Out of Gaza, Floriana’s Mohammed Saleh hopes for European glory

Floriana is possibly the first European team to recruit a Gazan-born footballer. 25-year-old centre-back Mohammed Saleh hopes more Palestinians can get into Europe, but the illegal Israeli occupation is a reality unknown to most footballers and fans around the world

Ready for glory: Mohammed Saleh
Ready for glory: Mohammed Saleh

The illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Gaza blockade is a constant in the lives of Palestinian footballers.

In Gaza, life is desperate – for the past 11 years, the tiny Mediterranean strip of land between Israel and Egypt has been blockaded and under siege. It means that people cannot go in or out as they want, and their movement is completely restricted. For the two million Gazans living on a piece of land almost the size of Malta, it makes the Strip the largest “open-air prison” in the world.

People like the young footballer Mohammed Saleh, 25, are representative of the crisis happening under the world’s eyes. Like so many of his generation, his footballing career is unlike anybody else’s in the world. Saleh grew up in the shadow of war and destruction, and although he enjoys the honour of having moved into European football, life as footballer for the national squad is unlike any of his European counterparts.

“It is very hard to play in Gaza, which is under a blockade,” Saleh, speaking in Arabic, says. “I play with the national team but I couldn’t join my team-mates because I was locked inside Gaza and couldn’t leave to play.

“Obviously the Israeli occupation is a big problem for me, especially when I go to the West Bank, where we cannot cross over to join the rest of the team,” Saleh says of the two disjointed patches of Palestinian land which veritably remain under indirect control of the Israeli army.

“The Israeli occupation is a big problem for me, especially when I go to the West Bank, where we cannot cross over to join the rest of the team”

“We didn’t even manage to get residence rights to play in the West Bank, and when I was there I also had a problem obtaining an exit visa, which means it was problematic for me to leave the country and play for the national team elsewhere and even to return home,” Saleh says, who before coming to Floriana made his passage through Jordan.

Notably, the Palestinian Football Federation encounters problems from Israel, which refuses visas to footballers leaving the West Bank and Gaza, with the majority of players drawn from the Palestinian diaspora around the world.

The tribulations of obtaining exit visas was played out in the BBC documentary Frontline Football – an example was a 2007 qualifier for the 2010 World Cup, in which the Palestinians were unable to obtain exit visas to play Singapore. Despite protestations from the PFF, FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation refused to reschedule the match and awarded a 3-0 victory to Singapore in a walkover match.

And the tragedy of the Israeli occupation lives on everyday in footballers’ lives in Palestine. Staying at home can be dangerous. The midfielder Tariq al Quto was killed by the Israeli Defence Forces, while three Palestinian footballers, Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe, were among the Palestinian casualties during the bombing of Operation Cast Lead. Mahmoud Sarsak spent three months on hunger strike while imprisoned in Israel without trial or charges after Israel accused him in 2009 of being active in Islamic Jihad, an accusation which he denied. Sarsak was released from prison on 10 July 2012, after being held for three years without formal charges. Palestinian facilities, such as Palestine Stadium, have been damaged in military conflicts.

In such a place, football remains an essential part of life.

“Palestinians love football and sports and they follow football in Europe. Amid the destruction and wars, something like football is very important for Palestinians,” Saleh comments.

And this brings home the power of football in the world of committed and political football fans.

In 2016, UEFA fined Glasgow Celtic over €120,000 after some 100 fans displayed Palestinian flags during a 5-2 home victory against Hapoel Be’er Sheva in a Champions League qualifier – UEFA forbids messages “not fit for a sports event”, particularly political gestures. The Israeli players were treated respectfully throughout, as was Celtic’s own midfielder and Israeli international player Nir Bitton, who was given a standing ovation when he left the field. But it is an episode redolent of the way football fans view their own teams’ histories: like the display of Catalan nationalism on the field, when revealing the flag under the fascist regime of General Franco in Spain carried the risk of death. And Celtic, founded in 1887, played its first game in 1888 to raise funds for the relief of the poor Irish migrants gathered in the East End of Glasgow, where they faced resentment and discrimination. Football, and victory on the field especially, gave back an element of pride and joy to these communities.

Saleh understands this.

“Every Palestinian feels close to the Scottish public but especially Celtic. We feel they stood up for us and we appreciate it very much. Every Palestinian on social media thanked Celtic, they say what their fans had done for us. It’s a great team and we wish them every success.”

For the past three seasons Saleh has been a mainstay of the Ahli Al-Khaleel side that has dominated the Palestine Cup, winning it three straight seasons between 2015 and 2017. He previously played for Rafah, the border town between Gaza and Egypt, and also in Qatar.

But his move to Floriana is a historic first for the proud national team of Palestine, the first ever Palestinian footballer born in the occupied Gaza strip, to play in a European football league.

“Mohamed Saleh will be an ambassador for our players and open the doors to clubs in Europe,” agent Hussein Sarhan said in a Facebook post. The centre-bank was originally touted for a move to the Indian league, which forms part of the Asian confederation where the Palestinian national team plays its qualifiers for the World Cup.

Other players called up to the Palestinian national team tend to be foreign-born, such as Hosam Aiesh, who was slated to leave Östersunds for Swansea City or QPR in the UK; or even those from the early 20th century migration to Chile. Deportivo Palestino (sporting Palestine) was founded in 1920 by Palestinian immigrants, today believed to be the largest Palestinian community outside of the Arab world at some 500,000.

“It has always been my dream to play in Europe,” Saleh says. “My hope is that this is the route to international recognition. And I wish for more Palestinian players to come to Europe to play.”

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