When many westerners hear the word “Palestinian,” images of terrorists and angry young mobs raising their fists in the air usually come to mind. But two Chilean filmmakers intend to tell a different story as they chronicle the Palestinian national soccer team’s hardships and triumphs while representing a nation under occupation on the road to the 2006 World Cup.
“The world can learn about Palestinians from a different angle and in a language that millions and millions of people around the world understand — the language of football (soccer),” said 33-year-old co-producer Marcelo PiÃ±a from his Chicago residence. “Palestinians have dreams, and because of occupation, they can’t have those dreams.
“No pun intended but the game gives you a level playing field,” added the 34-year-old second co-producer, Nelson Soza. “It’s an exciting game regardless of religion or language.”
“Soccer has a great tradition and it has real-life lessons for everyone, whether it is the importance of teamwork or sacrifice or just doing your best,” continued Soza as he proudly recounted a recent goal scored by Palestinian Chilean Roberto Beshe. Beshe scored in the 71st minute of a game with a much more experienced Iraqi team.
Beshe, along with five other South American Palestinian professional soccer players, has added depth to a team whose team mates from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, or East Jerusalem may end up spending nights at Israeli checkpoints, or practicing alone like Hazem El-Muhatezeb of Hebron because of the extremely tense political conditions.
Palestinian Chilean Roberto Bishara, another of the professional players, recently told the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) magazine, “We have brought more tactical know-how to the team, while the Middle Eastern-based players provide that extra bit of strength and endurance. It’s a combination that has left us better organized and more resilient.”
Chile, which boasts the largest Palestinian population outside of the Middle East at 350,000, even has a soccer club called “Palestino.” Founded in 1920 by Chile’s Palestinian community, Palestino became part of the professional soccer scene in 1951 and has played in numerous championship games.
Besides soccer, there is a political kinship between Palestinians and Chileans. PiÃ±a, who grew up during Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror, reflected on his three weeks spent in the West Bank.
It is one thing to hear about it and it’s another to see it, he said. “It’s a military state and it was very guarded and intense everywhere we went. The settlers are not police but they have guns.
“Knowing that foreigners and camera crews get shot by settlers or military people and not knowing what’s going to happen. . . well, you’re constantly thinking about those things,” said PiÃ±a, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
“The incredible hardships of everyday life for Palestinians will be the most fascinating element of this documentary,” said Soza, a journalist and activist currently working as a labor organizer with the United States workers federation, AFL-CIO. “Being sick or trying to get to school are among the many difficulties the people have to contend with.”
Hardships have also resulted in Palestinian soccer players now making Ismailia, Egypt their home base for practices.
But even the journey in and out of Egypt is dangerous. “Once, I remember, after we’d said our farewells in Egypt 30 kilometers from the Palestinian border,” former coach Nicola Hadwa told the FIFA magazine. “The players from South America arrived home first” even though they had a much longer journey.
And during the Korea/Japan 2002 qualifiers, a number of Palestinians players were prevented from leaving Palestine to play. That frustration turned to anguish when word came that gifted midfielder Tariq Al Quto was killed in a clash in the West Bank.
Those types of uncertainties pose unique challenges to the Palestinian soccer team, which even has to play their home games in Doha, Qatar. PiÃ±a said that while Palestinians would love to play at home in Palestine, they know they can’t and have mentally prepared themselves to play all of their games away.
The players do have fun together and often sing while they are on their bus or joke around as athletes often do. PiÃ±a said the documentary is filled with fun snippets, including a moment when the players asked Beshe to dance in Arabic. A well-liked player with a good sense of humor, he wrapped a towel on his head and danced to the howls of laughter by his teammates. That he cannot speak Arabic didn’t mean a thing to his fellow Palestinian teammates.
There is camaraderie among the Palestinians, no matter what part of the world they now live in. And while winning games is a good feeling, such as when they dealt an 8-0 thrashing to Taiwan, there’s something else that makes them feel very victorious.
“It is the fact they can actually wear a Palestinian jersey and raise their flag to show the world they exist and are alive,” said PiÃ±a.
Was there anything that PiÃ±a found surprising about his trip to the homes of Palestinian team players in the Occupied Territories? “I was struck by the contrast of the strict security measures versus how Palestinian families were. They were always welcoming us with big dinners or lunches. They were just like any other family. They are warm and caring people, good neighbors. The way they treated us –” it was like being in Chile. And you think to yourself, ‘Wow, what’s the problem, and why aren’t these people allowed to have a voice?'”
“We’re all people of the world and soccer is a very inclusive game that gives people that ability to communicate,” said Soza.
Palestine’s coach, Austrian Alfred Riedl was told by the 15 business people who are funding the team’s expenses to do the best he could with what he had. He’s proving to do just that on the field and was recently quoted as saying, “We want to show the world that Palestine is not just about war, terror and oppression, but that it wants peace.”
Ultimately, PiÃ±a and Soza hope to put a human face behind a seemingly endless conflict and are already in talks with news personnel from different networks around the world to air the feature length documentary. “Futbol Palestina 2006,” the film’s working title, will be re-titled upon completion of the inspirational documentary in 2005, and it promises to give soccer fans all over the world reason to cheer.