Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Football with the Terrorists

Posted by Andy Hockley on 8 April, 2003

The casual news watcher living in the west might imagine that playing football with 13 young men from a country reputed to be full of terrorists and assassins, would be a little troubling. Particularly when that country is in uproar about the US and UK war on Iraq. As ever though, nothing in Palestine is as it presented from the outside.

The Arab American University of Jenin’s team was involved in one of their thrice-weekly practices, and somehow I had managed to wangle myself an invitation to join them. Like all forms of training and education in Palestine it is difficult to see the value in achievement. Just as our students continue to make the arduous trek through checkpoints and backroads every day to get to University, to study for degrees in Accountancy – in a country which has virtually reverted to a subsistence economy – and Law – in a country with no police force – so the AAUJ football team train regularly, even though internal travel is at such a standstill that they cannot actually play against any other of Palestine’s universities. Occasionally, the local community manages to come up with mini, highly localized, tournaments, but even these are at the mercy of closures and curfews arbitrarily imposed by the Israeli army. In the most recent of these tournaments, an eight-team knockout of local villages, AAUJ’s team were beaten in the final by a team representing the Jenin refugee camp, the scene of last April’s massacre by Israeli troops.

Palestinian hospitality is astonishingly intense. Despite not being here for long I have already lost count of the number of times I have been overfed and practically been offered the shirts off the backs of people who can barely afford to feed themselves. Not for nothing did the parable of the killing the fatted calf to feed the prodigal son, originate in this region. As I discovered yesterday, it also extends to the football pitch. Despite the incontrovertible evidence that I am a slightly overweight, very unfit, not especially talented, 37 year old, I was allowed to join in. At one point, I was even gifted a goal by one of my teammates who had run the length of the field beating practically every member of the opposition, including the goalkeeper, before passing to me. I contrived to miss. Not a single complaint was audible. Not understanding the system especially well (we were 14 people playing 5-a-side), I offered to start the match on the bench. “No, you are our guest. Welcome.”, I was told, forcefully. As it turned out there was a rotation system which enabled everyone to play equal time, so I needn’t have worried.

As my aching muscles and bruised ankles will attest, the hospitality didn’t necessarily extend to easing up on me on the field, unless of course they managed to do it so skillfully that I felt able to hold my own and yet not feel patronized. I wouldn’t put it past them. Aside from both goalkeepers, both of whom were incredibly brave and extremely talented, the level of play was not especially great – even, in case you were wondering, when I wasn’t on the pitch. I have yet to spot a full-sized pitch anywhere in Palestine, which, for those of twice than age of the rest of the players, not blessed with any pace, and with desperately low levels of fitness, is quite a relief. I know that were they to invite me to play on a real pitch that I would be run ragged within the first five minutes. There must be a pitch somewhere, but, sadly, I fear any large flat area of ground with the requisite soil quality and irrigation to support turf would quickly be occupied and “liberated” by Israeli settlers, supported by a phalanx of troops.

Oh, and one other thing: Nobody tried to kill me. Not even when I missed my second open goal of the night.

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