Israelis, Palestinians joined by World Cup fever

World Cup fever has created some interesting alliances in an area filled with conflict.

2010 world cup 311 (photo credit: AP)
2010 world cup 311
(photo credit: AP)
GAZA CITY (AP) – In a part of the world where people often have little in common, World Cup fever has created some interesting alliances.
Without their own players in South Africa, Israelis and Palestinians are embracing international squads with the sort of unspent passion usually reserved for the home team.
Some are making their choices based on diplomatic considerations, and some for the love of a good game, but in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, fans have two clear favorites: Argentina and Brazil.
“The first football game I watched, Argentina lost that game. I felt sympathy, so I always support the loser,” said 19-year-old Hatem Mourad, a Palestinian student in Gaza City, where power outages regularly black out World Cup coverage for minutes at a time, sometimes at crucial junctures.
“Argentina is an honest team ... and now they win.” Gal Mizrahi, a 19-year-old Israeli from the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon, favors Argentina’s main rival.
“I have always supported Brazil since I was a little boy, especially because Israel has never made it to the World Cup in my lifetime,” Mizrahi said.
Israelis and Palestinians are dedicated soccer fans even between World Cups: Israelis flood the stadiums and proudly wear the colors of the 16 teams in the national league, while Palestinians root for their budding local league and pledge allegiance to one of two Spanish teams: Barcelona or Real Madrid. In Gaza, fights have broken out in the streets over the rivalry between Egyptian teams Ahly and Zamalek.
“As Muslims, we don’t drink, we don’t have sex, so sports is everything for us, girls and boys,” said 33-year-old Reham Om Ahmed, a Palestinian resident of Gaza City.
During the World Cup, Jerusalem bars with projection screens pull overcapacity crowds of tourists, locals, and even staff clad in team jerseys every night.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, the flags of Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany – and until recently, Algeria – are the ones most often on display.
“At Brazil, Spain and Algeria games, there is no place to sit,” said Peter Nasser, who owns a coffee shop in Ramallah.
Algeria’s brief first-round brush with World Cup glory was the closest thing to organic national pride here, as Palestinians banded together to support – and ultimately mourn the demise of – the one Arab team in the tournament.
“It isn’t anyone’s first team. But they are Arabs,” said 21-year-old Ramallah resident Samer Tamimi, dressed in a suit, who regularly supports Germany but left work early to catch Algeria’s final game against the United States.
Sometimes politically charged fandom is as much about who to cheer against as who to support. Many Israeli football fans said they couldn’t help but cheer against Algeria, even as underdogs.
“I don’t really mind who does well, but I really hope Algeria doesn’t as they are anti-Israel,” 21- year-old Yisrael Tabouri said.
Among Palestinians, the United States and England – both of which have moved on to the round of 16 – have inspired the most haters.
“The British gave the Jews permission to come here in 1948,” said 19-year-old Hammad Yishawi, a resident of Gaza City.
“The US? They support the Jews.”
But in a climate where it’s impossible to dissociate almost anything from politics, many said what’s most important was having a good sense of humor – and remembering that it’s only a game.
“I cheer any country, regardless of politics,” 30-year-old Palestinian lawyer Mohamad Salam said.
“Extremism in football is totally different than political extremism, or anything else.”
Dalia Nammari in Ramallah and Jeremy Last in Jerusalem contributed to this report.