Bleacher Report's James Montague travelled to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to explore football's power to unite and understand the politics at play for those in love with the beautiful game there.
Gaza Strip, Palestinian Territory — Once a week, the chaos of the Gaza Strip gives way to stillness and occasional silence. It is Friday morning, and the call to prayer intermittently echoes from a hundred minarets. The road to the Khan Younis stadium is empty, a fleeting occurrence in one of the most deprived and densely populated places on earth. A few children play football on a patch of ground next door, while inside—on yellowing, parched grass—Mahmoud Wadi trains with his team, Ittihad Khan Younis.
Ittihad Khan Younis are doing OK this season. In two days, they will play local rivals Shabab Khan Younis. It is a mid-table clash, like most years. But one player stands head and shoulders above the others. Wadi has scored 10 goals this season and assisted many more. The 22-year-old striker and captain towers above his team-mates as he leads their drills in the bright sunshine.
The Palestine international shouldn't be here playing for his hometown club. But he has no choice. As a Gaza-born player, it is virtually impossible for him to leave and play abroad. His talent means plenty of teams came asking, even Egyptian giants Zamalek SC, but after managing to negotiate the bureaucratic nightmare required to satisfy Israeli movement requirements, and playing one season in the West Bank Premier League for Ahli Al-Khaleel from Hebron, he returned to play a game in Gaza nine months later and has been prevented from leaving ever since.
Wadi is trapped, unable to return to his parent club. Instead, he plays on loan for Ittihad Khan Younis, every day waiting for the phone call that might tell him that he is free to leave.
"I feel very sad when I see this player with professional skills. He is supposed to go and play in another country," Rafat Khalifa, Khan Younis' coach, said. "When Israel didn't give him this permit, this was a decision to kill this player. He wants to play outside. He needs the opportunity."
Khalifa believes he could play at the highest level: "He has all the skills to play in any league. Any league. God willing."
While football in the West Bank is thriving, the game in Gaza is struggling under the weight of wars, the blockade (which makes the most basic necessities impossible to find) and the restrictive rule of Hamas, who have been in charge since 2007 and promise perpetual war with Israel. It is virtually impossible to enter or leave via the one crossing point in the north of the Strip.
Since 2007, three wars have been fought between Israel and Gaza, costing almost 4,000 mostly civilian lives. Its infrastructure has been shattered, its stadiums destroyed, leaving Gaza isolated and poverty-stricken. Growing up, Mahmoud played in the dusty alleyways of Khan Younis but never signed for a local club.
His talent was spotted by the Palestinian Football Association and, finally, Ahli Al-Khaleel in the West Bank. He was offered a contract paying $2,700 a month, a fortune in Gaza.
"It was a great offer," Wadi said when we met after training at a beachfront cafe in Gaza City. The problem was getting the permit to travel. He eventually got it, the day before the start of the season. Life was good in Hebron.
"You have electricity the whole day, life is open there," he said. "Hebron is the window to the future. If Real Madrid call you in Gaza, you have no chance. But in the West Bank? All you need is the help to get over the Allenby Bridge."
As a Gazan, he was not allowed to freely travel between West Bank cities. For away games, he would travel in convoy, the car in front alerting them to a checkpoint so they could take a different route. Sometimes, a 30-minute journey would take three hours.
The biggest problem, though, was playing in Asian competition. Ahli Al-Khaleel had won the Palestinian Cup and qualification to the AFC Cup, an Asian competition comparable to UEFA's Europa League. Mahmoud would travel with the team to the crossing point between the West Bank and Jordan, the Allenby Bridge, where he would be stopped and separated from the rest of the team before passing.
Yet he scored five goals in six games and was vital for the campaign. When Ahli Al-Khaleel travelled to Gaza to play the winners of the Gaza Cup, he was excited to return home.
"I had been away 11 months. Finally, I'd see my mum and dad. I miss Gaza a little bit. I felt excited. The team got me two permits—one to enter and one to leave. I was supposed to come for a few days. We played; we won. And then when we tried to leave, I was the only one stopped. They told me, 'Go back to Gaza.'"
Israeli movement restrictions on Palestinian players have long been a controversial issue. On several occasions, the Palestinian national team could barely put together a team of 11 players for World Cup qualification matches, as players from Gaza were prevented from leaving. Others had much worse experiences.
Mahmoud Sarsak was a talented player from Gaza who was also signed by a West Bank Premier League team. But when he arrived at the Erez Crossing to make the dream move of his career, he was arrested and placed in administrative detention—effectively being held without charge. Israel claimed either he or someone in his immediate family had links to Islamic Jihad, something he denied.
For two-and-a-half years, he languished in prison before going on hunger strike. He almost died after losing half his body weight. In the end, he was released following the intervention of former FIFA President Sepp Blatter and several well-known footballers. Everyone in Gaza knows Sarsak's story and the arbitrary nature of who gets through or not.
"We went to Erez, everyone went through, and I gave the soldier my permit," Wadi said, recalling the time he and his teammates tried to leave Gaza and return to the West Bank. "They said, 'This is rejected, you have to go back'. I waited from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., 14 hours. I had to go back to Gaza."
The Palestinian Football Federation contacted FIFA to get answers, but that didn’t work. FIFA did not reply to repeated questions regarding Wadi's case. An Israeli security source, meanwhile, told Bleacher Report Wadi's permit was revoked because "his entrance to Israel and the West Bank will be exploited to promote terrorist activity." No further explanation was given.
Wadi isn't going anywhere. With no permit forthcoming, he was loaned to Ittihad Khan Younis, where he waits. And waits.
"I could get the permit at any moment, literally any morning," he said. "Until now, I am hopeless. No one knows the reason to reject it. It just depends on their mood. The Israelis will not give a reason."
Every game that passes makes it harder for Wadi to maintain hope, and the playing level required to play abroad. All he can do is train on his own and score for his temporary team. Which can be difficult when war could come any day.
"During the 2014 war, I got invited to join the Palestinian national team in Korea. They said, ‘You will travel any moment so be ready,’" he said. "I had to train. But I didn't care about the war. I could see an Israeli jet shooting and I was training. I was running on the sea wall, watching them attack buildings. I was expecting the death at any moment."
The permit never came through. "I've lost so many opportunities," he said.
The league in Gaza still plays an important role. There are few places where people can gather in large numbers and express themselves freely.
"It is a closed society," Samir Kanaan, a freelance sports journalist who also helps run the Real Madrid fan club in Gaza, said. "It is about shouting. Shouting to release the energy inside. We've had siege, wars, blood everywhere. The only thing they can do is go and shout at these matches."
Wadi's game wasn't the biggest that weekend, Kanaan explained. If I wanted to see fireworks, I should head south. In Rafah, by the Egyptian border, Shuja'iyya—a team from a Hamas-dominated suburb of Gaza City—and Khadamat Rafah were playing a game that could decide the league title. The atmosphere, Samir said, will be tense and unlike anything else that weekend.
"When the teams from the north play in Rafah, like on Friday, watch out! Clashes," he said. "If you check the news, clashes happen even between the players themselves when the match finished."
Rafah, Gaza Strip — The front gates of Rafah Municipal Stadium are surrounded by hundreds of people shouting and jostling, trying in vain to enter. Kick-off between Khadamat Rafah and Shuja'iyya might be more than an hour away, but every available space to watch the match is taken. Inside, around 5,000 people have filled the small covered stand and the terraces opposite. Hundreds more sit on walls and stand on rooftops nearby in preparation for what promises to be the game of the season so far.
One group of Khadamat Rafah fans hold flaming torches in the covered stand before lighting a line of kerosene to produce a short wall of fire in front of them. A long line of players, officials and Hamas security personnel are together on the halfway line as the call to prayer breaks out again from a minaret just outside the stadium.
Opposite them, the rest of the players are huddled around their coach receiving instruction. Khadamat Rafah are third, and they must win today to maintain a shot at winning the title. When the game starts, though, it is clear that there is a third set of fans in the stadium: those of Khadamat Rafah's main rivals Shabab Rafah, who are second. They're here to support Shuja'iyya.
Khadamat Rafah take the lead early in the second half. The standard is surprisingly good on a bumpy, yellowing pitch. But no one is happy with the referee. Khadamat Rafah's winger Mohammed Alsatry goes down injured four times in five minutes. The referee promptly sends him off for play-acting. The two sets of players and coaches on the bench scream obscenities at each other and the poor, harassed assistant referee. When he indicates six minutes of injury time with one of his numbered, wooden slats, he receives another volley of abuse from both sides.
Shuja'iyya push for an equaliser until, in the 94th minute, Alaa Atiya scores a brilliant free-kick with seconds to go, to level the match 1-1.
The full-time whistle comes, and suddenly, the pitch is full of celebration and anger. Fights break out as the referees sprint off the pitch. The Khadamat Rafah players are livid with a group of spectators in the crowd delighting in their last-minute misery. One player scales the fence and launches himself into a crowd of at least 100 people, swinging punches at anyone nearby.
It descends into a full-blown riot. Players are being frogmarched and taken away in case they inflame the situation. Two police officers climb the fence, beating the crowd with nightsticks as they drag the bloodied player back over the fence. They likely saved him from serious injury.
I raise my camera to take a picture of a Khadamat Rafah player who appears to be in the process of being arrested when my arm is grabbed. One policeman is livid and wants my camera. The strap is wrapped around my wrist. As he pulls it, screaming in Arabic for me to let go, it only tightens further, angering him more. A group of Gazan journalists try to pull us apart, but it is impossible. I managed to untangle myself seconds before another policeman is primed to crash his nightstick down on my exposed wrist. My camera is taken and we are led, hands behind our heads, to the local police headquarters.
Inside the room, the referee and his two assistants are sheltered from the chaos outside, discussing what had just happened. I'm told to sit down as the policeman with my camera is pacing back and forth.
"It is about respect!" he keeps shouting, as my translator tries to negotiate for my release. We are told to stay quiet. After half an hour, a man with a long beard and a checkered headscarf arrives. Everyone bows and greets him with respect. The head of security for the whole city has been sent down to sort out the mess.
The police office and my translator tell their sides of the story as I sit there wondering if I'll spend the night in a Rafah jail cell. Eventually, he agrees to let me go if I delete three pictures showing the policeman’s face.
"Stay out of trouble," head of security for Hamas in Rafah City said in perfect English for the first time, handing me the camera. "Or next time," he pauses, laughing a little, "I'll tell the British Council!"
Outside, the police have taken control of the stadium. Two players were briefly detained before being released. Samir was right. The pressure of life in Gaza sat just below the surface.
All that was needed was a spark, which a 94th-minute equaliser provided. Worse, Al-Sadaqah, a team connected to the son of one of Hamas' highest-ranked officials, won the title on the last day of the season a few weeks later. Khadamat Rafah finished third, one point behind.
Gaza City, Gaza Strip — The Istanbul Cafe has a magnificent view of the Mediterranean Sea. Inside, a group of men are busy fixing posters, flags and white bunting to the walls. In a few hours, the room will be filled with around 100 members of the Palestina Blanca, Real Madrid's official supporters club in Gaza City, smoking water pipes as they watch Madrid play Malaga. My journalist friend Samir is here, too, taking a break from setting out the chairs to pray in the corner.
"We will have 500 people here when we play Barcelona," Mahmoud, the manager, said. "And we have an upstairs for women and their husbands."
The scene couldn't be more different than the Liverpool vs. Manchester United match in Israel a few days before, just 65 kilometers north along the coast. But the love and affection for a far-away team that spoke to them in a powerful way is the same.
At the front, Yasser Abo Habil, the founder of the club, is delicately laying out a display of Real Madrid merchandise: a shield from their FIFA Club World Cup victory in 2014, a poster and matchday programme and the envelope that arrived from Madrid with the news they had been accepted as an official supporters club. Each is displayed with care and pride. Behind him hangs the club's flag: the Real Madrid crest on top of the Palestinian colours and an outline of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
But the pride of Abo Habil's collection is the Real Madrid jersey covered in the squad's signatures. "It was a gift from the the club," Yasser said, pointing out Cristiano Ronaldo's CR7 signature.
Ronaldo is hugely popular in the West Bank and Gaza for meeting with Ahmad Dawabsheh, the only survivor when his mother, father and young brother were burned to death. A group of Jewish settlers had allegedly firebombed their West Bank home. He suffered severe burns and was invited to Madrid with his grandfather. A man is nailing a picture of Ronaldo and Dawabsheh to the wall next to the screen.
"The Palestina Blanca has 1,200 members, but tens of thousands of fans," Abo Habil explained."The hard economic situation means they can’t afford the 30 shekel ($8.32) fee."
For Yasser, the club is about more than just expressing love for his favourite team, one he is likely to never see play in the flesh. It is about recognition in a world without it.
"We are thanking them for recognising Palestine," he said.
The match begins, and Madrid struggle in the opening stages. Curses ring out.
"Son of a whore!"
"Benzema is a donkey!"
"F--k your mother!"
"Allahu Akbar!" shouts one supporter, disbelievingly, when Ronaldo misses an open goal.
Mahmoud Wadi arrives late. He would have gotten there earlier, but he doesn't have a car and had to hitchhike to Gaza City. Tomorrow, he has a busy day. In the afternoon, he will start up front for Ittihad Khan Younis. But first, in the morning, he has an exam at Al-Aqsa University.
"I am studying journalism, how to be a radio presenter," he said. "It was a dream of mine, to be a player or a journalist. I have hope and big dreams."
Wadi watches the match intently. Like most young footballers, he dreams of playing for Real Madrid. But that dream couldn't be further away than here, exiled from the world. "For sure," he said, as Sergio Ramos takes the game by the scruff of the neck and scores twice. "I'm in love with this team."
Real win 2-1, and the Palestina Blanca are happy.
Tomorrow will also be a good day for Wadi. Like every morning, his permit doesn't arrive. But he will pass his exam in the morning and in the afternoon score both goals as Ittihad Khan Younis beat Shabab Khan Younis 2-1.
For now, though, he has more pressing issues. He leaves the Istanbul Cafe, looking for a stranger to give him a ride back home.
James Montague is a contributing feature writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JamesPiotr. Additional reporting by Mohamed A. al Zaharna in Gaza, Jeremy Last in Petah Tikva and Uri Levy in Givat Ze'ev. You can follow Givat's international football blog at @BabaGol_