Palestinian visitors melt Irish hearts as football finally takes centre-stage

18 children from Al-Helal football academy in Gaza are currently on a tour of Ireland

The term political football has been around in one form or another for a few hundred years but it can hardly have been much more aptly applied than to the issue of actual football in Palestine.

For the next week or so a group of 18 kids from Gaza will be travelling around Ireland playing games and hopefully enjoying themselves but according to one of the organisers there were meant to be 20; the other two were, it seems, prevented from travelling, along both of the team’s coaches.

Nobody, it seems, is surprised. Stories of how Israel makes life difficult for the Palestine’s senior national team have become fairly routine down the years but the sad reality is that sport is disrupted at just about every level in one way or another in the occupied territories. The kids who arrived here last Saturday know it better than most. Their club back at home is reported to have been bombed twice in the last five years.

For the national team, formally recognised by Fifa back in 1998 along with the football association, it took a decade before an official game could be played in Palestine and another three years before a World Cup qualifier was hosted on home soil.


For much of the time since, the game’s international body has sought to support the development of the game there with funds and equipment while at the same time wrestling with the issue of Israeli clubs established near settlements considered illegal under international law. In clear contravention of Fifa’s regulations, they play in the territory of another national association without that organisation’s permission and the Palestinians have been demanding that something be done about it.

The long-time ANC activist Tokyo Sexwale was handed the task of finding a solution but has, predictably, struggled to come up with a credible one outside of Fifa simply enforcing its rules, something that would threaten the ability of the Israeli team or the country’s clubs to compete internationally. That, though, is politically unappealing, it seems.

Due to have been to be dealt with at the organisation’s Congress in May, the issue was instead kicked back to next March of next year when, it seems reasonable to assume, it will be kicked back again.

In the meantime, the breaches come to be regarded as the norm and addressing them by restoring the previous status quo, it will doubtless be argued, an injustice in itself. It all has a depressingly familiar ring to it.

In the meantime, the kids of the Al-Helal academy who have come here for a holiday organised by Gaza Action Ireland get a brief opportunity to leave behind some of the hardships associated with daily life in a tiny piece of land populated by some two million people.

Brian Kerr was amongst those to welcome them on Saturday and the former Ireland boss joined them for a knockabout in Sandymount. Sport Against Racism in Ireland (SARI), with which he has a longstanding involvement, have provided a couple of coaches to help out although one of the travelling club officials has to try to help out on the communications front.

Melt hearts

As you would expect, the kids melt hearts wherever they go, it seems, with those who encounter them left deeply touched. They are walking evidence of the challenges their country faces, though, with those present expressing shock at the general disparity in physiques when they mingled with kids of a similar age at a club in Ballybrack, South County Dublin on Sunday afternoon.

The itinerary, expanded from last year when a team first visited, for the rest of the trip includes visits to Kinvara, Manorhamilton, Limerick and Cork and the youngsters, mostly aged between 12 and 14, are due to take in the game between Shamrock Rovers and Derry City on Friday evening.

By the middle of next week, they will be back home again, and trying to play their football again in what has often been described, even by then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, as open air prison.

In 10 years time, if they get the chance to develop their talent, they might be representing it and the rest of what they regard as their country in international competition. As things stand, though, there is absolutely no basis to believe that the challenges they face will be any different to now.

Fifa will still be kicking to touch with perhaps the most likely thing to have the changed, the number of clubs defying the rules and making life a little awkward for handsomely rewarded officials who just want to be liked by all the members of the great, dysfunctional fiction that is the football family.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times