24 Oct
Palestine plays their first home football/soccer/fútbol game EVER


When I venture forth from this mortal coil, off into the cold dark void of nothingness, there will exist only a handful of moments to comfort me into the night — a sacred series of moments that I will always consider epic. As in, truly epic — the stuff of lore and immortality. The time I snuck into a Yucatan cenote during a hurricane, and had the whole cavernous underworld to myself and my imaginary girlfriend. Interviewing a very short robe-wearing Iggy Pop by his backyard stream. Hitting 184 mph in a Bugatti Veyron in 3 seconds flat. Losing my mind on some Chilean cactus in the deserts of Atacama. Seeing Rage Against the Machine play in a cafeteria before they were signed.

And now I can add to this shortlist: attending Palestine’s first true home football/soccer/fútbol game.

Today is the one year anniversary of this great day for Palestine, which I originally posted as a Dispatch from Palestine last year. But I figured in commemoration of the event (and because there were just like 5 of you out there reading us last year) that it was worth revisiting. So in that mindset here we go…

One Day In Palestine

When I first found out I was invited to go to Ramallah to watch the Palestinian National Team play Jordan in soccer/football/fútbol, I’ll admit I was a bit anxious. Excited yes, but also nervous. Not only about going to the West Bank — you know, that sandy tea kettle simmering at 1 degree below full boil, the infamous desert Jacuzzi of religious carnivorgy — but also because it was to be the first game ever that Palestine was playing at home. The team has been around for 10 years, but so far they have only played in Jordan and Qatar — partly because they had no FIFA-sanctioned field, and partly because Israel wouldn’t give them security clearance. That was, at least, until one week ago today.

FIFA ponied up $3.5 mill to upgrade a university field that was little more than weeds and rocks to provide Palestine with a pitch to play. And to be FIFA-certified is no joke; the field itself has to be pristine. So for the first time, Palestine was going to be able to watch their team play at home — on Palestinian soil. The significance of the moment outshined sport. Regardless, I will admit the idea of being jammed into a stadium filled with thousands of Muslims fomented into a frothy sports-inspired frenzy had my blood pressure elevated.

It’s true. I’m a total asshole and I’m embarrassed for it. I’m embarrassed for what I feared and expected from my trip there. I was worried about going to a soccer game in the West Bank because I thought being locked in a stadium of frenzied Arabs could be a dangerous, precariously lit powder keg. And, truth of the matter is, I guess it could be. But what it was instead was one of the most exciting, visceral, and eye-opening experiences of my life. And surely the most monumental sporting event I’ve ever witnessed.

At first approach, going from Jerusalem to the West Bank is already disconcerting. You wind through a long corridor of concrete barriers, curl around some bends and are met with the biggest fucking wall you’ve ever seen in your life. An endless Green Monster crowned in razor wire, its slate-grey morbidity seemingly sucks the life out of the very atmosphere around it. It makes the Berlin Wall look like a quaint provincial barrière. Then there’s the armed gate — you don’t have to show your passports to get into the West Bank, but make damn sure you have it with you. Otherwise, a visit to Palestine is like the Hotel California: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

Hit the Jump to continue reading the most epic sporting event in one man’s life…

The lobby of the Hotel Palestine…

Palestine Security Fence

Once inside we parked our car and made our way to the Stadium in Ram (a suburb of Ramallah), which was being built in an accelerating haste right up until kickoff. Actually, there was a guy still building the bathroom during the game, so it wasn’t even finished. And when we arrived at the entrance, my initial fears of wild-eyed anarchy seemed substantiated. Hundreds of people mobbed by the only nearby entrance, pushing in waves to get to the heavy steel door. There was no order or science to the situation — just men squeezing into a tightening throng. Lots of yelling. Some guy was standing on the iron wall over the entrance trying to direct the madness, but no one was listening. Just arms flailing. I began to worry for my diaper-white ass.

Ashraf, a Middle East LA Times correspondent who played my host, fixer, gentleman-about-town and interpreter for this event, was on the phone with his man inside who was arranging for our entrance. Even still, I doubted our chance to push through the human swamp. Why in the world would anyone move for us, a bunch of Western reporters? Finally, we got the call and 4 of us formed a line and tried to squeeze through, with guy-on-the-fence yelling for people to let us by. Which, surprisingly, they did. The other two people with us were women, and they did report gropings going on, some butts gently massaged. In the end, though, nothing that might not happen at any sporting mob.

We weaseled through the mass and with hundreds of people yelling squeezed through the 3-foot wide steel door. Inside, it was still madness. A fire truck had to make its way out the gate, so people were waiting for the doors to open so they could bum rush the show. Riot cops lined both sides of the gate, sirens wailing, people angrily waving their arms around, orders shouted. You know that scene in Children of Men, when they go to the Immigrant Camp? That’s exactly what it was like: a frenzied chaos of chain fences, cops encased in armor and strapped with automatic weapons, and the general crush of humanity.

But once we passed the inner fence, all was calm. Organized. Groups of men gathered on the stadium seats, banging drums and singing songs. The air of celebration was omnipresent. We found some seats and got settled, took in the atmosphere. A couple dozen ticketless fans had circumvented the madness and climbed atop the flimsy roof of what looked like a giant tin shack. The national band sat a couple rows ahead of us in crisp brown uniforms, many holding what appeared to be bagpipes. Really, bagpipes? Growing curious, I stood up to take a walk when two young men immediately called me over. “Are you American press?” they inquired. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that question. I looked down at the notepad and camera I was holding — I guess that made me press. Was I supposed to pretend I was Canadian? That just didn’t seem right, so I admitted that yes, I was indeed American. “Can we tell you some things?” he asked. “Of course,” I said, surprised. I had been looking around for someone to talk to, thinking I’d be the last person in this 6,500-seat stadium anyone would want to chat with.

“Well, I just want to say that this is a very proud day for us. We are very proud to be here, to see our team play. It is a great day for us, and it is a great day for Palestine,” said Mohannad, age 21. He and his friend, Mohammed, 22, were students at the university whose field this once was.

“But this field was terrible, terrible!” lamented Mohammed. “It was all rocks and sticks. It didn’t look anything like this.”

“We are very happy; we are so happy,” Mohannad beamed. “We can smile, we can laugh!”

They shook my hands gratefully, and I returned to my seat. The whole thing had me a bit shook: the havoc outside, the chanting crowds inside, the electricity of common union. I had anticipated some sideward glances, some looks of barely refrained disdain. Instead, all I saw were people so happy they didn’t even know I existed. And if they did, they just smiled at me. I wasn’t expecting this at all.

“This is the first time this country’s been able to see their team play in Palestine. Let that roll around in your mind for a bit,” urged Ashraf when I returned to my seat. “They’ve had the team for a decade, but until today they’ve never been allowed to play at home. Think about that—most have never seen their team except on TV. This is their first time seeing their team play!”

I looked around at the stadium around me. It was shaking with building anticipation. The structure may be completely FIFA-sanctioned, and up to their strict standards, but it could hardly be termed state-of-the-art. For $3.5 million, unlikely. In fact, there are high schools in Texas that wouldn’t trade fields. Hell, the thing didn’t even have a scoreboard. For real. On top of that, Palestine was ranked 180th out of 207 FIFA-ranked teams, with Jordan ranked some 70 points above them. Needless to say, the home team were considerable underdogs. Compound that with the fact that 5 of 6 players from Gaza weren’t even allowed to leave the Strip till Thursday, giving the team zero time to practice together or gel in any marginal way whatsoever. (The 6th, team captain Saeb Jundiyeh, was forbidden to leave by Israel.)

Additionally, as reported by McClatchy, “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.” Now that’s adversity. (It should be noted that Israel’s own soccer team actively supported its Palestinian counterparts, but the players weren’t allowed to attend the game.)

And among all this hardship, against all this headwind, with all the chips so heavily stacked against them, the Palestinians were red-cheeked with glee. I began to get butterflies in my stomach.

VIP box seats…Ramallah-style…


Then the team ran onto the grass, dressed in white. They circled the mid-field, got on their knees and bowed down, kissing the ground. Kissed the soil of Palestine, of their homeland. For the first time ever, this nation saw their National Team play on their holy land and give it thanks. It was not a moment of sport, but a generational echo.

I’ll admit it, my eyes welled up. It was the simplest of gestures, the most basic of sporting ritual, and yet it resonated across the stands like a mini quake.

Then: kick off. What was billed as a blowout was anything but—the ball stayed in the Jordanian side of the field for the first ten minutes, causing a spike in commotion the 2 or 3 times the Palestinian team shot on goal. Around us, leagues of men banged on drums and whistled. And only men — women were conspicuously missing from the entire celebration. The national band played 20 feet away from us, stirring the crowd. There were two 10-year-old boys in front of us, and they kept looking back, curiously checking me out amidst the excitement. Finally, one turned and said, “Where are you from?” in fairly good English. Again, a bit tentatively, I said, “America. I’m from California.” He then gave me a big smile, bright eyes, and said, “My name is Mohammad. Welcome to Palestine.”

I smiled and offered him my fist, and the kid gave me a pound. The moment was a bit wobbly, unsettling my prefixed notions of what the day had in store for me. Not to be too sentimental or over-simplifying, but when you are taught your whole life that a certain segment of people/religion are your enemy, and they hate you, and they want nothing less than your downfall (if not you personally, then at least of your country), and then you are confronted with a splash of ice water from the outpouring of generosity and warmth from them, you realize just how wrong one can be in building perceptions. It becomes so apparent that human beings everywhere are more similar than different, and given the choice between peace, harmony and brotherhood or war and ire, all but the most useless and empty humans would gladly choose the former. I can tell you now, there’s a special timbre of humility reserved for arrogant clowns such as myself when confronted with their utter hypocrisy. When you think you know it all, when you think you understand the world, when you think you understand people. When you go into a war-torn country and expect little more than hostility and negativity, and in instead you’re greeted with a warmth and gratitude unlike you’ve ever experienced, it will detonate a bomb in your head.

Everyone—be it American, Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Palestinian, Hobbit, Taliban, Yankee fan (go Red Sox!)—should have this experience. Everyone should be at a place to celebrate with their “enemy”, and our world might be a different place. (Not that the Palestinians are our enemies in any way, but you don’t need to hang with the Crazy McCain Rally Woman or this kook to realize how the entire Arabic people are perceived in our country.)

“It was not a moment of sport, but a generational echo.”

So it was on this day, October 26, 2008, that I became Palestinian for a day. And that happened around the 10-minute mark of the first half, when Palestinian forward Ahmed Kashkash caught a pass running, raced past the goalie rushing him and sent the ball sailing into an empty goal. The place exploded. Drums kicked into overdrive, people falling all over their friends. The kids in front of me, Mohammad and Mohammad, danced like I would imagine forest creatures would in some Elvin spring ritual. If it were possible for 7000 people to create fireworks out of thin air, then the stadium was filled with sunflower explosions.

Palestine 1, Jordan 0.

It was a moment transcending celebration. Of victory. Yes, the game wasn’t nearly half done, but the goal was more than a goal. After all, this is a nation/people that has been shit on for centuries, and more recently been systemically living the cultural equivalent of 2 Girls 1 Cup. (FYI, you are not allowed to call Palestine either a nation, state or country by Israel — it is strictly forbidden. You must call it a “territory”. But fuck it – I just did.) For the past half-century, this is a people that have had very little reason to celebrate, very few moments of national pride. I began to think about the daily oppression and poverty they live in, evident in their broken buildings and shattered infrastructure. It’s one thing to be in Germany or England or Brazil when they score a goal. That’s a party. But it’s an entirely different animal when this is the first real goal you’ve seen your people/team score, well, ever. That’s not a party, that’s a nativity. And the moment was not lost on me. Frankly, it was overwhelming, and I didn’t even realize I was jumping up and down with the masses around me till I came out of a beaming revelry and searched for my camera.

And so the score remained until the second half, when we made our way over to the VIP area. It was the most frill-less VIP I’ve ever been in, guarded by soldiers strapped with automatic rifles and attack dogs. Here we watched Jordan tie up the score early in the second half, which would turn out to be the last goal of the game. Inside was a political soiree, filled with high-ranking FIFA officials (including President Sepp Blatter), US Consul General Jake Walles and Billionaire Russian-born businessman/gun runner Arkady Gaydamak—who’s running for Mayor of Jerusalem. Even though A) he doesn’t speak Hebrew or Arabic, and B) He’s on trial in France for an illegal arms trade with Angola. One classy dude. His posters covered the city, some 3 stories tall, giving parts of Jerusalem a weird Maoist vibe.

And here’s where we watched the rest of the game, sadly. And just as in America, the VIP area lacked all the passion of the stands, and I kept wanting to return to my seat behind Mohammad and Mohammad, hoping to see their Elvin Solstice Dance one last time. In the end though, once the whistle blew, all of Palestine was celebrating, considering the game and the event a stirring victory.

As we walked out of the stadium—infinitely more organized than when entering—we followed a group of 3 young Palestinian men in jovial mood. They turned around, noticed I was American, and began speaking in English. Joking with each other, but almost to us, one of them said, “Next time, Palestine 5, Jordan 1.” Then he reconsidered, turned around one last time, a wide full-toothed smile visible even through his thick beard. “Next time, Palestine 5, Brazil 1.”

The audacity of hope, indeed.


The Goal from the TV’s perspective…

The Goal from my perspective…

Leave a Reply