The outsider's football
(pages: 15 to 17)
Tursunzode, Tajikistan. June 2011
The white-tiled dressing room is silent and hot. A single air- conditioning unit is turned up high, fighting a losing battle against the 40 degree temperature as the players from the Palestinian national football team sit with their backs against the wall wearing green shirts and shorts. Around the neck of each man is a black and white keffiyeh, the desert scarf made famous by Yasser Arafat. Some choose to close their eyes, raise their hands and pray. Others simply stare at the only thing moving in the room.
Excited fans with their tickets before the match: Palestine versus Afghanistan. Pics Courtesy/Bloomsbury India
Coach Moussa Bezez, a French Algerian who once repre- sented France at youth level and has been in charge of the team for two years, paces the room, careful to tread softly so as not to make too much noise. He has nothing more to say to his players after delivering his final, impassioned team talk. He opens his mouth as if to add a piece of wisdom, but he knows that his players need this moment. The silence is finally broken by the match commissioner. It is game time. The team, the squad and the coaches meet Moussa in the middle of the room. They link arms in a circle and begin to pray. ‘Fil-es-tine!’ shouts one of the players. The rest roar back in agreement.
Tursunzode, Tajikistan, June 2011. The Palestine national team wait in the tunnel before their first Brazil 2014 qualification match against Afghanistan
Palestine’s long road to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil begins here, in an obscure, decrepit stadium in western Tajikistan against Afghanistan. Technically it is a home match for Afghanistan. The tie was due to be played in Kabul, but the security situation was so bad that it was moved to Tursunzode, a dying aluminium-smelting city a few miles from the Uzbek border. To prove just how dangerous the situation was, two suicide bombings in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan a few days before meant that no one knew whether the Afghans would even show up. But they have. The Afghan players stand in line in the tunnel of the Metellurg Stadium. Both sets of players eye each other suspiciously. It’s the first time either team has been able to see who they will be playing. They are almost complete unknowns to each other.
Al Ram, West Bank, July 2011. A packed Faisal al Huseeini stadium watch the second leg of Palestine versus Afghanistan. It was Palestine’s first ever home World Cup match.
‘Come on, guys, let’s do this!’ shouts Omar Jarun in an accent from the Deep South as he claps his hands. Jarun is a six-foot-five monster of a centre-back, with a blond mohawk, who hails from Peachtree City, near Atlanta, Georgia. He has never been to the West Bank and he speaks no Arabic, but his grandfather comes from Tulkarem, a small town north of Jerusalem. He was spotted playing football in the US second division after the Palestinian Football Association launched a global hunt for players among the Palestinian diaspora. Behind him stands a microcosm of the Palestinian experience. First is left-back Roberto Bishara. He is from Chile and plays for Palestino, a first division club that was built by Palestinian immigrants who fled their homes and arrived in South America following the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948. He too speaks no Arabic. Or much English.
Thirty One Nil : On the Road with Football’s Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey, James Montague, Bloomsbury Publications, Rs 499. Available at leading bookstores.
Midfielder Husain Abu Salah is an Israeli Arab, a descendant of one of the Palestinians who didn’t flee into exile. They stayed in Israel. He speaks Hebrew and holds an Israeli passport. He even spent several years playing for Bnei Sakhnin, an Arab club that plays in Israel’s first division, but he decided to quit and play in the West Bank so that he could better represent Palestine. The goalkeeper, Mohammed Shbair, is from Gaza. He is a dead ringer for Iker Casillas, Real Madrid’s Spanish international goalkeeper. He hasn’t been home for two years. Such are Israel’s movement restrictions that he has to seek special permission to leave the West Bank where his club is. Once his papers weren’t in order after a friendly in Sudan and he was refused permission to return home; he spent three months in exile in Jordan.
That the Palestinians have a national team at all is a miracle; they are a national team without a nation state. FIFA recognised Palestine in 1998, one of only a handful of international organisations to do so. Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury India