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'Palestine' take to field of dreams

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Ramallah

Crowd gathers for Palestinian national team match
The concrete stands were packed with excited fans

For so many of the Palestinian fans that packed their brand new stadium hours before kick-off, or those that found vantage points on the roads and buildings outside the ground, this was the most important match that had ever been played.

"I'm a big sports fan," said Rashad Bishtawi, from Jerusalem.

"For Palestinian people, football is the most important sport. My son loves it, but up to now he's had to watch European sides on TV, like Barcelona and Real Madrid. Now we have the chance to see our own team. It's incredible."

The ground is basic by international standards; two concrete stands, seating just under 7,000 people.

But it is much more than the Palestinian territories have had until now.

It was almost exclusively men and boys that filed through the gates, where they were checked by Palestinian security forces.

On the opposite side of the ground, behind one of the stands, children were excitedly clambering over boundary walls, not seeing the need to queue.

Fayaz Kattoush leads singing at Palestinian national football match
Fayaz Kattoush predicted his team would win 2-1
Most had never seen the team they were coming to support, one which languishes close to the bottom of the world ranking tables drawn up by football's governing body, Fifa.

That did not seem to matter.

Ten years ago, Fifa allowed the Palestinian team to play under the name Palestine even though the state has yet to be created.

But since then, because of conflict and poor sporting infrastructure, "home" internationals have had to take place elsewhere in the Middle East.

Fans were determined to use this first match on home soil as an opportunity to display some "national" pride.

Huge roar

Huge Palestinian flags were draped over the sides of buildings, and well before the game started, nationalistic songs were being sung from every corner of the ground.

Leading the singing in one section of the crowd was Fayaz Kattoush, who had come dressed in a Palestine football shirt and a Palestinian flag wrapped around his waist.

"For so long, we have been thirsty for this kind of football in our lovely land. I have been to see the team before, but that's always had to be abroad. It makes me feel so proud."

In the traditions of football supporting all over the world, he added "I think we'll win... 2-1."

Seeing that goal is a feeling you can't really describe, it's a sense of pride for all Palestinians - it really is an amazing feeling
Hussein, Ramallah

There was a huge roar when the home team took to the field for their pre-match warm-up exercises, and the public address announcer took his time in announcing the name of each player, ensuring that they all had a taste of whole-hearted applause from a home crowd.

Fifa President Sepp Blatter was warmly received by the fans too. He said this match was about "realising a dream."

But this event could not mask the problems of living under occupation.

A concrete wall, part of the barrier Israel has built, runs alongside the stadium.

Some of the players who live outside the Palestinian territories were not given Israeli permission to come to the West Bank.

And fans in the Gaza Strip had to be content watching the match on television, since getting Israeli clearance to leave Gaza has become almost impossible for most Palestinians.

But having missed many internationals in the past, the Gazan members of the Palestine football team were permitted to travel. They lined up alongside their team-mates in the al-Ram stadium for a passionately sung Palestinian national anthem.

'Very happy'

Noise levels in the stadium reached new heights just a few minutes later.

Ahmed Kashkash from Gaza, wearing the white and green strip of the Palestine team, rounded the Jordanian goalkeeper and slotted the ball just inside the near post.

Family watch Palestinian football match from nearby building
Many fans found vantage points from outside the ground

The first Palestine goal on Palestinian soil.

Even the tea-sellers outside the ground put down their cups and embraced, just as thousands were doing inside the stadium.

Hussein, from Ramallah, sitting in front us, was ecstatic. "Seeing that goal is a feeling you can't really describe," he said. "It's a sense of pride for all Palestinians. It really is an amazing feeling."

Jordan may have equalised early in the second half, but the celebrations did not stop, even after the final whistle.

We tried to get hold of the Palestine goal-keeper, Muhammed Shbair, on his mobile phone soon after the game.

"I can't hear you, we're having a party, we're so so proud," he shouted, with singing and cheering going on in the background.

Of course, this match changes little in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but over and over again those who managed to come and see it, told us they were convinced it could lead to bigger steps.

"It's given us some sense of freedom," said Nidal Zigari, from Ramallah, excitedly "I am just very happy right now."


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