Planting roots in Palestine

The Palestinian team waves as they are welcomed by Iraqi fans during the friendly match Iraq versus Palestine at the al-Shaab Stadium in central Baghdad

When FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter presented the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) with FIFA’s inaugural Development Award at the FIFA World Player Gala in 2009, he explained that the award was “in recognition of the difficult task that it had accomplished in keeping football alive”.

The award recognised that, despite the obstacles to football development presented by the ongoing Middle East conflict, such as the restrictions on movement in and out of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza – which require Palestinian players, coaches and officials, like other Palestinian citizens, to apply for visas to enter and leave these territories – the association had been successful in growing the game, with increasing numbers of youngsters taking up football across the nation’s 16 districts.

Eager to build on this enthusiasm for football, FIFA took its Grassroots Programme to the territories in April. To ensure that coaches in all areas of the territory would benefit, the course organisers overcame the movement restrictions by staging three separate courses in the northern, central and southern regions of the West Bank and one in Gaza.

The first of the four courses took place in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, a bustling commercial centre situated on the route between Israel’s capital Tel Aviv and Jordan’s capital Amman, which became a major target when the Middle East conflict flared up in the early 2000s.

The spectre of violence which has marred the town in the past was far removed from the scene at the city’s Municipal Stadium during the course, however, as around 130 determined youngsters dribbled, passed and headed the ball around the pitch to cries of encouragement and positive instructions from local coaches.

Each of the Grassroots Programmes begins by training up these coaches, who are told to focus on ensuring the children leave the sessions with a smile on their faces. A range of standardised activities is then used to create festivals based around small-sided games, with teams of four or five players, and exercises to develop skills. The format of the games is adapted to the children and allows them to be involved in all phases of football, get more touches on the ball, and develop more scoring opportunities.

*Palestinian passion *“The festival is the pivotal part of the course,” explained FIFA instructor Jamal Lahrache, one of an eight-strong delegation supporting the youth coaches and aspiring youngsters across Palestine. “It gives us a chance to observe the youth coaches and the children in action and find out what they’ve learned about grassroots football.”

The children’s technique with the ball is astonishing for youngsters in this age category, and both the expert coaches and watching families applaud the quality of their play.

“I’ve been playing football since I was five and I want to experience playing in a club!” said 11-year-old Sami, wiping sweat from his brow. His young team-mate, 12-year-old Sultan, who grew up a few steps from the stadium, is equally enthusiastic: “It’s been a great day. I loved playing the small-sided games and joining up with other players from my region.”

According to the PFA’s figures, 48,000 boys and 46,000 girls play the game throughout the 16 districts (11 in the West Bank, five in Gaza) – an encouraging pool of talent in a population of around four million, which suggests footballing success is not beyond the country’s reach, given the right circumstances.

“Palestinians, both men and women, are fascinated by football,” the PFA’s Technical Director Mazen Khatib said. “The game is played every day in the refugee camps and our initiatives to grow the game have the support of the government and the education minister. Our goal is to organise a Grassroots festival every year to encourage more sponsors to get on board.”

The best route to success is to focus on developing youth football and training coaches to drive the game forwards. 

*New dawn for Knights *FIFA, the first international sports organisation to admit Palestine as a member association in 1998, has given widespread support to the game’s development in the territories, not  only through courses such as Grassroots but also via its Goal Programme, with the four projects Palestine has been awarded since 2001 funding the development of the association headquarters, a football academy and artificial turf pitches in Gaza, Ramallah and Al-Ram.

These facilities, together with the creation of a men’s professional league and a women’s league and the administrative backing of a stable association, mean the frustration engendered by the limitations imposed on the game’s growth is now giving way to hope.

Palestine’s national team, The Knights, fly the flag not only for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza but the broad Palestinian diaspora around the world. Despite their lowly placing of 154th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and recent elimination by Thailand in the second round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, national team coach Jamal Mahmoud shares the bright outlook.

“The standard of the game here is improving,” Mahmoud said. “The players are young and don’t have much experience, only six of them play abroad, but things are changing for the better. The best route to success is to focus on developing youth football and training coaches to drive the game forwards.”

Following the festival in Nablus, the Grassroots tour of Palestine heads south to the city of Ramallah in the heart of the West Bank. It’s here, in the country’s administrative capital, that the headquarters of the national football association and its staff of 70 are based, including Executive Director Abdallah Al-Faraa.

*Taking note *“Palestinian football has improved significantly in recent years and now everybody is sitting up and taking note,” explained Al-Faraa, taking time out over a coffee in the association headquarters to underline the sense of enthusiasm surrounding the game. “We’ve launched a two-tier professional league in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with Al-Amari, a team from the refugee camp of the same name, winning the last league championship.”

The new-found confidence felt by the Palestinians in their football is reflected on the pitch in Ramallah, as the second of the four festivals comes to a close with a prize-giving ceremony to reward the children and their coaches for their efforts.

Warm applause greets the young players as they step up to have their photos taken and receive FIFA balls, t-shirts and bibs as a souvenir, before making way for the youth coaches to be rewarded with certificates acknowledging their involvement in the course.

“It’s a great honour to have participated in this course,” beamed 24-year-old Ramallah-based coach Majed. ”I’m planning to build on what I’ve learned here today by continuing to train the kids of my country in the future. After all, it’s the future of our country’s football that’s at stake!”      

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