The new Palestinian stadium that opened last week was great news football wise, but it has not and will never replace the real ground, the state, that Palestinians lost 60 years ago.
So when you read things in the Western press like Palestinians may not have a state, but now they have a stadium and Millions of Palestinians around the world are still waiting for the day that they can celebrate the birth of an independent homeland. Now they ll at least be able to celebrate having a stadium, while they might ring true, they ring hollow. Replacing a stadium with a country is like replacing your ex-wife with a maid. It helps but it s not like having the real thing.
Having made this quaint analogy, there is little question that last weekend s meeting between Palestine and Jordan was an historic one. It was Palestine s first international match at home since receiving FIFA recognition 10 years ago. The venue for this landmark encounter was the fully renovated Al-Husseini Stadium, the West Bank s only regulation-size stadium, located in the city of Al-Ram, near Ramallah.
The money for the stadium showed the Palestinians are not alone, and still have friends in high places. The wealthy and powerful chipped in to pay for the $4 million price tag. FIFA contributed around $800,000 to install the artificial pitch, while France donated approximately ?500,000, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia $1 million, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, ?1 million and the Olympic Council of Asia $250,000. The Palestinian FA footed the rest.
But the obstacles facing the national team do not begin and end with the stadium. Communication both inside the West Bank and between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip makes the logistics daunting. Because Gaza and the West Bank lie on opposite sides of Israel, on many occasions, merely being able to collect 18 local players for a match can prove challenging because of the security issues entailed in leaving the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Because Israel has virtually sealed off Gaza from the world after Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006 Gazans need Israeli permits to reach the West Bank which often does not transpire, as was borne out strikingly in the game; not all the players were able to make it. At least six of them were trapped in the Gaza Strip, including their captain. Several team members, including a top scorer, are locked in Israeli prisons. And one up-and-coming Palestinian player was killed last week by Israeli soldiers on patrol in the West Bank.
Without a stadium that did not meet international standards, the Palestinians have had to play their home games in Jordan or Qatar. The team has never been able to train on home soil; instead they use the Egyptian town of Ismailia, some 120 km north of Cairo, as their base. They have always been welcome here and from time to time, a Palestinian player is plucked by one of our clubs, the latest being goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh who signed up for Ahly during the summer.
But the stadium cannot do much for the domestic game. The Palestinians have neither a permanent league nor any domestic football activity of note, although the association doggedly tries to keep league activities and matches going according to plan. The West Bank and Gaza each has a league of 10 teams, with the two winners competing for the Palestine championship.
And if for at least one afternoon, the new stadium promised to make Palestinians forget they are under Israeli military occupation, as another Western news story encouragingly pronounced, it ironically also reminded them of their other big headache, this one of their own making – the acrimonious split between the West Bank now belonging to Fatah, and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Not all is well within the Palestinian camps, so much so that former Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had to watch the game on TV to avoid meeting his arch fellow Palestinian rival President Mahmoud Abbas who was at the stadium.
With an occupation and a divide within, you have to wonder whether the soccer can really overshadow the politics. To a certain, limited extent, and with an expiry date, it can, but in the overall picture it cannot. The day Palestinians return to normal lives, nation et al, then their football and all other sports can share the stage.
For now, Palestine is the only team with a ground but without a country.