Sun, Oct 26, 2008 - Page 18 News List

Soccer is finally coming home for the APalestinians

THE GUARDIAN , JERUSALEM

East Jerusalem players warm up before a friendly match against the Palestinian national team at Palestine’s first international-standard stadium, which was funded by FIFA, in the West Bank town of A-Ram, Palestine, on Monday.

PHOTO: EPA

Clinging to a metal fence around a Ramallah training ground, dozens of wide-eyed youngsters looked on in awe as the stars of Palestinian soccer limbered up on waterlogged synthetic grass.

Nearby, the settlement of Bet-El loomed as a stark reminder of the conditions that have always prevented their team from playing in front of their fans on their own territory.

Now soccer is finally coming home — more than a decade after the creation of the game’s own Palestinian ruling association — and a fever is sweeping Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank in the build-up to today’s international friendly between Palestine and Jordan.

The first match to be played on home soil by the national team is being heralded as a much-needed diversion for tens of thousands of fans who will watch the game on television or at the venue in East Jerusalem itself.

After a loosening of Israeli restrictions and overcoming FIFA’s reluctance to sanction matches under hazardous conditions, Palestinians are finally getting ready to host their Jordanian peers on a pitch a stone’s throw from the concrete blocks of Israel’s security barrier.

Rami Rabi, a star of the Palestinian side, was quick to point out its significance: “It’s not just a friendly game between us and Jordan, it allows us to show the world we exist as a nation.”

Rabi, 26, noted that home advantage, as well as “the occasion [itself] means that we have a chance of winning. Whatever happens, we intend to give the fans two hours of happiness to forget about their problems.”

These problems encroach on fans traveling across the West Bank to support their local soccer teams.

“There was a recent game involving a team from Nablus who were playing in Jericho, in which three bus loads of supporters were stopped at a checkpoint on their way back to Nablus,” said Xavier Abu Eid, 24, a Palestinian involved in preparations for the event. “The army decided to shut the checkpoint, meaning the entire group had to sleep on the coaches, unable to return home until the soldiers unlocked the gates at 6am the next day.”

Security restrictions have once again been stepped up across the West Bank in the wake of the stabbing of two Israelis by a Palestinian man in Jerusalem on Thursday. Fans from surrounding towns could find it more difficult than usual to make it through the checkpoints and roadblocks for today’s game.

The only concession made by the Israeli authorities for the match day has been to allow Palestinian security forces to police the stadium in Ar-Ram — an area usually off-limits to the Palestinian constabulary. Otherwise, the Israeli security arrangements will be “business as usual,” Palestinian officials said.

The squad has been weakened by Israel’s refusal to grant entry visas to several Palestinian players living in countries including Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Furthermore, six players living in Gaza have been prohibited from entering the West Bank to play Jordan.

Roberto Bishara, a Palestinian player living in Chile, was challenged as he tried to cross into the West Bank. According to Abu Eid, Israeli security forces asked him “how can you be playing for the Palestinian national team when there is no Palestine?”

That most of Jordan’s players are professional and the Palestinians part-time at best is reflected in their FIFA rankings — Palestine 180th, Jordan 112th.

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