In Historic Soccer Match, Gaza Team's Loss Doesn't Tell the Story

For first time in 15 years, Israel allowed a Gaza team to play in the West Bank.

ByMOLLY HUNTER
August 17, 2015, 5:46 PM

GAZA CITY, Gaza — -- When Gaza's leading soccer team took the field for the Palestine Cup finals in the West Bank, they were welcomed like national heroes. The crowd roared as the younger, less experienced Ittihad Shuja'iiya sprinted into Hebron's stadium Friday night to face off against the hometown team, Al Ahly.

Drums banging, horns blowing, the "Shuja'iiya" cheers drowned out the chants for the home team.

The second game in the two-part championship series marked the first time in 15 years that Israel had granted a Gaza-based team permission to play in the West Bank. The first leg was played in Gaza last week, also marking the first time a West Bank team had crossed into the Gaza Strip in a decade and a half. The Palestine Cup has traditionally pitted the best team from Gaza against the best team from the West Bank, but the two sides have not met on the same field since Israel tightened restrictions following the first intifada in 2001.

The winner of the Palestine Cup will represent Palestine in the next Asian Football Confederation Cup.

But making it into the championships was already a big win for Gaza, says Shuja'iiya team member Ibrahim Muajib Wadi.

"This game is a big victory for Shuja'iiya and a break of the seige."

"All of Gaza is Shuja'iiya," he said last week, clutching the club's green flag, surrounded by heaps of twisted metal and crumbled cement in the Shuja'iiya neighborhood where he's spent all 27 years of his life.

"We are all coming from underneath the rubble. Every player knows someone who was killed or injured, every player has had their house destroyed."

Young football fans in the stands at the Palestine Cup final match.
Young football fans in the stands at the Palestine Cup final match.
Molly Hunter / ABC News

The UN estimates 18,000 housing structures were destroyed in last summer's war, leaving 108,000 Palestinians homeless in Gaza. Most of the eastern neighborhood of Shuja'iiya was flattened in last year's war; one year later, little has changed.

Wadi's family was lucky. Just a block from the worst devastation, the house's foundation still stands and the family is slowly piecing it back together.

But last week, three of the Wadi brothers were staying in a hotel with the rest of Ittihad Shuja'iiya before the team's biggest match since any of them first donned the club's jersey. Ibrahim Wadi is also on the roster, though he has not been on the field in nearly two years due to injury.

A disappointed home crowd watched the first game at Gaza's Al Yarmouk stadium end in a draw, 0-0, meaning Shuja’iiya would have to win on the road, in the West Bank, to take the cup.

PHOTO: The Shuja'iiya Football Club before the match started. They would lose 1-2 to Hebron's Al-Ahly team.
The Shuja'iiya Football Club before the match started. They would lose 1-2 to Hebron's Al-Ahly team.
Molly Hunter / ABC News

Earlier this year, Israel agreed to allow freer movement of Palestinian athletes after Palestine tried in May to have Israel barred from soccer's world governing body, FIFA. Despite the agreement, the team’s 39-mile trip was far from smooth.

Game two was postponed because seven members of the Shuja'iiya team were denied entry to Israel, according to the club. Four days later, Israeli security officials allowed 38 members of the team through the Erez Crossing, which links the Gaza Strip to Israel, after questioning four of the players for three hours.

After Erez, the team drove to Jerusalem where they prayed at the city's Al Aqsa Mosque, before continuing across an Israeli checkpoint into the West Bank.

But the club says Ibrahim Wadi's name was never approved and he was left behind. Wadi, who remains injured and cannot play, said he got no explanation for why he was not allowed to travel with the team.

The Israeli Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) didn't comment when asked specifically about Wadi's case, only telling ABC News that 38 team members had received permission to cross.

PHOTO: Die hard soccer fans packed into Hebron's main stadium for the Palestine Cup final match.
Die hard soccer fans packed into Hebron's main stadium for the Palestine Cup final match.
Molly Hunter / ABC News

When the game finally took place Friday, the delay had only served to intensify the sense of unity in the stands.

"No matter who wins, this is our night. This is Gaza's night. This is Palestine's night," Hebron native Muhammad, 19, yelled, his face pressed against a metal fence in the front row of the stands.

PHOTO: One of the youngest fans at the Palestine Cup final match looks on nervously as the clock ticks down.
One of the youngest fans at the Palestine Cup final match looks on nervously as the clock ticks down.
Molly Hunter / ABC News

Despite the crowd's support, though, Hebron's more experienced team beat Shuja'iiya 2-1 to take home the Palestine Cup.

As the Shuja'iiya team's manager fell to his knees in tears on the field, the crowd cheered wildly when Wadi's brother Houssam, the team captain, accepted the second place trophy.

"In the end," said Wadi, who watched the game on TV from Gaza, "the only winner is Palestine."

PHOTO: Kids cheering at the Palestine Cup final match.
Kids cheering at the Palestine Cup final match.
Molly Hunter / ABC News

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