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Like Everything in Gaza, War Destroys Football for the Foreseeable Future
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bader football gaza
For Gaza’s young and old, football is more than just a game. It has long been a beacon of unity, peace, and hope for thousands of people in Gaza, transcending the protracted struggles we face. Just like fans around the world, we are dedicated followers of the most “beautiful game”, cheering on our favourite teams and players. 

Gaza and the Beautiful Game of Football 

If you visited Gaza before the war, you would have sensed both excitement for football and the palpable joy it brings to the community. You would have seen people revved up for important matches, such as El Clasico, the derbies, and the FIFA World Cup tournaments (especially the Qatar 2022 edition). You would have seen public places and cafés richly decorated, streets bustling with fans, and sport clubs full of the sights and sounds of life in the lead up to football matches played on public screens. 

And then, so abruptly, the lights of the stadiums were replaced by the flames of warfare and the echoes of cheering crowds by the thunderous roar of warplanes, casting a shadow over everything beautiful in Gaza. 

More than Just a Game

Playing football was not merely a pastime, but a lifeline for thousands of youth, providing solace amidst chaos, friendships in loneliness, relief in the face of anxiety, and always a goal to look forward to. 

Many young people would say that the game lifted them up when they fell into psychotic episodes. Others emphasized that playing football offered them a welcome pause from life’s burdens. When we played football, we were laughing, screaming, cheering, and sometimes singing. Football was an interlude to the pain, a brief distraction from the sounds of bombardment stuck in our heads from previous wars.  

In the past, I would call my friends after work and rent a small football club for one or two hours. We organized small tournaments at weekends when we felt we needed to switch off, to breathe, and to compete again. Playing football was a respite from life’s challenges, a way to cope amid suffocating circumstances and inevitable hurdles. It was our reason to get together, bringing us a sense of relief and unity, and positively impacting our psychological health. While playing, our stresses would dissipate; nothing felt terribly important. Our thoughts were consumed only with scoring, the art of dribbling, and having fun.  

Having experienced staggering pains due to years of war, we would seek out ways to alleviate its repercussions, be them social, economic, and/or psychological. Watching football matches together on screens or playing football on the streets was one of those ways. The love for football was alive even when death was unequivocal.  

Sorrow Deepens as Football Clubs Burn

In the blink of an eye, Israel turned Gaza’s football pitches into desolate graveyards, as they did with most of our buildings, institutions and infrastructure. Walking in Gaza City today resembles walking in a ghost town. War smashed joy, revelry, and excitement out of our lives. And many of those friends whom I would call to play have been tragically killed during this genocide1.  

As war continues to ravage our city, streets are no longer a safe place to play. Rather, they’re a daily reminder of destruction, despair, and loss. These atrocities2 have taken lives, traumatised our people, and laid Gaza in ruins. It has also destroyed one of our only avenues of temporary escape, making it impossible to be played even on the streets. Just like everything beautiful in the Gaza Strip, football has been squashed.  

Once for Fun, Now for Shelter

Football stadiums in Gaza had been both colossal and compact, attracting thousands of fans on game days. On other occasions, stadiums were vibrant venues that strengthened social harmony, with thousands of people gathering to watch football matches on the big screen. The stadiums showcased both the aching desire amongst Gazans for large sporting events as well as the need for improvements to the industry.  

As war tears the city apart, football stadiums are not an exception. The Israeli army has bombed almost all football pitches, and those that remain standing have either become vast shelters for displaced Gazans or have been turned into military barracks.  The scenes of roofless stadiums now used as shelters are alarming, tragic and terrifying. What had once been a place for joy and play are now the last glimmer of hope and shelter for desperate Gazans. From universities to stadiums, the bombardment has obliterated Gaza’s infrastructure, its centers of cultural and civic life.   

Too Late or Important to Invest Now?

Before the eruption of war, decision makers in the Gaza Strip had often neglected official sports and football foundations, due in part to the unstable situation. Moreover, the football industry in Gaza had struggled to get investments from donor countries. Most funds were allocated to support humanitarian assistance projects rather than development projects. For years, Palestinian football was not a priority on the international community’s agenda due to financial constraints.  

In 2021, I was presented with an amazing opportunity that combined my love for football with my desire to help my community. I was chosen to take part in the Generation Amazing (GA) Youth Festival in Doha, Qatar, where I gained insights about the Football for Development approach -  decision-making through football, the role of sports in overcoming challenges in our communities and fostering unity. The following year in 2022, I became a GA youth advocate for the festival that coincided with the World Cup in Qatar. Meeting iconic football players and watching a World Cup match was a dream come true. I also attended insightful panel discussions and workshops hosting influential speakers from around the world. I had planned on returning home to give back to my community in Gaza, to plan football-related activities, and to teach children that football is more than just a game. I had dreams of running sports projects, holding tournaments, and completing writing my football-related research paper. Tragically, the ravages of war thwarted my plans and my dreams. 

In the research paper I was writing before the war, I explored the possibility of bringing peace through leveraging the power of football. The research proposed the idea that football can be a vehicle for positive economic transformation in the Gaza Strip. Now, I feel that even that research is invalid as our reality has completely changed for decades to come. I cannot even imagine the future of football if war were to stop today.  

Moments of Reflection Amidst Great Loss

During wartime, Gaza’s football fans reminisce about the days when they played football. Their hearts become wrenched to have lived through the destruction of what was once a source of relief for them. Their memories are buried under the ashes of destroyed football facilities. However, their hope remains that they will play, compete, and feel the joy of football again.  

By Bader Alzaharna, Generation Amazing - Youth Advocate


1 In a report by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, titled “Anatomy of Genocide”, Francesca Albanese concludes “there are reasonable grounds to believe the threshold indicating Israel’s commission of genocide is met"

2 January 2024, the International Court of Justice found it plausible that Israel's acts in Gaza could amount to genocide. Several international non-governmental organisations and UN human rights experts have also since accused Israel of acts of genocide.

Authors

Fundraising and Research Officer
Pal-Think for Strategic Studies

Tags

Country
Palestinian Territories
Region
Middle East
Sport
Football (Soccer)
Sustainable Development Goals
10 – Reduced inequalities
Target Group
Displaced people
Youth
Children

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