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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 June 2006, 07:01 GMT 08:01 UK
Palestine team's World Cup woes
By Saeed Taji Farouky

Members of the Palestine football team
The team overcame an almost comical string of bad luck

World Cup Inshallah, a film following the difficult formation, training and World Cup qualifying attempts of the Palestinian national team, will receive its UK premiere in London on Thursday.

Of all the teams that battled it out on the pitch to qualify for this year's World Cup, the Palestinian national team had its own particular conflict to endure.

Made up of a disparate group of players from the occupied territories, Lebanon, Kuwait, Chile and the United States, it was only recognised by Fifa in 1996 and has so far failed to qualify for any major international tournaments.

"Sport is the only context in which you can officially refer to 'Palestine'," says the film's co-director Maya Sanbar, who shared the role with her business partner Jeffrey Saunders.

"In football and in the Olympics, you have the word 'Palestine', but even in the United Nations, it's referred to as the 'Palestinian Authority'."

Palestinian-Lebanese Sanbar chose to follow the squad as a way to "tell the story of the team, but also of Palestinians and the different types of Palestinians that exist out there. The idea is to break stereotypes".

Escaping politics

The concept for the film was first seen in an episode of BBC Two's Frontline Football series, which followed teams in conflict zones as they assembled their hopeful World Cup teams.

Sanbar approached the BBC with the idea of following the Palestinian team, and later co-produced the episode.

Maya Sanbar
Maya Sanbar wanted to show the team's difficult day-to-day lives

But when filming was over, she was left wanting to know more.

"I decided I wanted to do something that was more in depth and get to know the characters a little bit more," she says.

"I decided to spend more time with the players and get to understand better their lives, and through their lives tell the story of the team."

Originally hoping the film would be "non-political", it soon became clear to her that politics is never far from the surface for Palestinians.

"When you do something about Palestine, you can't get away from politics. It's always political one way or the other," she says.

Palestinian-American player Morad Fareed echoes that thought: "It's hard to just focus on the football. You try but it's hard because there's so much going on around you, always."

For players like Fareed, joining the Palestinian national team is a chance to experience the culture he only ever heard his parents talk about.

For others, like the players from the occupied territories and Lebanese refugee camps, it is a new arena in which to play out the struggles they face every day.

Team spirit

Looking unsentimentally at the team's training season, the film reveals an almost comically absurd string of bad luck and mounting obstacles.

Players from Gaza must wait weeks for the Rafah border - then controlled by Israel - to open to join their team-mates in Egypt, and the team is forced to cancel a training camp in Hungary.

With no dedicated pitch, the squad must play their crucial "home" match in a virtually empty stadium in Qatar.

At one point, the tragedies of the conflict spill on to the pitch as the Gaza players reveal that five of their friends were killed that morning in an Israeli air strike.

For some, the strain is too much.

Fares Abu-Shawish, the team's logistics manager, suffers a heart attack mid-way through the film and sits out the rest of the season in hospital.

Fifa deputy general secretary Jerome Champagne sums up the team's difficulties when he rejects their request to reschedule their crucial qualifying match, declaring simply "football cannot go faster than politics".

But despite their setbacks, the immense challenges facing the team also help to unite them.

As World Cup Inshallah is screened in London, a feature-length version of the film, entitled Goal Dreams, will be simultaneously screened in New Orleans and projected on the wall Israel has built around east Jerusalem separating it from the West Bank.

And with broadcasts already secured on major French, German and US TV stations, Sanbar is currently negotiating a high-profile UK broadcast.

"For me on a personal level I learned a lot about how people live and it was a real journey of discovery," she says.

Palestine's football pride
01 Jul 04 |  Middle East

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