The 2022 Mondiale: For Palestinians, Football is More than Just a Sport

The Palestine Amputee Football Association squad. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle)

By Issam Khalidi

Hundreds of millions of people are eagerly awaiting the World Cup to be held in Qatar in November this year. Even though Palestine is not one of the 32 teams participating in this tournament, Palestinian football is inextricably linked with the World Cup.

Because of the many tragedies that have befallen the Palestinian people, their football journey can never be compared to that of any other nation.  For Palestinians, football is far more than just a sport – it symbolizes feelings, memories, a sense of existence, and an expression of national identity. Palestinian football has mirrored the Palestinian experience for over a century, at the same time as harsh conditions, dispersion, and denial of Palestinian existence and aspirations have affected the game.

Sports in Palestine were generally not isolated from Zionist hegemony, ambitions, and the Arab struggle against the Zionist expansionist project. Jews, who immigrated to Palestine were unwilling to cooperate with the Arabs, including in sports. Their main goal was to build the National Home. Not only did the Zionists ignore the indigenous Arab population, but they also sought to marginalize them, impose exclusivity, and dominate all aspects of life including sports. The intention was to represent Palestine as Jewish and to convey to the world that it was ready to become its national homeland. They found sports to be a very effective method of achieving their objectives.

Palestine participated in the 1934 and 1938 World Cup qualifiers. While the Palestine national team lacked Arab players, it still represented Palestine. Yet when the Jewish players represented Palestine, they were Palestinian citizens, so they represented it as Palestinians.

My mind recalls what Ahmed Jamil Al-Azam, a Bir Zeit University professor, referred to in relation to Yasser Arafat, the late King Hussein, and Yitzhak Rabin, who argued in his CNN interview that he was born and raised in Jerusalem. In response, Arafat said, “But you were Palestinian, and your nationality was Palestinian at the time.”

After nearly five unsuccessful attempts, the Palestine Football Association was accepted into FIFA in 1998.  In 1946, (Arab) Palestine Sports Federation’s application was rejected under the pretext that Palestine was represented in FIFA by (the Zionist-dominated) Palestine Football Association (established in 1928 and joined FIFA in 1929). In March 1951, after the annexation of the West Bank to Jordan, Abdel Rahman Al-Habbab Secretary of Palestine Sports Federation made a similar courageous decision to affiliate Palestine with FIFA.

After 1948, Gaza Sector became home to a thriving sports scene under the Egyptian administration. The Palestine Football Association there (established in 1962) applied to join FIFA in 1964. In May 1965, FIFA rejected its application on the grounds that:

“There is no country called Palestine, therefore Gaza cannot be in Palestine.  The acceptance of a part of a country as an independent member is contrary to the FIFA regulations.”

Founded in Lebanon in 1971, the Palestinian Football Association also applied to join the International Federation in 1978 and 1989, but both requests were denied. One of the excuses offered by the International Federation to justify the refusal was that Palestine does not have territorial legal status.

It was in May 1995 that the Palestinian Football Association was granted temporary membership in FIFA. Considering the prevailing situation regarding Palestine, FIFA’s Executive Committee nevertheless made the following two restrictions:  First:    The Palestinian Football Federation may only play friendly matches. Second: The Palestinian Football Federation may only play these matches in the territory of another national association affiliated with FIFA (provided that the national association concerned gives its authorization).

Palestinian membership in FIFA was undoubtedly influenced by the Oslo Agreement, though no studies have been conducted. As a result of this affiliation, Palestinian football underwent a turning point with the FIFA admission for many reasons, the most important of which is that Palestine was now officially placed on the world football map and was more visible internationally, in addition to the financial and logistical support provided by FIFA.

Nevertheless, these successes remain undermined by the repercussions of the Oslo Agreement. These include diaspora separation, the holding of the Palestinian people and their institutions hostage to international aid, and the marginalization of the PLO, which formerly united the Palestinian people and its factions.

Regardless of where people reside on this planet, they have the right to practice and participate in whatever activity they choose, and to cheer for their country’s football team to succeed. Between February and March 2018, Palestine reached their best FIFA ranking of 73rd, thanks to an unprecedented 12-match unbeaten streak (between 29 March 2016 and 22 March 2018), winning eight and drawing four. Palestine, now ranked 94 in the world, qualified for the 2023 Asian Cup in June, topping a group that also included the Philippines, Yemen, and Mongolia with ten goals.

The Palestinian team ranked higher than the Israeli team in the FIFA ranking. The Israeli national soccer team was in 98th place out of 211 spots, its worst-ever ranking. It fell 16 spots from the last ranking, and 43 spots from 55th place in 2016. It is for this reason that Israel places more obstacles in the way of Palestinian football since any success the Palestinians achieve at all levels is a thorn in Israel’s side. The occupation is not just the occupation of land and people, but the occupation of mind and body, and even the occupation of football.

Sports are not only competitive physical activities and relationships between people, but they are also useful tools for achieving educational, ethical, moral, national, and ideological objectives. Palestinian culture, including sports, is becoming an increasingly important aspect of Palestinian national identity and an effective tool for resistance to Israeli occupation.

Ramzy Baroud states as follows in this regard:

“For Palestinians, sport – especially football – remains a powerful platform of cultural resistance. Every aspect of a Palestinian football match attests to this claim. The names of the team, the chants of the fans, the images embroidered on the players’ jerseys and much more, are symbols of Palestinian resistance: names of martyrs, colors of the flag and so on. In Palestine, football is a political act.”

In the opinion of Israeli progressive writer Assaf Gavron, sports, particularly football, can play an important role in ending the occupation:

“The road to the end of the occupation is long and winding. We’ve been on it for fifty years now, and I’m not convinced it won’t require another fifty. But the occupation will end. And until that day, I suggest that anyone who wants to know where things are going to follow Palestinian soccer. Using the power of the game, it is pulling the wagon, slowly, out the mud.”

Palestinians watching the World Cup are expected to dream of our Palestinian team being one of the 32 qualifiers. It is inevitable that they will have a strong desire to hear their national anthems when they hear the anthems of other countries.

Also, it is impossible to imagine how Palestinians in Gaza Sector will watch the Mondiale after 49 people have been killed, including 17 children, and 360 have been injured. Not to mention their harsh living conditions.

- Issam Khalidi is an independent scholar, is the author of History of Sports in Palestine 1900-1948 (in Arabic), One Hundred Years of Football in Palestine (in Arabic and English), co-edited  Soccer in the Middle East, as well as articles and essays on the subject of sports included at
www.hpalestinesports.net. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.
(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
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