Where Jesus would play football

A football match can wipe away the blues of a bad work day, a misunderstanding with a loved one or even corrupt leaders and politics. For 90 minutes, even in troubled regions such as Palestine, where life hangs on a thread football simulates life while trouble and permanent war rule reality. Mladen Barbarić narrates here at Goalden Times.

The sound of ball being kicked, the panting of men running, and a coach’s whistle slowly faded out into complete silence. About 20 men, one after another, seized to move until, within moments, Jenin Club’s training session was completely interrupted. Everybody was standing still, looking into the clear sky above Arab American University Stadium. I could only hear the sound of the ball rolling through the artificial grass as it passed between frozen football players. At first, it appeared to be some strange training drill…

Suddenly, the field was invaded by the sound of a fast approaching helicopter. It was the same sound that continually paralyzes Palestinian footballers. Any engine noise that flies above The West Bank is assumed to be that of Israeli Air Forces. Luckily, the silence was broken by one of the players and not gunfire.

“They came to watch Ahmad!” somebody shouted.

The session resumed and laughter and training noises slowly regained control over the false threat of Israeli gunship.

“It used to be a lot worse in times when I was playing for the club,” explained Hassan Khamil, a 28-yearold English teacher from a nearby university. “You see the guy in green shorts that makes strange noise while calling for the ball? That is Tito. He was shot in the neck back in 2002 when he was watching Israeli soldiers through the window of his house in Nablus. Same year, a football player was shot in the head during the training session in Tulkarm. However, since 2006, things have been a bit calmer in The West Bank.”

Hassan khamil: a 28 years old english teacher
Hassan khamil: a 28 years old English teacher

Despite Khamil’s claim of prolonged ceasefire, 17-year-old Mohammad Abu Hashhash was killed last month while he was returning to his refugee camp home from a training session in Hebron.

Each family in The West Bank has some story of death and horror that is a product of seemingly eternal conflict in the Holy Land. Hassan himself has lost four cousins, three uncles and two houses which Israeli Defense Forces razed to the ground. Captain Ahmad, the assistant manager of Jenin Club, lost his father when he was shot in the chest while riding a taxi in downtown Jenin.

Palestine is a  place where eastern and western civilizations were founded, collaborated and fought over for centuries. The story of Palestine and Israel is a modern reflection of that long history in which every incident is interpreted differently by each side.

“It was much worse back when I was playing for the team“, Khamil said. “We were playing in dirt. [We] didn’t have water for showers nor electricity and floodlights.”

Tito flashing his Che Guevara tattoo
Tito flashing his Che Guevara tattoo

However, the real problems, according to Khamil, were the numerous checkpoints installed throughout The West Bank by Israel. Authorities claimed they were needed for security, but in reality, they were meant to inhibit free movement and foster frustration.

A would pull one player off the bus, and at other times, would force everyone off. It was impossible to know how long it would take to pass the checkpoint. So much so that many matches were canceled because teams would fail to show up because as a result of being stuck on the road.

“We’d sometimes play only one match a month,” Khamil said “We could train at least, but if there was siege or curfew, we couldn’t do even that. Even now you can see there are maybe ten balls on the pitch. Back then we were lucky to have two.”,

Each family in The West Bank has some story of death and horror that is a product of seemingly eternal conflict in the Holy Land. Hassan himself has lost four cousins, three uncles and two houses which Israeli Defense Forces razed to the ground.

Just as Hassan was explaining this, three players started running toward the dressing room. Hassan explained that they were from Sakhnin in Israel and were rushing to get home before the checkpoint they needed to cross closed.

”Even they can’t move if the check point is closed,” Hassan said.

Without check points, it would only take two hours to go from Jenin — a northern city — to the southern-stationed Bethlehem. However, Palestinian vehicles can’t enter the roads that are in the vicinity of Israeli colonies so journeys take more than twice the time. Occasionally, roads will bring you close to the infamous wall that will completely surrounds The West Bank.

Traveling is big part of football but in The West Bank, it doesn’t only mean traveling to away matches. It includes traveling to training. The West Bank covers an area similar in size to Chicago. However, while there are roughly 2,000 youth soccer teams in Chicago, there are no more than 50 in The West Bank — all of which have a minuscule 12 pitches to play on. Very literally they are few and far between.  Add to that Israeli patrols and roads that are prohibited for Palestinians, and densely populated land that has no space for luxuries such as football pitches, nor money or water to grow grass and you’re left with a lot of problems. However, football is still an obsession for people in The West Bank. If you walk down almost any city in The West Bank you will be greeted by enormous Israeli flags on nearby hills that mark the colonies. On the other hand, Palestinian cities are full of small but ever present Palestinian symbols. This eternal dichotomy translates into football. Palestinians are well aware of all football news, results and standings in all major leagues, cups and tournaments. However, they really care only about two clubs. Barcelona and Real Madrid, it almost feels as if the famous Spanish rivalry mirrors the Israel and Palestine struggle.

 “For that hour and half we can just sit, watch, relax and forget about everything,” Halil Amar said. “We start talking about El Classico a week before and we talk about it two weeks after the game was long forgotten in rest of the world.”

Halil Amar (the guy with big smile) infront of his car service in Nablus.
Halil Amar (the guy with big smile) infront of his car service in Nablus

Halil explained that football takes up most of his family’s free time. Although his wife and children sometimes get bored of watching games, it is always a better alternative than dealing with the checkpoints and obstacles that exist outside of town.

When you walk down the streets of Jenin or Hebron, it takes much more time than it should. it’s kind of like traveling through The West Bank, except you do not lose time avoiding Israeli colonies. Instead, you get stopped by Palestinians. Since industry is non-existent and everything has to be imported, life in The West Bank is expensive. This means people do their best to avoid buying new things That is exactly why there are all kinds of workshops and craftsmen stationed throughout Palestine.

Other than your family status, one of the most popular questions you’ll be asked in many of the workshops is football-related.

“So, do you support Barcelona or Real?”

One of the shopowners plying his trade in the Hebron market is Shady Qwasme. He is a former goalkeeper for the Palestine National Team and a goalkeeper coach at Shabab Al-Khalil, one of the best teams in The West Bank.

Despite Hebron being The West Bank’s biggest city, Talal, a mechanical engineer who studied in Ukraine,said there are still many logistical problems for its football teams. The primary one being sharing the ground with the youth teams.

Real Madrid - probably the last standing hope for the war-torn city.
Real Madrid – probably the last standing hope for the war-torn city.

“We have huge problems with equipment and transportation,” said Talal, . “We train with size 4 balls as we do not have proper size 5.

He also shed light on how increased travel — a result of the lack of pitches — means that parents are often hesitant about letting their kids go to games. Traveling through The West Bank at night is risky.

“When you go to Ramallah there are check points that might take hours to go through and parents never know when their children will be back,,” Talal said.

To this day, some teams are prohibited by Israel from leaving The West Bank. As a result, there are two championships in Palestine: the Gaza Championship and The West Bank Championship. FIFA recently put pressure on Israel to allow the two winners to play a final, one-off match to crown a true champion. However, when the Gaza-based team attempted to travel for the most recent match between the two champions, seven players were stopped by Israeli forces at checkpoints.

It was business as usual in a territory synonymous with a divide that mirrors the animosity between Real and Barca.

About Mladen Barbaric

Mladen Barbaric is a freelance journalist from Croatia, based in Italy with more than a decade of experience working for Croatian national daily paper Novi list, Le Monde Diplomatique and other outlets.