The liberation game

Palestine are in with a good chance of reaching the Asian Cup finals but, as a new film shows, it’s amazing they play at all, given the difficulties a simple training camp poses. Gavin Willacy reports

While the world’s media focus on flaring conflict in the Middle East, the Asian Cup qualifying rounds are ­quietly progressing, despite featuring what could be described as the ultimate Group of Death: Palestine, a perpetual powder keg; Singapore (they of the world’s highest per capita execution rate); apocalyptic Iraq; and China, number one on Amnesty International’s death-penalty chart, with around 90 per cent of the world’s annual total.

Palestine have, miraculously, done well. Fixtures have had to be rearranged, but if they win in Singapore on October 11 Palestine will face faltering China in November knowing a win could see them qualify. This despite every Palestine “home” game having been in Amman in Jordan; Iraq hosted games in the United Arab Emirates.

To know what an achievement that would be, hire the DVD Goal Dreams. Also released as an hour-long TV documentary called World Cup Inshallah, it exposes the extraordinary barriers in the way of Palestine competing in international football. (The experiences of Iraq, Lebanon – whose withdrawal from the Asian Cup was reported in WSC 235 – and some other Middle Eastern states would probably be equally debilitating.)

The film tells the story of Palestine’s attempts to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. They were forced to draw on their diaspora for players – not only to recruit personnel with anything like the ability required, but in order to fulfil their fixtures – who head for the training base in Egypt from Lebanon, Kuwait, Chile and the United States. Only three have been involved with the national team before. Some have never set foot in Palestine. Morad Fareed, who grew up in a Jewish community in Long Island and now coaches at New York University, spent his life listening to his parents’ tales of the homeland; Roberto Kettlun brings professionalism from his native Chile; while Rami El Hassan’s is one of thousands of Palestinian refugees stranded in Lebanon.

Not only do the players have hugely varied experiences, but they speak different languages. Unfortunately, few speak more than one. Coach Alfred Riedl, an Austrian, speaks in English. His staff translate his orders first into Arabic for the majority and then into Spanish for the Chileans.

The players arrive in dribs and drabs, all with far better excuses than a burst tyre. Riedl struggles to contain his despair, disillusionment and general bemusement. “Every day it is something: it’s unbelievable,” he proclaims. Five players get stranded along with thousands of other Palestinians at the then Israel-controlled Rafah border, after shots are fired. The border is shut and the players are stuck for days. They finally get through with the help of the film crew and eventually arrive after another 20-hour journey that should have taken three. Five others never make it. “It is not only disturbing us, it is almost destroying us,” admits Riedl.

Sometimes he loses sight of the overall picture. Before training one morning he asks his hang-dog players “Where’s your smile?” The players reply, via a translator, “Five of our friends were killed today by an air strike.” “Oh,” says the baffled boss. “We must go on.” A 3-0 defeat to Uzbekistan proved too much even for Riedl: he quits and his team disband in his wake.

An FA for Palestine was originally formed in 1928 under British auspices and they put forward the team from Asia to enter the World Cup (losing in qualifying for the 1934 finals). But the FA was superseded by the Israeli FA after the creation of Israel; like so many things in the region, ownership of the 1934 World Cup games are a matter of dispute. A separate Palestinian FA was formed in 1962, but was not accepted by FIFA until 1998. “The football team is an analogy for the Palestinian state,” explains the film’s co-director Maya Sanbar. “We think the film has a positive message at the end – we are not here to glorify Palestine. Only in sport is there such a place as Palestine.” Even the United Nations refer instead to the “Palestinian Authority”.

As World Cup Inshallah was shown for the first time in London, the full-length film was projected on to Israel’s separation wall built around east Jerusalem. It has since been screened on TV or at film festivals in France, Germany, Chile and the US, including Robert Redford’s Sundance.

Despite the extreme deprivation in Palestine, it is not money the players, officials and supporters require, it is freedom. The film-makers raised $1 million from the Palestinian diaspora and the West End premiere, attended by Nancy Dell’Olio, showed the contrast between “back home” and the UK-based population: the cinema was cluttered with ostentatious glasses, gold jewellery and £1,000 jackets. The middle-aged gents next to me talked share prices and new Ferraris before the film began.

But the emotional ties to Palestine are fierce and touching. Sanbar, a Palestinian-Lebanese who first worked on the story for the BBC series Frontline Football, said she wanted to “tell the story of the team, but also of Palestinians and the different types of Palestinians that exist out there. The idea is to break stereotypes, to spread Palestinian identity and culture through the international language of ­football.” She succeeds.

From WSC 237 November 2006. What was happening this month