While football fans across the globe are gearing up to watch the final of the World Cup this Sunday, the uniting power of the sport is also visible on a pitch in the Gaza Strip. This humble playing field is the practice ground for the territory’s first team made of players with amputated limbs. After overcoming many obstacles, these inspirational players have their hearts and minds set on representing their homeland in an international competition.
Every Monday afternoon since March this year, the 17 players that make up the Champions Club meet on the municipal pitch in the town of Deir al-Balah, located about 15 kilometres south of the town of Gaza. They range from 13 to 42 years old and all of them have had a leg amputated (or, in the case of the goalee, an arm) as a result of injuries sustained from Israeli air strikes.
The Champions Club trains in Deir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip. (Video filmed by Observer Mahmoud Naouq).
"Repeated [Israeli] offensives on the Gaza Strip have left behind a huge number of amputees. We wanted to give them hope."
Mahmoud Naouq is the manager of the Deir el-Balah team. He himself uses a wheelchair.
This team exists because of Fouad Abou Gahlyoun, who is part of the Gazan paralympic committee. Gahlyoun was inspired by his mother, who lost her arm in 1949 but still remained active and raised her children. He got the idea for this team while watching England play Turkey in the final of the European Amputee Football Championship [in October 2017].
He contacted me with the idea of recruiting players for a Palestinian amputee football club. Our plan is to start with one local team and then start a championship and, eventually, build up a national team that can compete in international tournaments.
We started by bringing together players in Deir al-Balah, where we live. We hope to do the same in the four other regions in the Gaza Strip. We held our first practice on March 30.
Players take part in a practice in Deir el-Balah. (Photos by Observer Mahmoud Naouq).
March 30 was also the beginning of the March of Return, protests held at the Israeli border marking the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the term used for the mass exodus of Palestinians during the first Israeli-Arab war in 1948.
Ninety percent of people wounded during these March of Return protests, which continued at the Israeli border until May 15, sustained leg injuries, according to the French medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans frontières).
The Washington Post reported on the story of 21-year-old cyclist Alaa al-Daly and 17-year-old runner Mohammad al-Ajouri who both lost legs after being shot by Israeli soldiers.
Of the 1.9 million people who live in the Gaza Strip, an an estimated 75,000 are disabled.
The offensives on the Gaza Strip left behind many amputees
The repeated offensives on the Gaza Strip [In 2006, 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014] left behind many amputees. That’s why we wanted to put together a team here, instead of in the West Bank. However, it is much harder to do anything in Gaza, which lacks infrastructure and resources and struggles with the blockade. And everything becomes more complicated when you have a disability!
Amputee football requires professional equipment, including special crutches that are stronger than those used by average people. Each pair costs around $100 [85 euros]. Luckily, a charity that helps people with disabilities in Deir al-Balah gives us financial support. We hope to find other backers in the future.
The players come from all different backgrounds. Some of them have already played on a football team and so, after their amputation, had to learn to play differently. Others had never played before but have risen to the challenge. They are proving that people can keep on living and achieving new goals despite the Israeli blockade.
Our aim is to give these people hope, to help them start a physical activity and not fall into despair by having something to do in their lives. So, during Ramadan [which this year was in June], we organised a friendly between our players ahead of a game between two local teams. The spectators were surprised at first but then they reacted with a lot of positivity. They were really enthusiastic and applauded us at the end. They were proud that an initiative like this had been created in Palestine.
Gazan photographer Ashraf Amra took these photos of the friendly that took place in June.
"At first, some of the players were embarrassed to appear in public”
Wahid Rabbah, age 42, is the oldest player on the Deir al-Balah amputee football team. He lost his leg during Israeli air strikes in 2006.
This isn’t my first experience with parasports. Before, I was doing track and field. But football is different and requires much more physical effort than throwing a disk, for example. The first training sessions were difficult. Unlike traditional footballers, amputees use our arms just as much as our legs. You have to run and dribble the ball with your leg and also the crutches, which often support all of our weight.
It’s really difficult for amputees. You need time to get used to your body and to dare to go out in public. You have to get used to people looking at you. Many people think that someone who has lost a limb is condemned to not working, to not having a fulfilled life. But this team proves that, on the contrary, we have a lot to do and contribute and a lot of challenges to overcome.
At first, new players are intimidated and some are even embarrassed to play in public. Luckily, that doesn’t last long -- partially because sport is really fulfilling, and partly because the people who see us training or who came to our first match were both surpised and impressed by our game. They ended up being very supportive and encouraging and told us to keep at it.
The amputee football team trains in Deir al-Balah, in the Gaza Strip. (Video by Observer Mahmoud Naouq).
Amputee football has slightly different rules than regular football. The pitch and the goals are both smaller and the game is shorter, with periods lasting just 25 minutes.
The team in Deir al-Balah is only the second amputee football team in the Arab world, after the “Team of Miracles” was created in Egypt in 2017. The Palestinian Territories have participated in the Paralympic Games since 2000. Palestinian athletes have already won three medals.Do you want to help the Champions Club go far? You can reach out to them on their Facebook page.