At a moment when world leaders and cable television blowhards are braying for collective punishment of Arabs and Muslims, the Gaza Strip this week is a scene of collective joy. This is because the Palestinian national soccer team took to historic Newcastle Field in Australia to play in the Asian Cup, the first major international tournament for which they have qualified in their eighty-six-year existence. As soccer writer James Montague put it, “For Palestine—a team recognized by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, since 1998 but not yet as a fully fledged country by the United Nations—their appearance meant more than any progress on the pitch.… Palestinians, for once, will begin as equals to those around it.”
To call this a Cinderella story would only make sense if we choose to make the story of Cinderella profoundly more harrowing than even the most fevered visions of the Brothers Grimm or Steven Sondheim. And no one in this tale would confuse Sepp Blatter with any kind of fairy godmother.
Palestinian Football has fought an indescribable battle in order to even compete on an international stage. They live under occupation, have had their training facilities destroyed, have coped with the detention of players, the deaths of teammates and the inability to move freely through Israeli militarized checkpoints in order to train and compete in matches. This has led to an international campaign featuring prominent footballers calling for FIFA to expel Israel from its fold or at least prevent them from hosting FIFA-sanctioned tournaments. They have also had to shoulder the burden of having coaches, mentors and potential players killed amidst the ongoing Gaza war and blockade. This is why the Palestinian football team is lovingly known as “Al-Fedayi,” which means “one who sacrifices life for the sake of the homeland,” and “the Strivers” in English. Striving and sacrifice have both been necessary components toward making this appearance in the Asian Cup a reality.
We spoke with Sanaa Qureshi from Football Beyond Borders, an organization that took a team from London to play in Palestine in 2011. They were able to experience the conditions for themselves.
“Palestine’s qualification for the Asia cup marks a huge achievement for a country under brutal occupation, with a diaspora unable to return home.” Quereshi said. “Remarkably, the team is a perfect microcosm of the Palestinian struggle, made up of players from the West Bank, Gaza and of Palestinian heritage from all over the world. Overcoming obstacles that have included being denied visas and routine detention at borders, this is a team not only playing for their country but for recognition of their existence and the continued resistance of the Palestinian people.”