Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Monday, 3 May 2010 11:01 UK

Gaza football 'World Cup' opens

Teams line up at start of Gaza 'World Cup'
The raising of a US flag is an unusual sight in Gaza

By Jon Donnison
BBC News, Gaza

The banging Arab dance music, the blaring Italian National anthem, the reciting of the Koran and the over-excited Bedouin commentator led to quite an atmosphere for the opening of the Gazan Football "World Cup".

And that's before the first game even started.

"We want to show that Gazans enjoy life like every other people," says Tamir Qamoud from the United Nations Development Programme, which is helping organise the event.

Around 5,000 fans of all ages turned out on a beautiful sunny day for the opening match, Palestine versus Italy.

Flags from both teams fluttered around the stadium as the game kicked off.

Italy eventually won 1-0 after scoring through a penalty.

Bedouin commentator at Gaza 'World Cup'
A very excited Bedouin commentator kept the crowd entertained

Sixteen teams are taking part in the two week tournament: Palestine, England, Turkey, USA, Italy, Russia, South Africa, Ireland, Egypt, Algeria, Spain, Serbia, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Jordan.

They are mostly made up from players from the amateur Gaza Football League, alongside foreign workers in Gaza from the respective countries.

"We want to show the spirit of international cooperation in Gaza," says Balma Yahia, a UN worker playing in the South African team.

During the opening ceremony he points out the America team parading around the stadium holding the US flag aloft.

"Look, how often can you see that in Gaza?", Mr Yahia asks. "We want to show that ordinary people here can just get along."

'Loyal fans'

"Football is strong in Gaza," says Basil Nasser, a midfielder in the Palestinian team.

Samar Saleh
It's difficult, but I am supporting Italy - I like the way Italy play and I like to support the winners.

Samer Saleh
Palestinian football fan

 "There are around 20 good clubs in Gaza with loyal fans but it's difficult for our players to travel and get experience because of the conflict with Israel."

Israel and Egypt effectively sealed their borders with Gaza to most Palestinians in 2007 after the Islamist movement Hamas forced its rival Fatah from the territory a year after winning elections.

Hamas have fired thousands of rockets into Israel over the past decade.

The health minister in the Hamas-run administration, Basem Naim, was among the dignitaries in the grandstand.

The movement's Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is a former football player.

For the opening ceremony all the teams were in full national strip.

"I think you could compare me to the player Roberto Baggio", said Gian Luca, a midfielder in the Italian team, in reference to the former Italian great, as he tied the laces on his brand new red leather football boots.

Italy v Palestine, first match in Gaza 'World Cup'
'Italy' won the opening match 1-0 over the 'Palestine' team

Some of the foreign players looked as if their best playing days were perhaps behind them.

The rather portly Italian left back, apparently no stranger to the tiramisu trolley, was substituted after only 15 minutes, looking a touch flushed.

But this did not put some Palestinians off supporting the opposition.

"It's difficult, but I am going for Italy," said Samar Saleh, a football fan in her twenties.

"I like the way Italy play. They are so attractive and I like to support the winners."

International hopes

A Palestinian team has never managed to qualify for the real World Cup, though in 2006 reached a not unrespectable 115th in the Fifa world rankings.

The political situation meant they only really started trying for the World Cup in 2002, but for the past three tournaments have never made it out of the qualifying stages.

Under the blockade, it can be very difficult for Palestinian players to leave Gaza to play abroad - and for West Bank and Gaza players to train together.

Both territories have been occupied by Israel since 1967, although Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and now maintains control of the border, airspace and coast.

So do Gazans believe they will ever see a Palestinian team in the real World Cup?

"I want to be optimistic and say yes," says Samar Saleh, "but it's really hard to see it happening."

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