Gaza football fans: Remember us this UEFA Champions League final

Gaza football fans: Remember us this UEFA Champions League final
In besieged Gaza, a recent video shows residents watching a Champions League match in a dark café, highlighting a rare moment of normalcy amid ongoing conflict.
4 min read
30 May, 2024
Palestinians watch the UEFA Champions League final football match between Real Madrid and Liverpool FC at Gaza-Israel border in eastern Rafah, Gaza on May 26, 2018 [Anadolu Agency]

On May 8 a grainy, 27-second video posted on X showed dozens of Gazans watching the Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich on a small TV in a low-ceilinged, dark room. The video provided a rare glimpse of shortlived normalcy in Gaza since the start of the Israeli invasion last October, which entered a new deadlier phase this month with offensive in Rafah.

It was filmed by Omar, a 29-year-old Real Madrid and Arsenal fan from Gaza City, displaced five times with his mother and three sisters.

His family could only afford to send his brother across the border to Egypt at the beginning of the war, after paying 5,000 dollars to the Egyptian authorities. During the eight months of Israel’s war on Gaza, he has lost two family members.

Omar watched the semi-final in a small café in Deir al-Balah, which has solar panels, a battery, and satellite TV—the only way to watch football under the complete siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza. Streaming is not really an option for Gazans due to the slow and unstable internet connection.

“Football is the only thing we can enjoy these days. The [only] thing that I've been able to do for the past eight months is to watch the Champions League games. So it was my only getaway,” said Omar.

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Omar found the café while wandering in complete darkness, as Gaza has had no electricity supply for the past eight months.

“I went down the street at the time of the game and I was looking. It was complete darkness. So I was looking for a place that had a bit of light. And we found the place packed with a lot of people,” he explained.

“I was in the back of the room. A lot of people were in front of me and I could barely see the TV. With each attack, you see the people screaming. The atmosphere was really crazy, like a stadium,” he added.

However, even during this time, the Israeli war machine is there to remind Palestinians that they always have targets on their backs.

“We were watching the game last time and we could hear a drone strike. And I was like, ‘If they strike this place, we're all dead,’” said Omar, adding that the drone and its annoying sound “never stops.” Moreover, there were also jamming drones in the sky, which cut the TV signal when they flew close to the café.

Although Palestinians in Gaza continue to follow news of the Champions League, the Western footballing world has remained silent for the past eight months about the indiscriminate destruction inflicted upon them by Israel save for the lone voices of mainly retired footballers, like Eric Cantona.

According to the United Nations, by mid-May, Israel had killed at least 12,700 women and children in Gaza. A handful of the civilian casualties are Gazan footballers, prompting calls for FIFA to suspend Israel this summer.

However, for UEFA, FIFA, and most football federations, clubs, and footballers, it is still as if Gaza and the Palestinians do not exist. There are no calls for peace, no Palestinian solidarity banners, while Israel’s clubs and national team continue to participate in all football competitions.

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Omar expressed his disappointment at the lack of action by the football world. “For Gaza, no one bats an eye, no one speaks. And if anyone speaks, they're cancelled. I think football should do more because football has a lot of influence,” he stated.

“If UEFA really banned them [Israel] and the world turned against them, maybe this would help in stopping the war. So this is also a pressure card that they can use, but they're not,” he explained.

Not only has UEFA not imposed any penalty on Israel, but it has also banned the display of Palestinian flags at its competitions. In November, Celtic was fined 19,000 dollars because its fans waved hundreds of Palestinian flags in a Champions League match. “If they had Israel flags, they would not be fined. Double standard, my friend,” commented Omar.

Although the final between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund is on Saturday 1 June, Omar explains that he does not even think about it, as he is concerned with more pressing issues. Mainly, evading Israeli bombs and ensuring his family has food and water, which have become increasingly scarce.

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“You never know when your turn is up. If I'm targeted or not, this is the mindset I'm living,” said Omar. “In one week, everything can change. In one day, everything can change. So no, I'm not concerned about the final for now. If I'm alive on the 1st of June, so be it, I'll watch the final,” he concluded.

On Saturday night, while Vinicius, Reus, Bellingham, and the other superstars mesmerise the world with their goals and dribbles, Palestinians in Gaza will also be watching, even though the football world continues to close its eyes to their massacre.

Aris Dimitrakopoulos is a freelance journalist and war correspondent from Athens, Greece. He has covered on-the-ground conflicts in Ukraine, Libya, and Lebanon. His work has appeared in international media outlets such as France 24, Ruptly, Modern Diplomacy, and Unicorn Riot.  

Follow him on X: @ArisDimitrako