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The Gaza World Cup 2010

By Flora Nicoletta

28 May ,2010

"Do you want to go to South Africa and the borders are closed? The World Cup is now in Gaza. Come to attend the tournament from 2 May to 15 May at El-Yarmouk Stadium and at Palestine Stadium", written on the poster of the Gaza World Cup 2010.

First we heard clamours. Then we heard delirium. It started at around 16:00 on Wednesday 12 May.

I was with my friend Raed in the Public Library. Raed was reading German poetry and I was writing on the Gaza Ghetto. He heard like me. He said: "It's a message to the world... to listen to us... because the world is sleeping. We want to wake up the world, but nobody listens to us... We are trying all the ways..."

The delirium was taking place in El-Yarmouk Football Stadium in Gaza City, which was inaugurated in 1959 and rejuvenated last summer. It was the last match before the final of the Gaza World Cup 2010. France-Rafah was playing against Russia-Shejayia. The stadium was full, but here too the Palestinians were not united: half of the stadium was against the other half.

All of a sudden, on the tiers of seats of the France-Rafah supporters, amidst high fever, I saw a cock. A youth was holding a cock, a real cock, and the French flag on the reverse. So the flag was red, white and blue. The emblem of the French football is a Gallic cock. This cock was a simple reddish Rafah cock coming from the martyred southern Gaza Strip.

I indicated by signs to the youth that I was French. He understood very well and the cock too because it moved its wings. In addition to be the only woman in the stadium, I was also the only French spectator. Because of that from time to time I saluted my flag, the cock and the youth, on my behalf and on behalf of the absentees...

Later on I saw a sort of divine apparition on the fringe of the football field. He was like an angel walking across the hell of Gaza. He was tall, handsome, with curled blond hair, white porcelain skin, blue eyes and elegant. The seraphic journalist was Russian.

The riot police was holding batons and some rifles to contain the enthusiasm of the fans, but we have not seen any beatings. The only beating was given by France-Rafah to Russia-Shejayia, 1 to 0.

On Saturday 15 May it was very serious indeed, it was the final of the Gaza World Cup 2010: France-Rafah against Jordan-Khan Yunis. It looked like the real final of the World Cup, but here the match was free like all the precedent matches.

The elite security was present and also police in riot gear with Egyptian looks. At the entrance the women's bags were courteously checked by a security woman at the foot of an ambulance. Inside the ambulance two of her colleagues were sitting. All of them were in black. Some girls were among the volunteers and in the press box one could see a group of twenty or so ladies, Palestinians as well as foreigners, the latter without headscarves.

In the same press box was present Dr Bassem Naim, the Minister of Youth and Sport who is also the Minister of Health; the mayor of Gaza City, Eng. Rafiq El-Mekki; officials from the Palestine Football Association and other personalities. Came also to watch the final for some time the Prime Minister. Incidentally, in the Beach RC where Ismail Haniyeh still lives the people remember that he was an excellent football player in the past.

Amid the incandescent atmosphere a supporter of Jordan-Khan Yunis climbed on an old eucalyptus tree just beyond the stadium border and waved the Jordanian flag. A reporter for El-Jazeera TV was commenting live the match. Patrick McGrann, one of the two fathers of the tournament, was interviewed by El-Jazeera International. An all-white first aid team ran on the green and thick grass to save the ankle of a goalkeeper. Sitting on the grass a spectator was very nervous and biting his nails: "Why? Because France is my team!!" And despite all my efforts I couldn't see the cock, my flag and the Rafah youth.

At the end and after some penalty kicks, France-Rafah beat Jordan-Khan Yunis, but nobody knew the score despite the explosion of joy mixed with the explosion of anger which occurred in the stadium. The sky was illuminated by fireworks for the delight of all till the zealous police stopped in a rude way the teens firing them. And it took time but I finally found a local journalist who knew the result. The score was: France-Rafah 5, Jordan-Khan Yunis 4.

The trophy was a replica of the real trophy. "The real trophy costs millions of dollars, but for us it costs nothing. We made it with thin iron bars retrieved from the ruins of a house demolished by the Israeli occupation and the ball is made out of plaster", explained a volunteer.

Then, suddenly, in front of me was standing the Rafah youth of the cock... but without the cock. He left that day his cock at home, he said. He had only the French flag. He showed me how he had written the name of his club on the back of the flag because he didn't want to damage the colours. For that he waved the flag on the reverse. As a present he gave me a French-blue ribbon on which was written in yellow the name of his club: "Rafah Youth-France". I forgot to ask him how was the cock after its emotional journey to Gaza City and the victorious return to Rafah three days before.

For the Gaza World Cup 2010 the fourteen "professional" best teams of the League were chosen and two others of a lower category were added for a total of sixteen teams. To twelve of them was given the name of a country which will take part in the World Cup in June in South Africa, out of thirty-two. Moreover, were added four countries: Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. Italy was represented by Rafah Khadamat Club; Palestine by El-Hillal Gaza City Club; US by El-Maghazi RC and was beaten by Serbia-Zeitun. The matches were held in the two stadiums of Gaza City: Palestine Stadium and El-Yarmouk Stadium.

Incidentally it is worth mentioning that the South African Representative Office to the PNA ignobly and shamelessly shut down its bureau of Gaza City after Hamas took complete control of the Strip in June 2007. The bureau of Ramallah is still open.

The Gaza World Cup 2010 was intended to break symbolically the siege suffocating the Gaza Strip. "Because we are prohibited to go abroad we invite the world at home", commented a journalist. The sponsors were: UNDP; Sharek Youth Forum; the printing house Mashareq; Pepsi; Bank of Palestine, which was born in Gaza City and celebrates now "50 Years of Building".

The idea to organize the Gaza World Cup 2010 came to Ashraf Hamad, 26, a civil engineer, and to Patrick McGrann, 34, a US citizen who has been in Gaza now for more than one year. They started last November to transform their idea into reality.

A number of foreigners are living in Gaza. According to the figures given to Ashraf and Patrick by the Ministry of Interior, 250 of them work for international organizations. Among those 250 foreigners a total of fifty took part in the Gaza World Cup 2010, including seven Americans. Eight Italians played in the Italy-Rafah Khadamat team, all of them are residents of Gaza but one who came from Jerusalem. In the France-Rafah team played one French, one American and one Serbian. In the Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian teams all the players were Palestinian. Further, ten or so foreign girls wanted to play but it was not permitted by the authorities.

The Palestinian players taking part in the tournament represented the entire political spectrum. They were from Hamas, Fatah, the Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front and other political groups and also independents.

The final of the Gaza World Cup 2010 fell on 15 May. That day in another part of the city and elsewhere Palestinians were commemorating Nakba Day, that is sixty-two years of calvary after that grand part of their ancestral homeland became a Zionist colony and "a light among the nations", as it was proclaimed at that time.

One evening Patrick asked me to watch with more attention the sunset, while we were sitting in a cafeteria on the seashore of Gaza City. It was a magnificent but also an extremely sad sunset... a sunset under siege and under the open-ended Nakba.

However, from the extraordinary event that was the Gaza World Cup 2010 a number of lessons will be drawn. One of them is that the victory of the tournament doesn't belong to the Youth Rafah Club only. The victory belongs to the whole Gazan people and to two ordinary individuals who demonstrate that mountains can be removed.

The same people will draw the other lessons... and us, we have been the witnesses of an affecting, moving, poignant, immense act of resistance.

- Flora Nicoletta is an independent French journalist who lives in Gaza. She is currently working on her fourth book on the Palestinian question.