If you can’t go to the World Cup, why not stage it?
Exactly what the Gaza Strip is doing, having kicked off its own mini version of the tournament.
Some 16 Gaza-based Palestinian soccer clubs are competing, most named after international football powerhouses like Brazil, Spain and France, in addition to teams representing Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Turkey. The squads are made up mainly of players from the amateur Gaza football league plus a small contingent of out of shape foreigners, mostly international aid workers based in Gaza.
The championship is intended to highlight the situation in Gaza under a three-year-old Israeli blockade which has prevented most of the territory’s 1.5 million residents, including athletes, from being able to travel abroad. It also marks the 15 months since the end of Israel’s three-week carnage in Gaza (even though more than 1,400 Palestinian men, women and children were killed in the blitz, we do have a propensity to forget if not reminded).
Though it is a symbolic event, Gazans have gone out of their way to make the two-week tournament as real as possible. Around 5,000 fans of all ages turned out for the opening match between Palestine and ‘Italy’.
The Italian national anthem was played. Flags from both teams fluttered around the stadium as the game kicked off. For the opening ceremony, all the teams were in full national strip.
During the opening ceremony, the American team paraded around the stadium, holding the US flag aloft. How often do you see that in Gaza?
Perhaps the fluttering of the red, white and blue is only fitting since this other World Cup is the brainchild of an American, Patrick McGrann, a Minneapolis native who for the past year has lived and taught in the Gaza Strip. McGrann is a one-man NGO who sought to help the Palestinians any way possible, so chose to develop what they like best, football.
McGrann is being aided by the UNDP and has also received the blessings of FIFA, the sport’s worldwide governing body.
A Palestinian team has never qualified for the real World Cup. The political situation meant they only really started trying for the World Cup in 2002, but for the past three tournaments have never made it out of the qualifying stages.
Palestinian soccer isn’t all that highly rated; out of 207 national teams, Palestine is currently ranked 173rd in the world, below Mongolia and above Comoros.
Palestine used to be better; in 2006 it reached a not unrespectable 115th.
In part, the reason for the drop is because professional football was one of the first casualties of the rift between the Palestinian factions Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip.
Historically, Fatah controlled the Palestine Football Association, the governing body for the sport in Gaza, but when Hamas gained political control in 2007 and, with its ascendancy, the PFA suspended operations.
Amid political infighting and then outright military clashes, competitive soccer came to a halt.
After a three-year hiatus the PFA resumed operations, holding its first league match in March – Al-Shate versus Rafah, two of Gaza’s most popular teams. It was the opener for 240 games, leading up to the ultimate in competition — the FIFA World Cup next month – and before that, the Gazans’ own global version.
The reality in Gaza is both disheartening and inspiring. The teams are playing to win a cup, one made out of twisted metal and rubble taken from the debris of houses destroyed during the Israeli siege.
This is a besieged slice of land where 1.5 million Palestinians live but can’t move. Now, though, they can play.
The Gaza World Cup allows Palestinians to do what they love to do — watch and play football. Gazans are playing their favorite game and enjoying their most popular pastime despite the siege and suffering.
They are enjoying life like any other people. Amid a blockade and haunting memories, this mini-World Cup is designed to build as much normalcy as Gaza can experience.
If Palestinians cannot go to the World Cup, the next best thing was to bring the World Cup to Palestine.
It’s not the actual World Cup, but it’s as good as it gets in Gaza.