A long wait for a home game
As we reported earlier this week the Palestinian national football team (ranked 180th in the world) will take on Jordan (ranked 112th) in a friendly this coming Sunday.
Anywhere else in the world a friendly between two such lowly sides would not generate much media coverage but when Palestine are one of the teams and they are playing their first ever game on home soil, interest mounts and, being in the Middle East, controversy cannot be far behind.
For starters – there’s the issue of the name Palestine and its use in the football context.
Jibril Rajoub, one-time right-hand man to Yasser Arafat and now head of the Palestinian Football Federation, told a news conference on Thursday his organisation was celebrating its 80th anniversary.
The Palestine FA was formed in 1928 and joined FIFA in 1929 but at the time the association was made up of Arab clubs, Jewish clubs (including the venerable Maccabe Tel Aviv) and clubs representing British policemen or soldiers serving in the region during the British Mandate rule that spanned the period between World War One and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
An Arab club represented the Palestinian FA in an attempt to qualify for the World Cup in 1930 while the qualification matches for the 1934 World Cup were contested by a Palestine team made up exclusively of Jewish and British players.
As hostilities between Jews and Arabs worsened in the early 1940s, domestic league soccer was abandoned. After 1948, the Palestine FA was reformed as the Israeli Football Association.
The modern day Palestinian Football Federation, representing Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, joined FIFA in 1998 (although the FIFA website, in a classic compromise, gives the date of the PFF’s formation as 1928 without explaining the intervening 70 years outside the FIFA family).
Next up is the claim to playing rights for home internationals in the city of Jerusalem.
The Faisal Husseini stadium, where Sunday’s game will take place, is in Ram – a town that lies between Jerusalem and Ramallah on the Palestinian side of the barrier that Israel is building.
So when Rajoub told reporters that the game will be played in Jerusalem it was more than a statement about a football venue – it was a statement about nationhood, sovereignty and identity that goes to the heart of the Middle East conflict.
Palestinians want parts of Jerusalem as the capital for a future Palestinian state. Israelis regard the city as their united capital since they captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.
Jerusalem is not recognised internationally as Israel’s capital, so Israel play all official home internationals in Tel Aviv.
The FIFA website says the venue for Sunday’s game is Ram and not Jerusalem as Rajoub stated.
Another issue that makes this more than just another football match is, of course, the conflict that has raged for decades making normal life for Israelis and Palestinians difficult enough – let alone the luxury of playing football free of political or security concerns.
One striking example was the 2006 Israeli bombing of Gaza’s main soccer stadium – empty at the time – which Israel said was being used by militants to launch rockets at southern Israeli towns.
A fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic group that controls Gaza, has brought some calm to the region in recent months but football players from Gaza still struggle to leave the coastal strip and join up with the national team because of Israeli restrictions on movement.
The Israeli FA has tried to help ease restrictions on Palestinian footballers but security concerns trump football concerns in this part of the world.
A source inside the Israeli FA told Reuters that FA representatives were keen to attend Sunday’s game but were still awaiting security clearance from the Israeli army and intelligence authorities.
For footballers in the West Bank things might be looking up with the resumption of a semi-professional league which was disbanded after a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000.
A new crop of young players from this league will form the backbone of the national team that takes the field on Sunday.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who will be at the match, is no stranger to controversial ideas for the beautiful game.
With all eyes on the upcoming bidding war for the 2018 World Cup he might want to consider the unusual proposal by One Voice, a peace movement, for an Israel/Palestine World Cup bid (http://www.goal2018.org/).
While the idea might look like an absurd pipedream, we do often talk about miracles happening in football and the Holy Land has seen its share of those. So who’s to say that it couldn’t happen here!
PHOTO: A Palestinian national team goalkeeper catches the ball during a warm-up before the friendly against Jordan, Oct. 22, 2008. REUTERS/Fadi Arouri