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Thumping football victory for Palestine brings welcome respite to Gazans

Palestinians in Gaza crowded a cafe in Rafah to watch their national team play a vital qualifying match against Malaysia
Malaysia's keeper tries to save a shot during the football match between Palestine and Malaysia (AFP)

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - For Palestinians in Gaza, television sets are often the source of bad news, but not on Thursday evening, when the cafes were packed with people to watch a very important football match.

In Rafah, many of the people squeezed in to Rotana café were escaping extended power cuts of 20 hours a day to enjoy a moment of pride in watching their national football team play.

It was Palestine against Malaysia and Amjad Hassouna, 19, sat in the café enjoying every single moment, hanging on all the words screamed by an overexcited commentator.

After Palestine grabbed the opening goal, the audience in Rotana erupted with cheering – young and old smiling and chanting as one.

“It is a rare occasion when we sit, laugh, and chant for a positive reason — this is a moment where I feel the joy of being a proud Palestinian” says Hassouna, a student of Public Management in Gaza.

An already electric atmosphere was raised further when Palestinian scored a second goal, with shouts of “Fedayee, Fedayee” – the nickname of the national team – filling the air.

Palestinian first half dominance was compounded a minute before half-time when Ahmed Abu Nahyeh got his second of the game to make it 3-0.

While the World Cup qualifier was played out in Jordan, due to restrictions on matches taking place in the occupied Palestinian territories, its impact was most felt in Gaza – where there is a youth fanatical about football, supporting mainly either Real Madrid or Barcelona.

When the third Palestinian goal hit the back of the net, Sharief al-Nearab, 34, burst into tears of joy.

Nearab’s eyes are usually fixed on the Nou Camp or the Bernabeu but things on Thursday were different.

“We have our own national team to shout for and be proud of,” he said.

“This seems like a historic moment, as we turn from watching media filled with our painful struggle for peace and freedom, to watching with positive hope – even for a brief moment – our national team play against Malaysia,” he added, with a big smile.

“While watching the game, I have been able to temporarily shut away all the negative emotions brought by the constant bad news which consumes us daily through media- from occupation, bloodshed and blockade. Just for a few fleeting, precious minutes.

“Such soccer games bring a golden opportunity, for all occupied Palestinians to remember there is more to life than attacks from Israel, and more to look forward to.”

The owner of the café said that he has rarely seen so much joy from football fans – even when Real Madrid and Barcelona play.

While the café is always full for all important matches in Spain or Egypt, the atmosphere felt different on Thursday because it was about the homeland.

“There is deep emotion in the cheering – something coming deep from a national heart which is usually grieving. This is rare joy,” he said, as he sat down to watch the second half.

When Palestine grabbed their fourth goal, Nearab jumped from his chair and screamed “Palestine!”, while some younger members of the audience burst into tears of happiness.

One of the Palestinian players, Abdelhadi al-Buhdari, is from one of the poorest refugee camps in Rafah and this makes the game all the more special for the Rotana audience.

“It feels great that my next-door neighbor is making us proud, out there,” one young fan, who did not share his name, said at a table nearby.

“If you ask me, it’s not Israel’s blockade which will change us, it’s our real connection to the world, like so many other nations,” he added.

After a fifth Palestinian goal the audience settled with a healthy reassurance that their team was cruising to victory.

On social media, Malaysian fans expressed solidarity with Palestinians despite their team’s pounding. One tweet, which was read out to the café, asked how Palestinians can train under the stress and restrictions of war.

The crowd laughed at this comment and Nearab said: “We have turned the ruins of our demolished homes into football fields, because we love life.”

This thirst for football was evident elsewhere in Rafah on Thursday evening, with locals overcoming electricity cuts by collecting together money for fuel to power a small generator to watch the game on a TV in a falafel shop.

While the national team may be stars at home, most Palestinians accept that their heroes are not widely known on the international stage. The team is new and lacks media exposure – unlike the wealthy teams of the Gulf, where Qatar and the United Arab Emirates spend vast sums on promoting their brand.

But the team is performing well, and last year achieved a significant milestone by qualifying for the Asia Cup for the first time.

Now, after having beaten Malaysia 6-0, the Palestinians have their eyes set on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, which will be held in Russia.  

And although that remains an unlikely feat for such a small and underfunded team to achieve, Palestinians fans in Rafah are hopeful, where football is but a brief distraction from the struggles of dealing with Israel’s near decade long siege on Gaza.

“Now the game is finished my mind is wandering back to the harsh reality of the next breaking news about violence and bloodshed in [Palestine],” Nearab said.

At least in the immediate aftermath of the game there was no news of further violence across the occupied Palestinian territories, and all the fans returned home happy.

“It just takes a couple of happy hours like this, to recharge my batteries for national hope,” said Amjad Hassouna, as he checked out of the café.  

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