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.”
All the joys from sports are short-lived in Gaza. Even the joy, and mass celebrations that erupted following their shocking May 2014 1-0 victory over the Philippines, which secured them entry into the Asian Cup. In June, just months after this remarkable moment, Israeli Defense Forces began a series of attacks on Gaza, killing according to the United Nations, more than 2,000 people, with 1,500 of them classified by the UN as civilians and 500 of them children. (Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and five Israeli civilians were killed in the conflict.)
On July 16, 2014, four young boys, from the Bakr family in Gaza, were killed as they played football in the sand. Ahed Atef Bakr, Zakaria Ahed Bakr, Mohamed Ramez Bakr and Ismael Mohamed Bakr were on the beach and killed by shells from an Israeli naval gunboat. For months, the most prominent aspect of football in Palestine in the eyes of the world was the harrowing image created by artist Amir Schiby in honor of the four Bakr boys.
There were questions about whether the bombardment of Gaza and the travel blockade that followed would prevent Palestine from making the trip to Australia to even field a team for the Asian Cup. The Strivers eventually did secure their travel permits, but had to hold their trainings far from home, in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Then, a few months before the tournament, their coach, Jamal Mahmoud, quit due to what were described as “personal reasons.” Assistant coach Saeb Jendeya immediately stepped in until the current coach, Ahmad Al Hassan, was appointed. The preamble to the Asian Cup wasn’t so much an exercise in training as a Job-like demonstration of spiritual and emotional endurance.
It was all worth it on Monday, when the squad walked onto the pitch in Newcastle, and heard the eruption of the crowd. There were the rhythmic beatings of drums, flag-waving, chanting and singing; activities that were echoed miles away in Gaza City. The result of the match was dismal, albeit expected, as Japan (Samurai Blue), the defending Asian Champions trounced Palestine 4-0. But this is one of those rare moments in sports when the score doesn’t necessarily tell us who won and who lost.
As the website Football Palestine said, “Palestine fans should be proud. They created a party-like atmosphere in Newcastle and in a tournament bereft of the vociferous support you might see at other major international finals. Down 1-0 they didn’t stop nor at 2-0, 3-0, 4-0. All the way to the final whistle, this may be the start of something truly special.”
Palestine deserves to relish this moment. The objective is not only victory but to shine a spotlight on the abilities and resilience of Palestinian athletes. As star player Ashraf Nu’man Al-Fawaghra explained during an interview with FIFA.com: “Our goal is to let the world know that the Palestinian national team are moving forward despite the difficulties facing us. We want to convey the message that the Palestinian players have the right to play and develop. Furthermore, we want to bring a smile back to the faces of our people and make our fans happy.”
On Friday, Palestine plays Jordan in Melbourne. Jordan placed sixth in the previous Asian Cup and is ranked ninety-third in the world by FIFA, compared to Palestine’s 115. A victory is possible, and it would constitute a culmination of one of the great underdog stories in the history of international soccer. But this is no Cinderella story. This is a tale of hard work and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. It might not be a fairy tale, but it has created its own kind of magic.