Passionate about football but cut off from the world, the Gaza Strip has its own World Cup, a popular initiative aimed at forcing a lifting of the Israeli blockade on the tiny Palestinian enclave.
- Palestinian Rafah youth club players representing "France" hold up the trophy of a mock World Cup match they won
- Palestinian supporters of Rafah youth club playing as "France"
- Palestinian Rafah youth club players representing "France"
The mock World Cup, in which 16 local teams posed as the national squads of countries like France, Serbia and the United States, came to a climax Saturday with "France" routing "Jordan" to take take the championship.
AdvertisementA crowd of 20,000 cheered as Ismail Haniya, the head of the Islamist Hamas movement's government that controls Gaza, handed the trophy to the winning team.
The ceremony coincided with commemorations for Naqba, or the "catastrophe" of Israel's 1948 creation that resulted in the loss of a Palestinian homeland.
"You want to go to South Africa but the borders are closed? From now on the World Cup will be held in Gaza," announce billboards that have been up around Gaza since before the tournament.
With a dose of humour, similar billboards invited football fans to the games in Gaza, controlled by Hamas and blockaded by Israel since the Islamists seized power in the narrow coastal enclave in 2007.
"It is necessary that the world pay attention to Gaza," said Ayman Mohieddine, an American of Egyptian origin.
"The blockade, that is enough. They like football, they deserve to be supported and helped to be able to live in dignity," added Mohieddine, a television journalist with Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, who together with many representatives of NGOs supported the initiative.
This week, hundreds of Palestinians attended the match between the "United States" and "Serbia."
"USA! USA!," fans chanted, some waving the star-spangled banner -- an odd sight in Gaza, where pro-American sentiments are not often witnessed.
"I felt like I was at a real match between the United States and Serbia," said 26-year-old Hisham Reda, an American flag in his hand.
"I do not have any problem with this flag," he said. "Yes, I took part in demonstrations during which American and Israeli flags were burned but this is different, because football is played between the people not between governments." he added.
Modelled on the real World Cup trophy, the Gaza cup was made from the metal debris of buildings destroyed by the Israeli army during an onslaught in the winter of 2008-2009.
The games were the brainchild of Patrick McGrann, an American working in Gaza, and organised by the Palestinian football federation and the United Nations Development Programme.