In Gaza, football means life amid Israel’s continuing war

The people of Gaza have kept alive their love for football amid displacement, destruction and communications blackouts.

A group of children play football in the street under the shadow of drones in Deir al-Balah, Gaza [Abubaker Abed/Al Jazeera]
A group of children play football in the street under a threat of drone attacks in Deir el-Balah, Gaza [Abubaker Abed/Al Jazeera]

Deir el-Balah, Gaza – For Hamza El Outy, a Real Madrid fan, Champions League football nights have always been special.

The 20-year-old medical student grew up following the Spanish club as they reigned over European football in the past decade, winning it five times to extend their record to 14 titles.

In November, El Outy and his family moved further west towards the coastline in the war-torn Gaza Strip after miraculously surviving an Israeli rocket attack next to their house in Deir el-Balah, which was largely designated as a safe area in the initial weeks of the war.

The date palm-lined city has become a site of relentless air strikes. The attacks, mainly targeting the western part of the city, have caused a great deal of damage and destruction to multiple homes as well as public facilities.

INTERACTIVE - Scale of destruction across Gaza-1707213623
(Al Jazeera)

“My house is a pile of rubble, where all my football memories lay buried,” El Outy says, holding back his tears.

“When I had a home, I would always prepare for the late [Champions League] games with a can of soft drink, crisps and popcorn,” El Outy tells Al Jazeera.

The Madridista – as Real Madrid fans are known – still finds a way to follow his favourite team’s exploits in the Spanish La Liga and the Champions League.

When the 14-time Champions League winners take on RB Leipzig to book a place in the tournament’s quarterfinals on Wednesday night, El Outy may not be able to follow the game live but he hopes to catch up later on.

“I [will] go to my friend’s house to watch the highlights. I can’t miss the game – they [Real Madrid] are a piece of my heart,” he says.

Gaza has been facing frequent prolonged communications blackouts since the war began as several mobile communications towers have been destroyed in attacks.

On March 7, it will be five months since Israel launched its war on Gaza, following the Hamas attack on southern Israel.

More than 31,000 Palestinians, including at least 12,300 children, have been killed in Gaza since October 7. More than 8,000 remain missing, many trapped under the rubble of destruction caused by Israeli air and land attacks, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

More than half of Gaza’s homes – 360,000 residential units – have been destroyed or damaged, according to the latest data from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Palestinian government.

According to OCHA, Israeli forces have carried out “significant destruction” of residential blocks across Gaza.

The streets, which were once filled with laughter and revelry, now paint a traumatic picture: women wail over the bodies of their dead children, men search for people buried under the rubble and children desperately look for food.

Hamza El Outy watches football highlights next to the rubble of his destroyed house near Deir al-Balah, Gaza [Abubaker Abed/Al Jazeera]
Hamza El Outy watches football highlights on his mobile phone while sitting next to the rubble of his house destroyed by Israeli rockets near Deir el-Balah, Gaza [Abubaker Abed/Al Jazeera]

When football was synonymous with life

Despite the challenging circumstances, football fans in Gaza carry a love for the game in their hearts.

It brings them rare joy and momentary distraction from the bombings and loss of precious lives.

Whether it’s on battery-powered radio sets or TV screens, or on their phones despite poor internet connections amid communications blackouts, Gazan Palestinians try their best to keep up with the game they so love.

Sondos Abu-Nemer and her mother are big-time football fans.

The 15-year-old from Deir el-Balah is a proud owner of an Al Nassr replica shirt that bears the name of Cristiano Ronaldo – her favourite player.

“The last time I saw an Al Nassr game was on February 1, against Inter Miami, when Talisca scored a wonderful hat-trick” she exclaims. Abu-Nemer had barely watched a few minutes of the game on a phone before the internet was cut off.

“[When] we don’t have an internet connection, we rely on the radio for updates and that’s how I heard about Palestine’s performance at the Asian Cup in Qatar.”

Palestine reached the tournament’s round-of-16 stage for the first time in their history, sending waves of joy through the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank.

Players hailing from Gaza broke down on the pitch as their run ended in a loss against Qatar, but they won over tens of thousands of fans in the host country and back home in Palestine.

“No one expected Palestine to go past the first round – we are all so proud of these players,” Abu-Nemer, the young fan, says proudly.

In Gaza, football has always been synonymous with life.

Before October 7, football would be at the heart of every conversation among friends – young or old – all around the enclave.

Cafes dotted along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea that forms Gaza’s coastline would make special arrangements to screen games and hundreds of fans would gather around to watch and cheer. Most of these cafes – Ranoosh, Al-Waha and Flamingo – have been destroyed in the war.

Young aspiring footballers would try to imitate their favourite players’ acrobatic celebrations after scoring a goal in a game of street football.

The biggest games in club football, such as the El Clasico (Real Madrid vs Barcelona) or English derbies, and the FIFA World Cup, would empty streets as everyone would be glued to their TV screens.

Soccer Football - Palestinians watch Premier League matches - Gaza City, Palestinian Territories - June 17, 2020 Fan watch the Premier League on tv in a cafe REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
This 2020 file photo shows Palestinian football fans watching a Premier League match in Gaza City on a TV screen in a cafe [File Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

‘Football distracts me from the bombings’

Whereas one generation grew up in the Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi era, the current one reveres the likes of Vinicius Junior, Jude Bellingham, Pedri and Lamine Yamal.

Barcelona fan Basel Abdul-Jawwad, a nurse at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, is a Frenkie De Jong fan.

“I would watch every Barcelona game before the war,” he says.

The 23-year-old lives along Salah al-Din Street. The last time Barcelona played in the Champions League, Abdul-Jawwad roared in delight as Robert Lewandowski scored for the Spanish champions.

“Football distracts me from the bombings that never seem to stop and the realities of this brutal war,” Abdul-Jawwad added.

With most of Gaza’s population – more than 1.5 million – pushed to Rafah in the south amid the large-scale destruction of homes, hundreds of thousands are now taking shelter in tents.

Hani Qarmoot is another Barcelona fan who moved to Rafah from the north after his house in Jabalia Refugee Camp was raided and attacked by Israeli forces. It happened on October 27, a day before the El Clasico.

“I was counting down to the game when my house was attacked,” he said.

“My cousins, who were Real Madrid fans and with whom I used to watch football despite the bitter rivalry between the teams, were killed in a bombing.”

Heartbroken and displaced, Qarmoot has no way of following his beloved team. Those who are able to connect to the internet for brief periods share the news with everyone else in the tent settlement.

Outside the tents, children still play football albeit under the shadow of hovering drones and amid the fear of Israeli bombs.

Regardless of the upheaval around them, football fans turn to the game to seek respite from their pain.

The conversations have now changed from reliving their favourite moments in a game to wondering when they would be able to follow it as they used to before October 7.

Basel AbdulJawwad and his friends play the FIFA 2023 video game in Deir al-Balah, Gaza [Abubaker Abed/Al Jazeera]
Basel Abdul-Jawwad and his friends play the FIFA 2023 video game in Deir el-Balah, Gaza [Abubaker Abed/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera