Cinema | ‘Futbol Palestina 2006′

Body searches, travel restrictions, arrests and martial law are not conditions usually associated with international football. These however have been familiar realities for members of the Palestinian national team. In spite of daunting odds, these players have succeeded in representing their nation. Futbol Palestina 2006, Nelson Soza and Marcelo Piña’s film in progress, is a record of the players’ struggles, determination and pride.

Since 1998, when FIFA recognized the Palestinian Football Association, Palestine, although lacking a state, has appeared in international tournaments and games. Yet the first Palestinian team was established in 1908, in the al-Rawda School of Jerusalem.

“People carry on with their lives in spite of the astoundingly difficult conditions,” writes U.K. global-justice group Grassroots International about this picture of children playing football in Dheisheh refugee camp.The IBDAA Cultural Center works with Grassroots to develop sports and other enrichment programs for some 5,000 children in the camp. See more pictures from Palestine here. (Copyright © 2004 Jennifer Lemire and Daniel Moss | Grassroots International. Used by permission.)

During the British rule of Palestine/Israel, the game was popular. There were separate leagues for the Jewish and Arab populations, but games between teams of the two nations took place, including for the state cup. These games of friendship ended in the early 1930s as bullets and bombs replaced soccer balls, and the young men who earlier had faced each other on the playing fields became enemies.

After the 1948 war, the fate of Palestinian football mirrored that of the Palestinian people—defeat, destruction, exile, struggle and renewed hope. Many of the players were killed or exiled, but teams from the West Bank participated in the Jordanian league, and a national team played in the Arab nations’ championship games. After the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, all organized sports activities ceased. They resumed after 1973, with sports also helping to shape national consciousness and to restore pride, and in the last decade the national team has returned to full international participation after an absence of six decades. (Its last previous appearance was in the World Cup qualifying games of 1934 when it lost to Egypt.)

Lacking a state and an organized league, the process of assembling a team—depicted in Futbol Palestina—included a worldwide Internet appeal to players and fans to send names. Because of Israel’s control of Palestinian territories, practices are held in Ismalia Egypt and home games in Qatar.

Several of the players grew up under military rule, and they, as well as family members, have known the hardships of occupation. One of the players, midfielder Tarek al-Quto, was killed during the intifada. In addition, several players play in Chile, Germany, Lebanon and the United States, coming together only rarely. With a large part of the Palestinian population suffering from economic deprivation and hunger, money for equipment, training, travel and games is scarce. Only in the last year have several Palestinian businessmen come through with financial support, and FIFA has pledged $1 million to help build a new stadium in Gaza.

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