Giza to Gaza: Solidarity through sports
After an Egyptian border police official killed three Israeli soldiers last month, tensions between Egypt and Israel flared.
Mortada Mansour, the president of the renowned Egyptian football club Zamalek, said shortly after the incident that a club facility will be named after the Egyptian soldier, Mohamed Salah, in commemoration.
He made it clear in a video statement that his opinions were his own as an Egyptian citizen and did not represent the government. Notably, Zamalek was the only Egyptian team to go to Gaza, having faced the Palestinian national team in a friendly match in 2000.
So how has the 1979 treaty to recognise Israel affected Egyptians who support Palestine?
Recent events, like the arrest of a football supporter at a CAF Champions League quarterfinal game in Cairo for waving a Palestine flag, demonstrate the difficulties Egyptians confront while expressing their support for Palestine.
"One of the ancient examples of football can be traced to the region as early as 460 BC when the Greek historian Herodotus described young men in Egypt “kicking around a ball made of goatskin and straw”
During a match between Egypt and South Africa's U23s in 2019, another Egyptian fan experienced comparable circumstances. However, a closer look reveals a long-standing relationship between Egypt and its Palestinian neighbours in the sports realm.
One of the ancient examples of football can be traced to the region as early as 460 BC when the Greek historian Herodotus described young men in Egypt “kicking around a ball made of goatskin and straw”.
Moving forward more than two thousand years, Britain, known as the "home of football," starts to establish itself as a powerful aggressor in the Middle East. Britain's influence in the late 19th century has a key role in influencing the dynamics and history of the area.
Occupations and offsides
After the issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Britain established colonial rule in Palestine following World War I.
Sports were extremely important in the development of these new communities during the 1920s when the British actively encouraged Jewish communities to migrate to Palestine.
Zionist organisations desired to create a strong new society within historic Palestine, and they considered sports as a key catalyst for building unity and bolstering their influence in the area. Much of the original research on this topic has been carried out by scholar and author Issam Khalidi.
Britain had already established rule in Egypt by 1882 when it intervened to protect its interests amid political upheaval between the Egyptian Army and Tewfik Pasha, the Ottoman leader who had close relations with both the British and the French.
"The FIFA rule that only associations representing states were eligible for membership led to the creation of the PFA, despite the fact that at the time, Jewish communities in Palestine were a minority"
Even though Egypt was formally recognised as a Kingdom in 1922, British influence continued to have a substantial impact on Egyptian politics, making Egypt's independence primarily symbolic.
In 1928 the Palestine Football Association (PFA) was formed and a local league was launched, with FIFA granting it official membership in 1929.
However, the association's formation was led by members of a Zionist sports organisation called Maccabi. Fourteen of the fifteen representatives present at the initial meeting were Zionists; the other representative, an Arab from the Nusseibeh family, did not attend subsequent meetings.
The FIFA rule that only associations representing states were eligible for membership led to the creation of the PFA, despite the fact that at the time, Jewish communities in Palestine were a minority.
The PFA logo signalled the start of Palestinian teams' marginalisation because it prominently displayed the Zionist flag and Hebrew text. Recent occurrences serve as an example of the continued use of these erasure strategies against the indigenous population.
Just last month, the Israeli embassy in Canada declared falafel as the national dish of Israel, triggering a strong online backlash. Users on Twitter denounced this action as a further instance of theft, saying that cultural heritage was being appropriated, in line with the pattern of land theft.
The PFA invited the Egyptian Tersana Sporting Club and the Egyptian University Team to take part in a series of games against Jewish teams in the area in 1931.
The only Palestinian team to take on the Egyptians was the Orthodox Club in Jaffa. British-controlled Egypt's support of Zionism through sports was apparent, and their willingness to compete against these teams signalled a clear sign of normalisation.
Autonomy and aggregates
To offer autonomy to Palestinian sports clubs throughout the nation, the Arab Palestine Sports Federation (APSF) was soon after founded.
This action was taken in opposition to the PFA, which held sway and claimed to represent all communities in Palestine while being primarily Jewish and acting as the country's lone international representative.
During a gathering organised by the Orthodox Club in Jaffa, a coalition of ten Palestinian clubs got together, and the APSF took shape.
Through its participation in the World Cup (WC) qualifications against Egypt in 1934, the Mandatory Palestine national team made its debut in international football.
The team, which consisted only of Jewish players, served as a model for the creation of the Israeli national football team in 1948, after the Palestinian Nakba.
Egypt became the first African country to qualify for the WC after winning a two-legged match against Mandatory Palestine (after Turkey withdrew from the group) and won with an aggregate score of 11-2.
Egypt was given the chance to compete in the first WC in Uruguay in 1930, but they were unable to do so because of a storm in the Mediterranean that made them miss their boat to South America.
Mandatory Palestine and Egypt were both invited to take part in the 1938 WC qualifying matches. Greece was the opponent for Mandatory Palestine, who lost 4-1 over two legs and therefore had their campaign come to an end.
Egypt, on the other hand, dropped out of the competition completely. Sports suffered as a result of the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1936, and the APSF was disbanded in 1937 as a result. This decade saw an increase in cooperation between British and Zionist militias, with the latter receiving British training, laying the groundwork for the tragic Nakba.
"The PFA, however, argued that there were not many Arab clubs in Palestine and opposed the proposal at a conference in 1946. FIFA ultimately decided to reject the proposal, which strengthened the Zionist movement"
The APSF was reborn in 1944 with one of its main goals being to gain FIFA membership, suggesting that there would be two federations representing Palestine abroad — one for the Jewish community and one for the Palestinian community.
Notably, this time period saw an important shift in Egypt's position as they finally started to show support for Palestine. The Palestinian request for FIFA membership had the support of both Egypt and Lebanon.
The PFA, however, argued that there were not many Arab clubs in Palestine and opposed the proposal at a conference in 1946. FIFA ultimately decided to reject the proposal, which strengthened the Zionist movement.
Palestine had 65 athletic clubs by the time of the Nakba in 1948. For the country, the events of May 15, 1948, were a crucial turning point in all aspects.
The continued practice of settler colonialism has caused the lives of Palestinians to be drained and degraded, both at home and abroad.
Approximately 750,000 native Palestinians were forcibly evicted, with most of them being unable to return. The destruction of sports infrastructure was an integral part of this process, as Israel utilised the Absentees' Property Law to justify seizing land and property, including sports facilities, from those who were banished in 1948.
After a long and difficult path, Palestine eventually established their own national team five years later, albeit not recognised by FIFA.
In 1953, Egypt hosted Palestine in their first international match, which ended in an 8-1 defeat for the Palestinian team during the Pan Arab Games.
They lost 5-2 to Libya in their second group match, while Lebanon defeated them 9-1 in the playoff for fifth place. Despite the nature of these losses, the establishment of a Palestinian national team marked a significant milestone, allowing the Palestinians to proudly have a team of their own.
The team’s next notable participation in the Pan Arab Games was in 1965. They defeated Lebanon and Aden (South Yemen) in their group matches to go to the knockout round. They lost to Sudan by a slim margin of 2-1 in a closely contested game. They faced Libya in the third-place playoff, which they lost 4-2.
Palestine finished the competition in a respectable fourth place, ahead of regional heavyweights Iraq and Syria, although missing out on a podium finish.
Poetry and penalties
A hidden gem of connectedness between Egypt and Palestine was present during the Pan Arab Games. This article's release falls on the 51st anniversary of Mossad's assassination of renowned Palestinian poet and author Ghassan Kanafani in 1972.
Ghassan and his siblings spent their childhood in exile in Damascus, Syria after being driven from Akka, Palestine, during the 1948 Nakba. It's interesting to note that Marwan, Ghassan's younger brother, left Damascus to join the Egyptian football team Al Ahly as a goalkeeper.
The Egyptian attacker Mahmoud Mokhtar El Tetsh played for the same team, Al Ahly, and had a big impact on the 1934 World Cup qualifiers against Mandatory Palestine. Out of the eleven goals scored in the two games, he scored an incredible five.
Marwan Kanafani found himself in the middle of one of the most contentious incidents in Egyptian football history during a tense league match between his team and their rivals Zamalek in 1971.
In response to an incident involving striker Farouk Gaafar, the referee awarded a penalty against Kanafani, which Gaafar converted. The aftermath was chaotic, as angry supporters stormed the pitch, sparking a deadly stampede that claimed numerous lives. The entire season was subsequently cancelled as a result.
"Creating a new Arab championship with the intention of uniting sports in Arab nations and demonstrating Arab identification with and support for the Palestinian struggle was the goal of this effort"
Numerous regional sporting events were postponed after the 1967 Six-Day War and did not resume until the following decade. In 1976, the Pan Arab Games were resumed, and in 1982, the Arab Cup.
The Palestine Cup of Nations was introduced during this time, with editions taking place in 1972, 1973, and 1975. Creating a new Arab championship with the intention of uniting sports in Arab nations and demonstrating Arab identification with and support for the Palestinian struggle was the goal of this effort.
The Palestine national football team received FIFA membership in 1998, seventy years after the PFA was established in 1928. As part of the 1998 Arab Cup qualification process, they faced off against Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan in their first official international matches. Sadly, Palestine did not qualify for the competition.
Giza to Gaza
The same year, Tersana SC, a football club in Giza, saw the emergence of a young, bright, and promising Egyptian superstar. Attacking midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika displayed remarkable vision, technical skill, playmaking brilliance, and a flair for scoring goals.
Intriguingly, Tersana Sporting Club had been the one to accept the PFA's invitation to take part in friendly games in Palestine back in 1931, giving us a full circle moment.
"With FIFA remaining ever complicit in the denial of basic human rights towards Palestinian players, it was up to players like Aboutrika to make the cause heard"
Aboutrika had just kick-started his professional career in the Egyptian Second Division. He made a career-defining move by joining the legendary Egyptian club, Al Ahly, after playing a crucial role in Tersana’s ascent to the top flight in 2000. Throughout his football career, he achieved remarkable success, becoming Egypt's fourth-highest international goal scorer with an impressive tally of 38 goals in 100 international caps.
Because of his ardent support for the Palestinian cause, which frequently got him into difficulties, Aboutrika is significant in this story.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) issued him an official warning in 2008 when he displayed an undershirt that read "Sympathise with Gaza" during an African Cup of Nations group game against Sudan.
This selfless deed won him widespread acclaim and strengthened his bond with Egyptian civil society, confirming his image as a well-liked hero. From Giza to Gaza, he steadfastly refused to be silenced. Aboutrika has also made a particular request in his will to be buried with his Gaza shirt.
A year earlier, in 2007, the Palestinian team were forced to forfeit a crucial second leg 2008 WC qualifier due to the Israeli authorities denying the team travel permits.
With FIFA remaining ever complicit in the denial of basic human rights towards Palestinian players, it was up to players like Aboutrika to make the cause heard.
Palestinian solidarity has always been a point of contention in the footballing world, and many others have suffered as a result of being vocal in the struggle for justice.
In 2022, Aboutrika made headlines once more by denouncing FIFA for its inequality in the administering of international sanctions. His comments notably referenced FIFA's decision to expel Russia from all football competitions following the invasion of Ukraine, while disregarding Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestine.
The support between the two nations is not one-sided. It is apparent that Al Ahly also has a sizable following in Gaza, as the Palestine Chronicle reported last month. For the second leg of the African Champions League final, Egyptian club supporters from Palestine packed out a restaurant in Gaza.
Following a 2-1 victory in the opening game, Al Ahly was able to draw 1-1 with Wydad Casablanca of Morocco to ultimately win the championship. Gaza is only 200 miles from Cairo, but due to the embargo there, it feels like lightyears.
Gaza and beyond
Mahmoud Wadi, a gifted striker from the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis, is one athlete who has directly experienced the negative effects of the embargo.
He was aware that, as a prospective football player from Gaza, his opportunities for travel and professional progress would be constrained in comparison to Palestinians from the West Bank.
But his perseverance and diligence paid off when he was given a contract by Ahli Al-Khaleel in Hebron, which is in the West Bank. The required travel permits proved difficult to get, but fortunately, they were approved the day before the season started.
Being from Gaza, he had to navigate Israeli checkpoints that would cause hours of delays as he travelled between West Bank cities. It was his first trip back to Gaza in nearly a year, as his new club was set to play against the winners of the Gaza Cup. Wadi, however, was sent back home following the team's victory while the rest of the team was given permission to leave Gaza.
In 2014, when Israel was shelling Gaza as part of Operation Protective Edge, Wadi was given the chance to join the national squad for the first time. He was reported as saying at the time, "I had to train. But I didn't care about the war. I could see an Israeli jet shooting and I was training. I was running on the sea wall, watching them attack buildings. I was expecting death at any moment.”
"The beautiful game has a way of lifting people's spirits in the most trying situations, whether it be the Palestinian team's ongoing struggle over the past century, both before and after the Nakba"
Wadi's dreams came true three years later when he made his national team debut against the Maldives in an Asian Cup qualification match in 2017.
Palestine, making only their second appearance in the Asian Cup, qualified for the 2019 tournament. Wadi was selected for the team and took part in the group games. Unfortunately, they lost in the first stage in both of their Asian Cup appearances. Now, having qualified for the upcoming edition in Qatar, Wadi and the rest of the squad will be hoping for third-time luck in achieving success.
He was signed by Al-Ahli SC in Jordan after a productive stint with his previous team Al-Ittihad Khan Yunis. There, he emerged as the league's leading scorer, piquing the interest of Egyptian club Al Masry.
He spent two seasons with the Port Said club before being moved to the Pyramids of Cairo and was then loaned out to Tala'ea El Gaish SC. Wadi holds aspirations of playing for Real Madrid in the future, and with his career progressing positively, the man from Gaza can dare to dream.
Football in particular has always had a special capacity to transcend the tragedies and tribulations of war and occupation.
The beautiful game has a way of lifting people's spirits in the most trying situations, whether it be the Palestinian team's ongoing struggle over the past century, both before and after the Nakba, or Iraq's incredible victory in the 2007 Asian Cup amidst intense sectarian violence, following an illegal invasion.
Palestine's southern neighbours may encounter obstacles in demonstrating solidarity with the cause, due to their respective authorities, but the Egyptian spirit remains unbreakable, as they steadfastly continue in the fight for justice.
Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. He has showcased documentaries at prestigious institutions including the Universities of Oxford and Westminster, as well as the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week
Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_