Home soccer game is symbol of Palestinians' ultimate goal

Palestinian national soccer coach Izzat Hamzeh watches as members of his team practice in Ramallah.
Palestinian national soccer coach Izzat Hamzeh watches as members of his team practice in Ramallah. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Millions of Palestinians around the world are still waiting for the day that they can celebrate the birth of an independent homeland.

This weekend, they'll at least be able to celebrate their first home soccer game.

In an historic event, the Palestinian national soccer team will take to the field Sunday to host its first internationally blessed home game at a refurbished stadium near Jerusalem.

It probably won't resemble "The Beautiful Game" perfected by Brazil's soccer legends. Nor is it likely to be as memorable as the U.S. women's team winning Olympic gold in 1996.

But the Palestinian players are hoping that history will take note of this day just the same.

"We don't need a state to show that we represent Palestine," goalkeeper Fahed Fakhoury said Thursday as his teammates wrapped up practice on a soggy field. "Palestine is in our heart. We're not going to wait for a state to represent Palestine."

Soccer in the Middle East cannot be divorced from the politics. Especially not this game.

The renovated stadium is little more than a stone's throw from the towering concrete wall that cleaves Jerusalem as part of Israel's separation barrier.

And things being what they are in the Mideast, several Palestinian soccer players who want to play can't be at Sunday's game. At least six of them are trapped in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Several team members, including a top scorer, are locked in Israeli prisons. And one up-and-coming Palestinian player was killed last week by Israeli soldiers on patrol in the West Bank.

Israel's own soccer team is actively supporting its Palestinian counterparts, but the players aren't likely to attend the game: Israeli law bans its citizens from entering large parts of the West Bank, including the neighborhood with the soccer stadium.

(The Israeli team was still waiting Friday for special permission from the Israeli military to see the game.)

Even if the Israelis don't make it, the 7,000-seat stadium is expected to be packed when the Palestinian team faces neighboring Jordan.

Jordan's Prince Ali is planning to be there. So will the president of FIFA, the world soccer federation. There were even rumors that boxing promoter Don King might make an appearance.

FIFA set the foundation for Sunday's game by injecting more than $3 million into the dilapidated sports field. Along with money from Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and other outside donors, FIFA helped refurbish the field, install high-quality turf and rebuild the stadium so that it now meets international standards.

That paved the way for the Palestinian team to host its first, FIFA-sanctioned home game.

The match will take place in a time of relative Middle East calm. Israel and Hamas leaders in Gaza are largely honoring a four-month-old cease-fire. Israeli negotiators are still trying, despite daunting odds, to work out separate peace deals with Syria and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. And persistent Israeli fears of a third Palestinian uprising fueled by political inertia have yet to be realized.

"Look out there," said Palestinian team manager Mazen Khatib as he pointed to the players on the field. "This is the generation of the intifada. They are playing soccer, not fighting."

In a sign of the subtle transformations taking place here, the Palestinian soccer federation is now led by Jibril Rajoub, one of Yasser Arafat's longtime military strategists.

"This is our idea of resistance," said Izzam Hamzeh, the former coach of the Jordanian national team that Rajoub lured away to lead the Palestinian team. "We have a flag. We have a nation. And we have a cause."

Sunday's match is especially poignant for Roberto Bishara, the 27-year-old defender who grew up in Chile and normally plays for Palestino, a Santiago soccer team founded by Palestinian immigrants in the 1920s.

Although Bishara has played with the Palestinian soccer team for five years, he had never before been to visit his father's homeland. Bishara, who speaks little Arabic, always met his teammates abroad.

"I'm overjoyed," Bishara said earlier this week after practice. "The people here are very beautiful. They treat me like (Brazilian soccer star) Ronaldinho."

Bishara had no qualms about making a boast about who'd win.

"Write this down and mark my words," he said. "Palestine-2, Jordan-0."


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