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Kickoff for Freedom: Palestine United

By Anne Habiby

Imagine stepping into a stunning FIFA World Cup stadium packed with 37,000 passionate fans, all fervently rallying behind Palestine. This scene has become commonplace during Palestine National Team games, where the world unites to show unwavering support. In what has become the darkest period for Palestine in 75 years, the members of the Palestine National Football Team have shattered barriers in the World Cup qualifications, etching their names in history game by game. Their journey is a testament to the courage, resilience, and indestructible bond of the Palestinian athletes who have become symbols of the pursuit of peace and justice for Palestine.

Football is the globally most-watched sport. It has an enormous fan base and is followed passionately by people around the world. Its popularity is evidenced by its massive viewership numbers. The FIFA World Cup 2022 edition held in Qatar reportedly reached over five billion people. In addition, top football leagues such as the English Premier League, La Liga, and the UEFA Champions League regularly draw millions of viewers for each match.

Cheering for Palestine at a football game in Qatar.

Since the invasion and siege of Gaza, soccer games have become beacons of international solidarity with the Palestinian cause. There are Palestinian flags, songs, and massive “end the genocide” banners, with football players themselves waving the Palestinian flag on the field and speaking about Gaza in interviews. At matches involving the world’s top teams, including Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and AC Milan, Palestinian flags and banners are ever-present, with fans chanting in solidarity with Palestine.
One of the most impactful displays of solidarity occurred during a Champions League match between Scotland’s Celtic Football Club and Atletico Madrid shortly after the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Celtic Football Club has a well-established tradition of vocal support for Palestine, displaying Palestinian flags as a defining feature of their matches. However, on the occasion of this highly anticipated match, club management requested that Celtic fans not wave flags or banners. In defiance, thousands of supporters proudly waved Palestinian flags and joined together in singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Moreover, giant banners were unfurled in the stands, bearing the powerful messages, “Free Palestine” and “Victory to the Resistance.”

As football games worldwide rally in support of Palestine, the beautiful game has become a platform for the quest for freedom and statehood. The genocide in Gaza has not discouraged Palestine’s young athletes but has rather inspired them to fight for a place among nations. As the men’s and women’s Palestine National Teams travel the world, they have transcended their roles as athletes to become ambassadors for peace and freedom.

In this context of global solidarity, the Palestine National Team has emerged as a symbol of unity, transcending their roles as athletes to become international ambassadors for the quest for a free Palestine. On January 18, 2024, I journeyed to Doha to cheer the team’s FIFA qualifying match against the UAE. People came from everywhere to demonstrate solidarity, not just men who traditionally make up the ranks of football fans, but thousands of families draped in keffiyehs, groups of women and people of every age waving flags. The Palestine National Team stepped onto the pitch to face the UAE at the breathtaking Al Janoub Stadium and was welcomed by thunderous applause.

While UAE supporters cheered for their team when in possession of the ball, every person roared when Palestine raced down the field, elegantly weaving around the defense to shoot on goal. The atmosphere was electric, with 37,000 spectators united in solidarity for Palestine, their voices echoing through the stadium’s acoustics. Amidst the positive energy, chants of ana dammi Falasteeni (my blood is Palestinian) filled the air, accompanied by a sea of flags waving proudly in support. Despite Palestine’s dominance in possession and goal attempts, the match concluded in a 1–1 draw. Yet, for most, if not all, what truly mattered was being part of a joyful demonstration of unity for Palestine.

Since the invasion of Gaza, the Palestine National Team has faced nearly insurmountable challenges. The coach had to assemble the team amid crisis and heartbreak while preparing them to play at their peak. The team grappled with logistical hurdles, lack of travel resources, with no home stadium, and the constant worry about their loved ones back home. Two National Team players were trapped in Gaza. One was killed with his family in a bombing by the Israeli forces, and the “Ronaldo of Gaza,” Mohammed Balah, was sheltering in a tent in Rafah with ten family members. Yet, amidst the turmoil, they remained steadfast in their purpose, serving as ambassadors for Palestine to the outside world and shining a ray of hope for those in Gaza.

Moroccan players show the Palestinian flag after their dramatic victory over Spain. Source: Arab News “Was Palestine the Biggest Winner at the World Cup?” December 18, 2022.

Football has a rich history in Palestine, introduced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by British soldiers. Palestinians quickly embraced the sport, playing  high-caliber matches from the 1920s. The Palestine Football Association was formed in 1962. In 1998, Palestine was offcially recognized as a state by FIFA and admitted to the Asian Football Conference. FIFA was among the first international organizations to acknowledge Palestine statehood.

Israeli occupation imposes severe restrictions on athletes. It limits their movement between the occupied West Bank and Gaza and denies them exit visas to participate in international competitions, creating major obstacles to their training and their sporting careers. Prominent players have faced incarceration in Israeli jails and even lost their lives. Despite these difficulties, the Palestine Football Association has played an indispensable role in nurturing and advancing football in Palestine with professional leagues for men and women, despite limited resources, infrastructure, and movement restrictions.

Palestinian football has managed to achieve international acclaim and success, serving as a shining example of national identity for Palestinians. Matches held in the West Bank and Gaza consistently attract large crowds and passionate support, offering rare opportunities for Palestinians to come together and demonstrate their prowess.

Most recently, the Israeli government’s imposition of extreme mobility restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank has been so overwhelming that teams have not been able to play their league games or host international teams for matches in Palestine. To demonstrate support, South Africa extended a historic invitation to the Palestine National Team to play two exhibition matches in a series called “Football for Humanity” on February 8 this year. The team touched down in Cape Town to a hero’s welcome, with the government welcoming the players, saying “Mandela always said, ‘We are not free until Palestine is free.’” The first game was scheduled on a momentous day for South Africa, the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Both games drew thousands of spectators waving Palestinian flags and banners in support of a Free Palestine, and the opening match was attended by President Cyril Ramaphosa along with Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor and Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola.

Author (on left) with a friend at the Palestine vs. UAE match, January 18, 2024.

Despite facing immense challenges, the tight-knit Palestine National Team has defied all the odds and exceeded all expectations to advance to the round of 16 in the FIFA World Cup qualifying matches for the first time in their history. Inevitably, they have etched an indelible mark on history as ambassadors for Palestine. The team’s steadfastness and confidence have emerged as their greatest asset. Equally noteworthy is the determination of the Palestine National Women’s Team that has also achieved success as they progress toward the 2027 Women’s World Cup.

The genocide in Gaza did not discourage Palestine’s young athletes but rather has inspired them to fight for a place among nations.

As I witness the global football community rallying in support of Palestine, a profound truth becomes apparent: positive ideals, rather than negative propositions, are the foundation upon which nations and ideas thrive. When Mandela was released from prison after 30 years, the world resonated with his vision of an inclusive future for all South Africans – a vision that changed history.

The global response to Israel’s relentless negative agenda has been the embrace of the positivity and buoyancy of the Palestinian cause – a people historically inclusive of all faiths, living together peacefully for centuries. Football has emerged as an essential element of Palestine’s affirmative narrative, embodying courage, hope, and joy. The widespread support from across the globe reflects a universal embrace of this narrative, symbolizing solidarity with Palestine’s positive aspirations.

With just two matches left, Palestine faces Lebanon on June 6 and formidable opponent Australia on June 11. The question looms: Will they secure a place in the 2026 FIFA World Cup? Regardless of the outcome, we pay tribute to these young athletes who have become our voice on the global stage.

  • Anne Habiby is an economist with Saudi mega projects and previously led an entrepreneurship nonprofit founded by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter. Her grandfather, Judge Jamil Habiby, served as a District Court judge in Haifa until 1948. To inspire global support for Palestine, she aspires to create a film documenting the journey of the Palestine National Football Team.

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