As England prepare to play Sweden in a crunch World Cup quarter-final Saturday, the Scandinavians will find strong support in a perhaps unlikely location: the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.
In busy cafes where young men pack in to watch games while smoking shisha, the support for Sweden may be almost as strong as their dislike for England after a century of historical hurt.
Ruled by the Hamas terror group and closed off by an Israeli and Egyptian blockade for the past decade, politics seeps into nearly every conversation in the strip, even when it comes to soccer. (The blockade is maintained to prevent Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, from importing weaponry.) And in this game, for many Palestinians, there is a clear good and bad guy.
“Of course I will support Sweden,” said 37-year-old Hisham Ahmed.
“I can’t imagine a Palestinian supporting England, which created the Balfour Declaration, or not supporting the country that stood before the world and recognized our state.”
In 1917, the British government declared its support for the creation of a Jewish state in historic Palestine in a document called the Balfour Declaration.
The declaration is seen by Israelis as a key moment in the eventual creation of their country in 1948 in their historical Jewish homeland.
Palestinians see it as leading to what they call the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands fled or were expelled during the war launched by Arab armies against nascent Israel at the end of the British mandate in the region.
Sweden has long been a vocal supporter of the Palestinians and was the first European Union country to recognize Palestine as a state.
“Football is not removed from politics,” said Ahmed, an accountant.
“These teams represent their countries and governments and will raise their flags in the stands. How can I support the country that allowed the Jewish state on our land?”
His friend Abdullah al-Shanti agreed.
“Anyone supporting England is supporting Israel itself,” he said.
“Britain is the one who created Israel and one of its largest supporters. (Sweden’s) victory will make Palestinians happy as much as England’s defeat.”
The World Cup tournament in Russia has been a welcome relief for Palestinians seeking a break from their difficult lives in Gaza.
The densely populated and impoverished strip run by Hamas suffers from crippling shortages of energy, clean water and other basics.
The United Nations has said the blockaded territory could be uninhabitable by 2020.
Israel and Egypt maintain the blockade to try and ensure Hamas can’t import weapons and materials used for building fortifications and attack tunnels into Gaza. Palestinian terror groups in Gaza have fought three wars with Israel since 2008.
The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has also imposed sanctions on Gaza in a bid to force Hamas to give up control of Gaza. Hamas seized power from the PA in a bloody coup in 2007.
At a recent game, the TVs went dark during the match as the power cut, until the familiar sound of a generator kicked in.
“I am a new follower to football. All the people in Gaza are watching the matches to vent their frustration (at life) under the blockade,” said Shorouq Emad, 23, who was watching a match in a restaurant with her friends in Gaza City.
“I hope Sweden win the trophy.”
The Times of Israel staff contributed to this report