From a troubled land

Gourmangi Singh (left) and Mousa M. H. Abujazar (in red) fight for the ball during the FIFA friendly.-K.K. MUSTAFAH Gourmangi Singh (left) and Mousa M. H. Abujazar (in red) fight for the ball during the FIFA friendly.

Despite the hardships, football offers youngsters, including many refugees, the chance to leave behind their shattered lives in a troubled nation and also allows them to dream big. By Stan Rayan.

Crossing over to play the West Bank Premier League is often a risky business for Palestine players. Last year, the Israel military arrested a few top footballers, including Omar Abu Rois, a Palestine goalkeeper who played the Olympic qualifiers.

But with West Bank hosting Palestine’s lone professional league, players have little option but to face the risk.

“We have problem of movement in Palestine,” said Abdallah Alfara, the Palestine team’s Head of Delegation, in Kochi, where the team played an international friendly against India the other day.

“Between Ramallah and Nablus, there are (Israeli) checkpoints. Sometimes, if you have a game at 5 p.m. at Nablus, you need to leave at 10 a.m. because it takes five or six hours for what should normally take just one hour,” said the Ramallah-based Alfara.

Incidentally, the distance between Ramallah and Nablus is just 37kms.

It’s the same for players from Gaza, which has an amateur league. “You must have heard about the story of Mahmoud Sarsak, who played the Olympic qualifiers. He was put behind bars for more than two years for nothing. He had only gone from Gaza to play in West Bank and they arrested him at the checkpoint.”

But despite the hardships, football offers youngsters, including many refugees, the chance to leave behind their shattered lives in a troubled nation and also allows them to dream big.

And despite Palestine being just about twice the size of Ernakulam, Kerala’s commercial capital, it offers many grounds to fuel dreams. The place appears to be stacked with football stadiums.

“In Palestine, we have more than 10 stadiums,” said Alfara. “And we have one international stadium each in Ramallah and Al-Birah, we have two international stadiums in Hebron City and in Nablos. Totally, we have six international stadiums approved by FIFA.”

Compare this with Ernakulam, which is home to the Kerala Football Association’s headquarters in a state which has produced some of the country’s best footballers like I. M. Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri. The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi is the district’s lone international stadium and even here, there is often a tussle between cricket and football.

Just sample this! The Nehru Stadium hosted the India-England ODI on January 15 and on February 6, India’s international football friendly against Palestine and three days later, the Celebrity Cricket League pitched its tent there. It’s also the main venue for the Santosh Trophy football championship from February 14. And a week after India’s only national inter-State championship, the venue will also host the Deodhar Trophy, the national inter-zonal cricket championship. Clearly, infrastructure is Indian football’s biggest problem.

Former Indian footballers I. M. Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri acknowledge the crowd.-THULASI KAKKAT

Their problems back home also mean that the Palestinian footballers frequently get to play in Qatar or in the UAE. “Sometimes, we go to Qatar or to Dubai because it’s very hard to collect our players in Palestine (because of visa problems),” said the Alfara. “We may go to Dubai to prepare for the (forthcoming) AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers. And this is what we do always.”

This virtually means Palestine, ranked 152 in the world against India’s 166, gets to play in some of the world’s best stadiums — remember Qatar will be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup — and against opponents who are ranked at least 40 to 50 spots above them in the FIFA rankings.

All this experience came in very handy in Kochi where Palestine, despite arriving with just two of its 12 professional players (playing in countries like Argentina, Sweden and Jordan), defeated India comfortably 4-2 after a dramatic second-half turnaround.

India, riding on goals from midfielder Clifford Miranda and the versatile defender Syed Rahim Nabi was confident and assertive in the opening session and led 2-1 at half-time but the match turned sharply in Palestine’s favour in just five minutes after resumption, the visitor scoring twice in that period.

Ashraf Numan Alfawagra, who began as a winger but went upfront to play as a striker after the break, was Palestine’s hero. The 26-year-old who plays in the Jordan League struck thrice in the match as India sank following defensive errors in the second half.

The recent Nehru Cup triumph, where India defeated world No. 67 Cameroon (under-23 side) in the final, raised hopes of a big turnaround in the sport. But the 0-2 loss to Singapore late last year and the defeat against Palestine in Kochi show that the country needs to play more such games to get better.