manager, Abdullah Abu Hassi, is hoping that the club can improve its position in the year ahead.  Mr Abu Hassi is a Gaza Sports Club lifer, starting out in the youth team in 1982 and then working his way up to play in the first team.  When he retired in 1994, he coached the young players and then afterwards the first team. His son, Assim, is the team captain and has represented Palestine at the national level.  “The biggest problem we have is financial,” he says, taking a break from training. “We struggle to give the players pocket money, pay for uniforms and shoes, transportation. The other problem is travelling to the West Bank.”

The limitations of the tiny Gaza Strip means that many young players here aspire to play in the West Bank, where Palestine plays its national domestic games and players get picked up by clubs from Jordan, Egypt or the Gulf far more easily. But restrictions since the 2006 election of Hamas have made it difficult for most Gaza residents to travel to the West Bank via Israel, let alone abroad.  In May, five Gazan players selected for Palestine’s recent Asian Cup qualifier in the Maldives — at which Palestine secured a spot in next year’s tournament in Australia — were refused visas by Israel to leave the territory and could not take part.

For Ibrahim Abu Sarem, vice president of the Gaza Football Association, such actions by Israel sabotage the good that football in Gaza is achieving for young people.  “The biggest interest in football in all of Palestine comes from Gaza, because they don’t have any other way to express themselves. We are trying to keep young people away from [violence], but at the same time the restrictions on the movement of players makes them hate Israel,” he says.

The attitude among the young players themselves is mixed.  Back on the pitch next to Beach Camp in Gaza City, Gaza Sports Club captain Assim Abu Hassi, 31, explains that many young players see football as a way of resistance.  “Playing football is not a way to make a living in Palestine, you cannot support a family this way. We want to play because we want to tell the world that we exist, and that Palestine exists. The poor kids here in Gaza, they ask for footballs. This is the best way to put us out there in the world,” he says.

But others see football the same way teenagers in poor neighbourhoods across the world do — as a ticket out.  At just 16, Bashar Abu Qeriya is one of Gaza Sports Club’s most promising players. He is known as ‘the Gazan Messi’ (not to be confused with national team player Ashraf Al Fawaghra, known as ‘the Palestinian Messi’) and cited by manager Mr Abu Hassi as one of the club’s greatest hope for the future.  “We’ve no other option here. There is nothing else to do but play football,” says Mr Abu Qeriya.  He dreams of going to Britain to play football. But he has promised his family he will finish school before he tries to leave Palestine.  But why the UK?  “I want to play for Liverpool,” he answers, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

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