Monday, early evening in Al-Ram, a small city between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
Fans from Jerusalem and Tulkarem gathered in the historical Faisal Husseini Stadium, for the West Bank Super Cup match - the first competitive clash of 2018/19 season in Palestinian football.
The stadium was recently renovated. A 12.5 thousands seater, with red & white chairs, impressively creating the word ‘Palestine’ in Arabic on the eastern stand. Faisal, as the locals call it, has seen Palestine’s best football moments throughout the years. A World Cup qualifier in 2013 against Afghanistan, another one against the United Arab Emirates & Amoory Abdulrahman in 2015, West Bank cup finals and survival battles of the Jerusalemite clubs are just part of the history this place has witnessed.
But this Monday, Faisal was nearly empty. Only 200 fans made it to the match, that stood in the shadow of recent Palestinian football & politics scandal: The ban that FIFA imposed on Palestinian FA President, Jibril Rajoub.
Last week, the disciplinary committee of FIFA has decided that regarding his ‘inciting comments’ towards FC Barcelona footballer Lionel Messi & the Argentinean national team. With his comments, Rajoub has erupted a global protest against a friendly game between that was planned to take place in Jerusalem between Israel and Argentina. After the match was cancelled and the saga seemed to be solved with dramatic damage to Israel, as Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev was widely condemned for the debacle in which the game was moved from Haifa to Jerusalem, FIFA has decided that Rajoub will get a 12-month ban from official football matches and a 50,000 CHF fine. Though, he will still be allowed to continue running the association.
The Palestinian FA declared that the hard decision needs to be re-checked and that Rajoub hasn’t said the proclaimed inciting comments. Rajoub himself is yet to organise a press conference in the matter, but it is likely he will try to appeal against the decision.
Since Rajoub took over Palestinian football in the past decade, the game has developed and grew extensively in Palestine. From an amateur scenario on sand pitches it turned in to a professional/semi-professional league played on turf, with sponsors, big crowds and a talented national team. The peak arrived in 2015 with al-Fida’i historical participation in the Asian Cup. This January, Palestine will play in Group B with Syria, Jordan and Australia in the 2019 Asian Cup at the UAE. If the situation remain as is, Rajoub, wouldn’t be able to attend the games.
The up & coming season in Palestine kicked off with a thriller between the past season’s champions Hilal Al-Quds and cup winners Thagafi Tulkarem.
The new turf Faisal was shining as both teams battled mainly in the centre of the field, but near the end of the second half things opened up. On the 49th minute Dad Ghazali scored for Hilal, and it seemed that the team that has won 5 titles in the past two seasons will go for an easy one again. But Thagafi had other aspirations.
The Anabi (The Grapes) pressured Hilal and got their equalizer. Usama Sabah has struck a free kick that hitter the hand of one of the defenders, and Thagafi won a penalty. Sabah converted, and with 10 minutes to go, the result was 1-1.
Three minutes after Hilal went on the counter strike, and with an astonishing passing play of 12 passes, Ali Naameh has found the back of the net off the post and the few Hilal fans in the stands went crazy. The Super Cup was theirs.
Since 2010/11, Jibril Rajoub was giving away every trophy that has been won in Palestine. Championships, cups, super cups, league cups. All. This Monday, it was the first trophy that was handed to the players of the winning team out of his adiministrators at the association.
How his absence will affect Palestinian football is yet to be determined, but one thing is sure - dauri al-mukhatriphin is up for another fascinating season, on & off the pitch.