Already at nine in the morning, E-Ram’s streets are burning with heat. It crawls through the lively markets and into the crowded buses, lingering above the artificial grass of the town stadium, home to the Palestinian Women’s National Soccer Team. Instead of advertisements for American beer or energy drinks, the banner ads on the sideline feature portraits of Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat.
Three times a week, Dima Youssef, 22, comes here to play soccer. Even last month, during Ramadan, she notes that “games take place at night after people have had dinner, or right before sunset so you can go eat and drink afterward.”
She shrugs her shoulders. Actually, none of this applies to her, she says, since she is a Christian. But it does influence her teammates, she adds, and therefore the energy of the whole team.
According to Youssef, the conditions to pursue a sport professionally are less than ideal in the West Bank for the Palestinian Women’s National Soccer Team.
Founded in 2006, the team has participated four times for the West Asian Cup, but has not been able to partake in bigger tournaments so far. “We are a young team,” stresses Youssef, “and none of the girls can afford to give 100 percent for soccer.”
Practice almost makes her late for class at the university, where Youssef studies journalism. Soccer as a career? “I never even thought of it,” she says. “This is not really an option. In contrast to Europe, there really is no money in the clubs around here.”
She turns her head and looks at the girl next to her, awaiting affirmation. Gina Khnouf claps her hands together and sighs. A gesture of resignation? For over a year Khnouf has been coaching girls under 19: a task between hope and frustration.
“So many talents here are wasted,” she says. “Most Palestinians don’t even know that there is a women’s soccer team. It is a man’s sport, even more than in Europe. But I am trying to spread the word.”
This is an undertaking which is twice as hard: even most male Palestinian athletes have trouble expanding their talents outside the territories, not to mention Gazans or underage girls for whom travel to games and training camps abroad often remain virtually impossible.
The opposing team usually has to come to the West Bank, and that only happens very rarely. “In 2011 we played against Japan; that was a highlight,” Khnouf declares proudly, despite having lost 19 to 0.
Soccer has become an integral part of Palestinian culture since the first soccer union was founded in 1928. Since 1998, the men’s soccer team has been part of FIFA; in 2006 the women followed suit. All this was undeterred by the fact that soccer is considered among some Palestinians to be a Western import brought to the region by the British Mandate and early Jewish immigrants and should be avoided.
For girls wishing to play, the hurdles are even higher. “Most families do not appreciate seeing their girls in short clothing on a soccer field and traveling around without supervision. Also, they consider the game as being too rough for a woman,” explains Yousef Zaghloul, one of the women’s team coaches. “For most of the girls, the game is over at around age 16.”
He sounds truly distressed. Zaghloul is an engineer, but soccer has been his passion from a very young age. “One day I saw a group of kids playing in front of my house. One girl was among them and I was very impressed by her skills, but at the same time it hit me that she probably would never be able to benefit from her potential.”
That moment forever changed his life, as well as the destiny of his hometown, Dura, near Hebron. There Zaghloul founded one of the first female soccer clubs in the West Bank after having trained two boys’ teams. People know him and trust him. This is essential, he stresses, explaining how only a familiar face can change anything around here.
“But I understood that, by supporting women’s sports, I can really make a difference in my society. It might sound like a cliché, I know, but in places like this, sport still retains its vital power.”
The place where the first training field was established – a pitch of pure rubble – bears the name “Joseph Blatter Street” after the former FIFA president, who has been suspended from his position due to corruption allegations. “He was here for the inauguration of our first stadium and has traveled around to observe the Palestinian soccer scene,” Zaghloul recalls.
He has been pushing for the acceptance of women’s soccer in the region and the sport seems to have gained popularity. There are now nearly 30 women’s clubs.
Team sport offers young girls an opportunity to leave the house for communal activities other than school, emphasizes Zaghloul. “I noticed that the girls – in contrast to the boys – are always on time for their training sessions. Often they even come half an hour before and don’t mind staying longer for some extra practice. It is their moment in the week to spend time with their girlfriends.” Most of them have never missed a single class, he adds: “Even when they are sick, they come and watch the game from the sideline.”
Many times Zaghloul has had to convince the girls’ parents. Many cups of coffee and tea were served while many cakes and cookies were eaten in the company of worried mothers and fathers, all in the name of soccer. “I have a good rate of success convincing them of the safety of the sport and the environment it takes place in,” he says.
With joy he remembers the two girls who were allowed to accompany him to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, representing the Palestinian Authority abroad. “Apart from short trips to Jordan, they’ve never been outside the territories,” he notes.
There have also been many cases in which even Zaghloul was not able to keep the girls on the team. “Sometimes I couldn’t really figure out the core reason. The clothing? That could be adaptable. The travels? But there is always supervision! In the end, some figure it’s just not for girls, period.”
Fortunately Dima Youssef never had to suffer through such an experience. As a Christian her upbringing was a bit more liberal compared to her Muslim friends. It is the politics and economics of the region that keep her from considering soccer as more than a passion, she discloses.
“I love the game, I do. But there is so little support – no scholarships, no sponsors, no investors. How are we supposed to get our jerseys? The equipment? The coaches? We pay in order to play.”
Zaghloul himself works on a volunteer basis even today – just like Khnouf. “Several evenings a week,” he stresses. “You really have to believe in what you are doing. I am doing it for the next generation, no more and no less,” he says.
Youssef is doing it for fun, no more and no less, she confides. Her favorite club is Germany’s Borussia Dortmund. “I would love to see them play once,” she jokes, “Maybe they’ll come to E-Ram one day, what do you think?”