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Football gives Palestine chance to celebrate

PostPosted: Sat Oct 25, 2008 8:51 am
by bigearth
Football gives Palestine chance to celebrate

By Tobias Buck

Published: October 25 2008 02:13 | Last updated: October 25 2008 02:13

Rami Rabi has played more than 40 matches for the Palestinian national football team but the veteran left-back can barely contain his excitement when he talks about the fixture against Jordan on Sunday afternoon.

After 10 years of playing their international fixtures abroad, the clash will mark the first time a Palestinian side plays on home soil.

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It will be the first time that Mr Rabi will sing the national anthem together with thousands of fans, and the first time the team will get a taste of home support.

Players and officials say the match matters for all kinds of reasons – and the result is not one of them. For a people who have long craved statehood and international recognition, the fixture offers a rare opportunity to come together as a nation. “We hope that people will have at least two hours of happiness when they see us play,” says Mr Rabi. “This is very important for us. The match is not about who is going to win. It is about the picture we will show of the Palestinian youth.”

The lack of a suitable stadium and security worries mean that Fifa, the governing body of international football, has previously forced the Palestine team to go abroad for both “home” and away matches.

There has been fierce demand for the 7,000 tickets to see the match in the newly built Faisal al-Husseini stadium, in the West Bank town of Al-Ram. Officials claim that even ministers of the Palestinian Authority had to pay for their tickets. The match will be broadcast live in the Gaza Strip, which is cut off from the West Bank and ruled by Hamas, the Islamist group.

Workers were putting the finishing touches to the gleaming stadium on Friday, in part financed by Fifa. Banners adorned with the faces of Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, and Yassir Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, were displayed prominently in the nearby city of Ramalla. Mr Blatter is expected to be the guest of honour at the fixture.

The stadium has an artificial playing surface and a bulletproof VIP box. The high concrete wall that forms part of Israel’s separation barrier, and cuts off Al-Ram from East Jerusalem, runs behind the main stand.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was hard to ignore at a pre-match training session on Friday in Ramallah, held on a pitch below a Jewish settlement.

The man charged with overseeing the practice match and improving the team’s rather dismal recent record was Izzat Hamzeh, a Jordanian who took over as national coach three months ago. He has his work cut out for him – Palestine occupies 180th place in the Fifa ranking of national teams, just below Bangladesh and Samoa.

But, for the moment, Mr Hamzeh has other things on his mind. “It is strange here to go to the training sessions through the checkpoints and barricades and see all the military,” he says.

The coach also has to contend with the fact that many of his best players, including the erstwhile captain, are stuck in Gaza and unable to play. Palestinian players who live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries or who play abroad have, with a few exceptions, also been unable to come to the match.

Mr Hamzeh has only a short speech to deliver to the squad on Sunday: “I will just say a few words ... I will tell them how they have the chance to represent their cause. I will tell them that the world is watching and that I expect them to play and behave to that standard.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008