On Sunday Gasant Abarder was part of thousands of spectators who went to watch the Palestine national side play an exhibition match at the Athlone Stadium. The quality of play wasn’t great but it didn’t matter because the event had nothing and everything to do with football.
Two hours a week – and sometimes a sneaky two hours on a weeknight – I escape into my private universe of football. It takes me away from work, bills and adulting in general. I’ve been known to tell my 5-a-side mates: ‘I’ll play this game until my legs fall off.’
Imagine what it was like for the players of the Palestine national side at Athlone Stadium on Sunday against a Western Cape XI.
Gliding across the pitch, and for just 90 minutes, forgetting the trouble back home. They were treated like heroes by the 17 000-strong crowd even though they lost by a single goal to the home side.
As I sat in the stands with the view of Table Mountain behind me, I looked at my 11-year-old daughter Misha and her 10-year-old football teammate Tarah. Neither had a care in the world as they were engrossed in the action and commenting that the quality of the football wasn’t all that great. I thought about the thousands of girl children their age who had been killed indiscriminately by Israeli Defence Force troops over the last four months.
It didn’t escape me that they were sat down in Athlone – one of the hot spots of our own resistance against the iron fist of the apartheid government. Athlone was the centre of pitched battles where many lives were lost for our freedom.
But football gurus Misha and Tarah were in the minority because this wasn’t a football crowd.
The tieties, boetas and uncles came out in their thousands to support an event that was more than just football and to be part of a special celebration laid on by the South African Football Association (SAFA).
It was a massive rally behind the oppressed people of Palestine that pronounced that in their lonely and harrowing existence there were people who cared.
It was a great weekend too for a much-maligned SAFA as our national team finished third in the African Cup of Nations and then laid on the Football 4 Humanity event to host the Palestinian team.
It was an opportunity too for a much-maligned President Cyril Ramaphosa to score some political points as he addressed a crowd frustrated with the DA provincial government’s couldn’t-care-less attitude about Palestine in an election year.
The event comes not too far off the back of South Africa’s victory at the International Court of Justice against Israel.
It didn’t escape me that I got home at around 7pm last night to a text from a friend complaining about Stage 6 loadshedding in his area – 4pm to 6pm, 10pm to midnight, 2am to 4am, and 8am to 10am – during an election year. In another country, a president may resign in shame for such failure. But President Ramaphosa, who promised that loadshedding would soon be a thing of the past, is fronting up as the face of the ANC’s election campaign.
Yes, we can appreciate what he and our government have done for the people of Palestine while also criticising what he and our government haven’t done for the people of South Africa.
Human beings can do that with our superior intellect exactly because we’re not sheep.
Palestine is an outsider in both the geopolitical space and the football world. FIFA only gave the nation the right to compete in 2015 and right now they’re unable to draw players for war-ravaged Gaza. The national side is split up between players from occupied Gaza and the occupied West Bank with Israel wedged in the middle.
The team manager is intent that Palestine competes in all the World Cup qualifiers because it gives the people back home hope. An effort has been made to keep the players on the road for fear they’ll be unable to leave with the national team because of the unpredictability of the war.
What I found wonderful about the Palestinian players on Sunday, who haven’t been home in a while as they reached the Round of 16 of the Asian Cup recently, is that they didn’t give an inch.
They brought the same kind of shithousery on Sunday that you’d expect from footballers. I weirdly had it in my mind they would be saintly. But they were not beyond having a full go at the ref, diving and fouling.
If you love football, it was beautiful to watch.
That is the beauty of the beautiful game. When the odds seem insurmountable, don’t underestimate the power of football.
On Sunday, it was an escape for a squad of fathers, husbands and brothers – for just 90 minutes – from the realities and the horrors of war into a private universe of football.