Heavy on rain, light on goals, Saudi soccer 1st draws Palestinian crowds, pride
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Reporter's notebook'Visiting the jailed is not normalizing with the jailer'

Heavy on rain, light on goals, Saudi soccer 1st draws Palestinian crowds, pride

Estimated 12,000-13,000 fans cram into West Bank stadium, deride notion that Saudi kingdom’s participation in match constitutes normalization with Israel

Adam Rasgon

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Football fans stand beneath a giant banner depicting the Saudi national flag as they attend the World Cup 2022 Asian qualifying match between Palestine and Saudi Arabia in the town of al-Ram in the West Bank on October 15, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)
Football fans stand beneath a giant banner depicting the Saudi national flag as they attend the World Cup 2022 Asian qualifying match between Palestine and Saudi Arabia in the town of al-Ram in the West Bank on October 15, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)

Al-RAM, West Bank — A bit of rain didn’t stop thousands of Palestinians from flocking to the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium in al-Ram on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Tuesday to watch the first-ever match between the Saudi and Palestinian national soccer teams in the West Bank.

And a somewhat underwhelming scoreline didn’t stop the fans who managed to get into the arena from swelling with pride in their national team over the “historic” event.

Despite downpours that lashed the green pitch and much of the West Bank minutes before the start of the 2022 World Cup qualifier, the Palestinian fans packed the stadium’s seating sections, aisles and walkways, while dozens of others stood on the rooftops of nearby buildings.

Many of the fans waved Palestinian flags throughout the game and yelled out nationalistic chants, while formally dressed Palestinian Authority and Saudi officials looked on from a VIP section, and a large group of mainly Arabic-speaking journalists watched from a media box.

Mohammed, a 29-year-old avid soccer fan from Ramallah, said he was elated that the Saudi team agreed to play against its Palestinian counterpart in the West Bank.

Saudi defender Ziyad Al-Sahafi vies for the ball with Palestine’s defender Abdelatif Bahdari during the World Cup 2022 Asian qualifying match between Palestine and Saudi Arabia in the town of al-Ram in the West Bank on October 15, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

“This event is important and historic,” he said. “Saudi Arabia is recognizing our right to play on our home pitch and affirming our right to our land and identity.”

The Saudi team has previously refused to travel to the West Bank, only agreeing to compete against the Palestinians away from their home turf.

Abdullah Fara, the director of the Palestinian national team between 2008 and 2014, said the Saudi team had hitherto opposed traveling to the West Bank to avoid perceptions of normalization with Israel.

“Saudi Arabia did not want to pass through an Israeli-controlled border crossing to enter Palestine because it feared it would be seen as normalizing with Israel,” he told The Times of Israel in a phone call.

Saudi Arabia and Israel, which both view Iran as a top regional foe, are widely assumed to maintain clandestine security ties.

Fara said he believes the recent arrival of other Arab national teams at the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium helped Saudi Arabia reverse its refusal to compete against the Palestinians here.

“The kingdom saw its Arab brothers coming here,” he said. “It realized that it can do the same.”

In recent years, the national teams of Iraq, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have competed against the Palestinians in the West Bank.

The Palestinian national football team stand for its national anthem during a World Cup 2022 Asian qualifying match between Palestine and Saudi Arabia in the West Bank town of al-Ram on October 15, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

In early October, Abdel Aziz bin Turki al-Faisal, the head of Saudi General Sports Authority’s board of directors, said the Saudi Football Federation agreed to play in al-Ram in order not to “deprive the Palestinian national team from playing a match on its land with its home audience.”

Ammar, a 34-year-old resident of Jenin, said he did not view the Saudi team’s arrival in the West Bank as normalization with Israel.

“I am not sure why some people argue that Saudi Arabia coming to play against the Palestinian team in Palestine is normalization,” he said. “It’s not going to meet with Israelis. It’s coming here to visit and strengthen us, and it’s about time. As our politicians say, visiting the jailed is not normalizing with the jailer.”

Some Palestinian social media users and several Palestinian political factions have criticized the Saudi team’s decision to travel to al-Ram.

The Hamas terror group tweeted last week that it considers the Saudi team traveling to the West Bank through “the door of the occupation” to be “a condemned normalization measure.”

Fara also argued that the recent success of the Palestinian team influenced the Saudi decision to play in al-Ram.

“The Palestinian team has improved tremendously over the past ten years and gained a great amount of respect from fellow Arab countries,” he said. “The Saudis traveling here is also a recognition of this fact.”

Since the late 2000s, the Palestinians have stepped up their investment in their national team, which is made up of players from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Israel and the Palestinian diaspora.

Palestinian fans attempting to gain entry to match between Saudi and Palestinian national soccer teams at the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium in al-Ram on October 15, 2019. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

In 2018, they achieved their highest FIFA ranking ever, 73.

Cheered on by the packed and vociferous home stadium, the Palestinian team on Tuesday frustrated their more prestigious Saudi guests and came close to scoring multiple times, but neither side was ultimately able to make the breakthrough, resulting in a zero-zero draw.

Even though the stadium only holds 8,000 seats, an estimated 12,000-13,000 attended the match, Ghassan Jaradat, a Palestinian Football Association media official, said in a phone call.

Hundreds of other fans did not succeed to enter the stadium.

“After waiting for hours, I pleaded with police officers to let me into the game, but they refused,” Ziad Jabarin, a 39-year-old resident of Hebron, said. “I honestly believe there should have been more organization about how and who was permitted to go to the game.”

Entry into the match was free and largely permitted on a first come, first served basis.

After the stadium had appeared to be almost entirely full, PA security forces temporarily closed a number of the entrances, leaving people pushing up against each other outside.

Hundreds of PA security forces including armed officers secured the entrances to the stadium and patrolled major streets in al-Ram.

Israel usually only allows a small number of PA security forces to operate in al-Ram, which abuts the West Bank security barrier.

Palestine’s midfielder Nazmi Albadawi (C) vies for the ball with Saudi’s Mohammed Al-Breik during the World Cup 2022 Asian qualifying match between Palestine and Saudi Arabia in the town of al-Ram in the West Bank on October 15, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

After the game, Tareq, a 44-year-old resident of Bethlehem, said he hoped all Arab teams would come to the West Bank to compete.

“I don’t think any Arab country can make an excuse now that Saudi Arabia, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, has come here,” he said proudly.

AFP contributed to this article.

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