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Sports History in Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.05.2008:

By Wassef Daher

I was almost seven when my uncle started to take me to watch the Palestinian football matches at the YMCA field in West Jerusalem. That was before 1948. Compared to other Arab countries, Palestine was ranked fairly high at that time. Football was the main attraction for a significant number of Palestinians. I still remember the names of the prominent players: Jabra Al Zarqa from Haifa’s Shabab Al Arab team, the Dabbah brothers from the Orthodox Club of Jerusalem, the Dajanis from Islami Yaffa, and others. There was also a British football team, the Wanderers, which consisted of British staff and soldiers who were serving in Palestine during the Mandate. The Wanderers played the local teams on a regular basis. It was then that sports became a main interest in my life, perhaps not as a player or practitioner but rather as an observer and critic.

The war in 1948 practically paralysed sports activities for a number of years. Young people were longing for the sense of normalcy that came with sports. There was rarely a football match or any other sports activity. As people walked the streets of Jerusalem, they combed the walls and municipal bulletin boards in order to find some mention of an upcoming football match. The only available playground was in Sheikh Jarrah, but it was in a state of disrepair. Some of the local matches were played there without even a goal net! That was the sports situation in the early fifties, after which some of the clubs in Palestine – which was under Jordanian rule – became part of the Jordanian Football Federation. These clubs lacked support and real leadership. Other sports such as basketball, volleyball, table tennis, weight lifting, body building, etc., fared better than football.

At the time, the local newspapers carried hardly any sports news or articles. In 1969, however, this reality changed thanks to the late Mahmud Abu el Zuluf, the chief editor of Al Quds newspaper, who determined that journalism could help sports and vice versa. After I had written a number of articles in Al Quds, he asked me to take charge of a daily sports column, which has since been expanded to four full pages. All other newspapers and local magazines followed in the footsteps of Al Quds, and sports became an integral part of their publications. The impact on both sports and journalism was tangible.

As a result of the war and the subsequent Israeli occupation in 1967 – in addition to the absence of national leadership, the lack of international support, and the desperate situation of youth – a sort of “sports Intifada” erupted through individual initiatives by some clubs and associations led by the East Jerusalem YMCA, which assumed the role of ministry of youth and sports for a time and became the meeting place for the West Bank Federation and other sports institutions. We could say that Palestinian sports experienced its golden era between 1968 and the late 1980s. Sports activities and events were held regularly and frequently everywhere – not only football but other sports as well. Spontaneous friendly matches and championship matches and all sorts of competitions took place between teams throughout the Palestinian territories. Exchange of match visits between clubs and teams of various cities, including those in the Gaza Strip, were daily happenings. Sports fever was the “password” among the young generation. Football teams from abroad often visited, and matches were organised regularly.

Some clubs imported coaches and trainers who led training courses. Visiting teams often tried to attract some of our players, and a number of them did actually go to the United States. Some remained abroad to study and play for various teams, and others returned. In spite of the limited support and lack of real training and coaching, we had talented players who played extraordinary football.

I do not exaggerate when I say that watching Musa Al Toubassi and Hatem Salah, the magnificent players, was a great joy to us all. A few players, however, were not as fortunate as others. They did not have the chance to be chosen by foreign scouts and play abroad. The talent was born and buried here, and deprived of the right to become famous, which could have been advantageous not only for the players themselves but for Palestine as well.

The story of Palestine’s golden era of sports would be incomplete without mentioning the people who were behind these achievements, such as the late Labib Nasser, the Secretary General of the YMCA who had a vision for youth and sports. He always followed the activities from his office, which overlooked the St. George’s fields and playground. It is said that Labib once told a member who was complaining about the noise caused by the children of the YMCA: “This noise is music for me, and I enjoy it!” Other significant figures of this era include the late Majed Asaad of Al Bireh Club, Ahmad Adileh of Silwan, Khalil El Husseini of Jericho, Rimon Zabaneh, Nadi Khoury, Toni Abboud, and many others.

In this respect I cannot ignore the great role played by a YMCA volunteer, Dick Hofman, who came to serve at the East Jerusalem YMCA in 1967 to help reactivate sports programmes and create foundations for youth leadership. He and Rimon Zabaneh, the YMCA physical director, made a huge positive impact on sports and youth throughout the entire West Bank.

At that time, St. George’s playing field was the site of these sports events, despite its sorry condition. It was a real pity that nothing was done to rehabilitate this field, which was considered the only lung for the sports body in Jerusalem.

The sports honeymoon came to an end in the late eighties, and the situation took a 180-degree turn in the wake of the confrontation between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation. Road blocks, closures, checkpoints, curfews, and all sorts of restrictions put an end to the movements of the teams between cities and even between different places within each city! Gaza was severely affected and sports received a big blow. Young people and children were deprived of their normal rights to recreation and play. Loss of regular contact and competition had a negative impact on the development and improvement of sports, in general, and on sports activities, in particular – whether locally or internationally. The Palestinian flag was never raised, medals were not won, and the national anthem was never heard at any of the Olympic Games or other international competitions.

This year, at least, we were fortunate to have been brought back into the international arena thanks to Ghadeer Ghroof of the Jericho Club, who won a gold medal at the Asian games in the 200-meter dash. This has given us some hope and consolation after many years of disappointment. We hope that those who contributed to this milestone in Palestinian sports history will work hard to prepare Ghadeer and others for the Olympic Games in China this year.

In spite of the difficult situation and its limited resources, the Palestinian Authority through its Ministry of Youth and Sports and sports federations are exploring all possibilities to put sports in Palestine back on the right track and score some achievements on the local and international levels. Sports is a way of life and an integral part of culture, civilisation, and national achievement.

Just recently a “wake-up call” took place through the new Football Federation elections which resulted in a body of new, committed members headed by strongman Jibril Rjoub, the National Security Advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas, who personally supported his nomination to the post. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad visited the elections site and offered significant words of encouragement to all who were present – yet another proof of a new sports uprising.

Wassef Daher, a travel agent, is vice president of the East Jerusalem YMCA, vice president of the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce, and chairman of the Helen Keller Centre

This Week in Palestine

June 2008

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