GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — It has been more than three decades since any grass has sprouted on Gaza City’s Yarmouk soccer field.
But playing in the sandlot became appreciably sweeter last week as the first round of the monthlong Gaza soccer tournament got under way there.
After Israel’s reopening of Gaza Strip roads this month, local residents are relaxing for the first time in years.
Weddings are being held outside and diners are returning to restaurants. For sports fans in Gaza — soccer-crazed like most of the world — that means getting down to the business of crowning their first champion in three years.
Clad in green jerseys with an insignia of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock printed on the chest, the starters from Gaza City’s Islamic Society huddled near midfield to pump themselves up with chants of “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great).
Opposite, in red jerseys, stood the underdogs. The squad from Beit Hanoun, a farming village in northeastern Gaza, could manage only one practice before the tournament because the Israeli army had been patrolling the town for seven weeks on the lookout for Palestinian militants.
The team lost most of the little financial support it had after the army razed the groves of farmers who were supporting it. So players paid their own way. Sitting out the tournament altogether could have meant the team’s dismantling.
“We don’t really care about the result,” said Ibrahim Za’anin, 29, a midfielder for Beit Hanoun whose brother was killed during an Israeli incursion in the town. “The challenge is that we have to continue.”
There is good reason to believe the competition may never be completed. Though the fragile U.S.-led peace initiative and a cease-fire among Palestinian militants have kept the army from returning, almost everyone understands a sudden burst of violence could mean new roadblocks and an end to the 32-team tournament.
But after the 33-month uprising ravaged the economic, political and social fabric of Palestinian society, the soccer tournament reflects a widespread urge to restore some measure of normalcy.
“This competition is like a baby that people have been expecting,” said Khaled Abu Zaher, a sports reporter for the Palestinian daily Al Quds. “God forbid, if the cease-fire collapses, we will go back to the beginning. Soccer is like air for the people.”
With travel in the Palestinian territories choked by Israeli army roadblocks over the past three years, sports clubs haven’t been able to stick to any kind of regular match schedule.
Still, organized soccer matches have continued. To maintain a semblance of fitness, the clubs arranged exhibition matches named after athletes killed during the uprising. Often that meant providing sleeping arrangements near the field for the visitors in case roads were closed. Some athletes found themselves bunking down on the team bus beside Israeli army checkpoints.
Like the boys of Gaza who run barefoot in the street with jerseys of World Cup champion Brazil, Palestinian soccer is impoverished.View Entire Story
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