What Barca means to Palestine

Barcelona Football Club arguably brings more joy to Palestinians than any other institution in the world.

That’s certainly my impression after almost three years in Gaza and the West Bank.

Every time the Catalans take to the field you can guarantee you’ll struggle to get a table in the bars of Ramallah and the shisha-infused coffee shops of Gaza City.

On match day tradesmen touting maroon and gold Barca jerseys set up shop at Qalandia, the traffic-infested Israeli military checkpoint that separates Ramallah from East Jerusalem.

I’ve lost track of the number of mini Messis I’ve seen dribbling their way around dusty backstreets.

And if Messi senior and co manage to pull off a win, as of course they nearly always do, the night air is filled with the sound of car horns as supporters crane out of their sunroofs and parade round the streets.

Of course, as the best team in the world in recent years, Barcelona FC has support across the globe.

Everyone loves a winner.

If ever there was an institution that Palestinians might struggle to turn their backs on, I thought, it would be their beloved Barcelona.

But this is a classic example of how there are few things untouched by politics in this part of the world.

The controversy all started when Israeli government officials put in a request to Barcelona FC for a former Israeli soldier to be able to attend Sunday’s game.

Not just any soldier, though.

Gilad Shalit is the young man who spent more than five years as a hostage in Gaza after being captured by Palestinian militants in 2006.

He was eventually freed last year after the Islamist movement Hamas, which governs in Gaza, agreed a prisoner swap with Israel in which more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were handed over in exchange.

Mr Shalit has kept a low profile since his release, with his parents asking for privacy to allow their son to re-adjust to life as a free man.

The 26-year-old is a keen football fan and is believed to support Real Madrid.

I’ve not found any Barcelona fans in either Gaza or the West Bank who’ve said they won’t be positioning themselves in front of a big screen tonight.

It seems unlikely that Hamas will manage to stop the game from being broadcast on satellite channels in Gaza.

But if it does the Islamist movement is not going to make itself very popular.

Most Palestinians probably don’t remember Bill Shankly, the legendary former Liverpool manager.

But in the run-up to El Clasico, they would probably appreciate his most famous quote:

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

Read the complete article from Jon Donnison for BBC here.

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