Palestinian soccer: a leg up on statehood?

THE grass under their feet is a gift from Norway. The Italian sportswear company Diadora is their generous clothier. Their coach is an Israeli of Arab heritage. But the product is purely homegrown: the first Palestinian soccer team.

Last week, most Palestinians were more interested in what was happening in this stadium, than in the peace process. "Palestine" lost 2-1 to an Egyptian team. But no matter. For many here, win or lose, the point is that they're in the game. Soccer here is synonymous with statehood.

FIFA, soccer's world governing body, gave the Palestinian Football Federation full affiliation in 1998. That recognition is interpreted as a global nod to their aspirations of statehood.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has vowed to declare an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by September - a move American and Israeli officials say should be delayed until a final peace deal with Israel.

But with peace talks in limbo, Palestinians will take any recognition they can get.

they can get it.

"To me, football is politics. For sure, it means we're closer to having our own state," says Ziad Kurd, who became a star when he scored a game-tying goal against the Syrian team in a match last summer in Jordan. Kurd's goal deprived the Syrians of a chance to win the Arab Cup. It was a particularly euphoric moment for Palestinians, after Syrian officials harshly criticized Mr. Arafat's participation in peace talks with Israel.

"It was a way to say, 'Even if we're not better than you in politics, we're better in sports,' " Kurd says. Indeed, in many corners of the globe, soccer is a forum for unleashing nationalist sentiment without starting a war. Worldwide, it remains a sport of deep devotion, perhaps even more than what the Red Sox mean to Boston or the Cubs to Chicago.

Kurd grew up playing on Gaza's dirt fields and trash-strewn lots. In his adolescence, Gaza was the scene of daily clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers during the intifadah, the 1987-93 Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. In those days, to wear a jersey that said "Palestine," to fly a red, black, and green flag at a stadium, or to sing the Palestinian anthem was to risk arrest for nationalistic activities.

What a difference a peace accord makes. Seven years ago, Kurd was a teenager whose peers threw stones at Israelis. Now, after practice one day last week, the golden-haired Palestinian was on his way to be photographed for an advertisement for Strauss, an Israeli ice cream company, in a "dessert of champions" pose.

Many Israeli companies have been niche marketing their products for sale in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This strategy contradicts Palestinian officials' calls for a boycott of Israeli goods as a way to show displeasure with the pace of the peace process.

But Kurd says he doesn't mind endorsing an Israeli product. But he, like most of his teammates, says the time is not yet ripe for Israel and Palestine to face each other on a different kind of battlefield.

"We're not ready to play the Israelis yet," he says. "We still have people in prison, Jerusalem is not solved, our refugees are still outside the country. We'll play them when there's a complete peace."

The team's coach, Azmi Nassar, says they've had lots of offers. An Arab from Nazareth, Israel, Mr. Nassar has played on some of Israel's best soccer teams, alongside Jewish teammates. Although many Israelis are uncomfortable when they see their Arab citizens identifying themselves with the Palestinians, Nassar says his fellow athletes in Israel support what he's doing.

"They look now at the Palestinian people not as the enemy but as a friendly country," Nassar says. "The Israelis would like to play our team tomorrow. But I don't think it will take place for another 10 years."

There may be other reasons to delay such a game. Nassar acknowledges it will be a while before the team is in top form. It made its first impact on international soccer last August, when the team reached the semifinals of the Pan Arab Games in Jordan.

And it has a busy schedule ahead. The team is in intensive training in Egypt for a qualifying tournament in Qatar for the Asian Nations' Cup - the first time it will be competing in a major international tournament.

For now, even Palestinians do not expect their team to be a powerhouse. Unlike players in Israel, being a Palestinian footballer is an unpaid job. Many, like Kurd, hold down salaried jobs in the Palestinian police, and when not in intensive training, meet two or three times a week for practice.

Good players from the Palestinian diaspora - like Wisam Abdel Razek, a Sweden-raised Palestinian who has an offer to go pro in Germany - come home for big tournaments, but can't be lured to stay.

And it is still a chore to get the West Bank portion of the team to Gaza for practice, due to Israeli travel restrictions. When trying to travel abroad, the coach says, he must depend on at least one player being denied an exit permit at the border.

The fans hope that someday they'll make the big league. In the Shati Refugee Camp, where young boys play shoeless soccer on the beach, fans say that although their team needs a lot of work, it serves as a goodwill ambassador for their nation-in-waiting. "This will give us a better image in the eyes of the world," says municipal worker Samir Abu.

Sayed Hamdona, a clerk, says he looks forward to a grudge match between Israel and Palestine. "This is a new era," says Mr. Hamdona. "It's a civilized battle between us and the Israelis now. We're finished with armed battle. You have to use your brains when you play this game."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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