Palestinian football through the penetrating eyes of an Australian journlaist

Palestinian football through the penetrating eyes of an Australian journlaist

This set of four articles by Australian Scott Mcintyre highlights the challenges faced by Palestinian Football and the resilience of the players and officials.  The first is introductory: The second is an interview with patriotic midfielder Roberto Kettlun: The third is an
Interview  with Ashran Nu’man (scorer of the winning goal in the AFC Challenge Cup): The fourth is an interview with Susan Shalabi Molano, Director of International Relations at the Palestine FA:

The text of this fourth article is as follows:

AFC Executive Committee member Susan Shalabi Molano has seen the broader struggle involved in football and as a young girl growing up in Palestine saw the specific challenges that presented first hand.

I’ve lost count of the number of football federation offices I’ve been in over the past decade or so of travel through Asia.

Some – Japan stands out – are multi-story affairs, complete with interactive museums. Most, however, fall into the more humble category, one or two levels with a lunch room and a few scattered, dusty, offices with not a whole lot going on.

The one constant is that they are almost exclusively staffed by elderly men, many of whom have little actual football knowledge.

So it came as a pleasant surprise to enter the new FA building in the Palestinian West Bank and see a number of women in key roles.

The highest ranking of those is also of one of the few Palestinians with a say in broader Asian issues and that’s the AFC Executive Committee member Susan Shalabi Molano; a forthright and vocal advocate for the rights of footballers with the Palestinian territories.

Born in Kuwait, the 40 year old has already lived a rich and varied life as a television reporter, camerawomen, translator, filmmaker, visual artist, playwright, and as a diplomat.

It was from that role – as a first secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – that she was recruited to join the PFA in 2008 by Jibril Rajoub, the man who has led Palestinian football from a struggling West Asian nation to now qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup.

As one of the longest serving PFA members, she has seen the broader struggle involved in football and as a young girl growing up in Palestine saw the specific challenges that presented first hand.

“I was never a football player; my generation, of both genders, never had a chance to play properly because leagues and clubs were considered a ‘security threat’ by the Israeli occupation and we were never allowed to organize proper leagues and proper competitions,” she tells me.

“The only way young people could play was in schools and in the streets. I don’t know a Palestinian city, town or village that didn’t have that scene of kids playing football in the streets with these cheap, rubber-plastic balls the kids in my town called ‘Nido’.

Under the new leadership of the PFA, though, there has been a real growth in women’s football over the past decade or so.

In 2008, the women’s national team was properly organised for the first time thanks in part to the pioneering work of the current national captain, Honey Thaljiyeh, and it has now entered the qualification stage for the past two FIFA World Cups, the most recent of which was held in the Palestinian Territory.

While the side has struggled for results, it has had the opportunity to measure itself against some of the best in the region and in the process has inspired other girls to take up the sport.

“The first women’s team played on concrete courts and suffered injuries, but managed to get their spot, but I think the main reason why Palestine has succeeded in developing women’s football is that it had pioneers who were courageous enough to stand their ground against doubts and opposition,” Shalabi Molano adds.

“I remember in 2011 when we invited the Japanese women’s team, General Rajoub had this idea that the match should happen in one of the most conservative regions in Palestine, Hebron.

“Everyone thought it was too much, but he insisted and those who opposed it were shocked when they saw the multitude of people who flocked to fill the 30,000-seat stadium at Dura.

“They were cheering the Japanese ladies because they instantly recognised these women can play football and that one day their ladies will be able to play with the same skill. The doubtful were convinced, and that was what mattered.”

At the same time, Shalabi Molano is involved at the coalface of Palestinian football and is confronted on a daily basis by a host of specific challenges in an environment which few, if any, associations worldwide have to face.

“The first and foremost challenge is the Israeli occupation. It was so in the past and is still so today,” Shalabi Molano says.

“After Oslo, Palestine rejoined FIFA as a full member and the PFA tried to build up the game against impossible odds but was never really allowed to do this because they had to operate through the ‘formal channels’ of the Israeli occupation.

“Palestinians were not allowed to play their home matches at home, and were never allowed to move freely, or build their infrastructure. In the first and second Intifada (uprising) in the late 80s, and late 90s, respectively, the occupation suspended the national competitions, and competitions, clubs, and leagues began to disintegrate under this state of non-activity.

“The issue is that the Israeli occupation does not recognise our basic right of self-determination, and that they do not recognise the official entities that govern the different aspects of Palestinian life.”

This is partly why FIFA established a task force in July last year to “analyse bilateral matters including the facilitation of players, referees and equipment in and out of and within Palestine”, but Shalabi Moleno claims that this body is fraught with political difficulties.

“When we went to the first meeting of the FIFA task force to address the problem faced by Palestinian football at the hands of the Israeli occupation, we were both (PFA and IFA) asked by FIFA to present our complaints,” she says.

“The Israeli FA had this demand that the Palestine Football Association must operate through the formal channels of the state of Israel yet as you well know, this is against FIFA statutes which clearly state that each MA (member association) is the sole body entitled to run and organize football on its own territories.”

What is clear is that there is now an almost intractable position on both sides and while the broader issues are dealt with at a political level, all the Palestinians have is the hope that FIFA may become more heavily involved.

Shalabi Moleno claims that the recent fighting damaged three football pitches, destroyed five sport clubs, either damaged or destroyed the homes of four sportspeople, and saw the deaths of eight fans who were killed watching a World Cup match.

Moreover, she argues that there is a “series of procedures” which is stymieing the growth and development of football in Palestine.

“We have opted to give peace one last chance but the Israeli occupation employs various methods to restrain the growth of football.”

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