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I play for Palestine’s football team – many people I played with are now dead

Palestine international footballer Mahmoud Wadi opens up on his constant worry for his family as a result of the Israel-Hamas conflict

“My friend, people in Gaza need to watch football because it’s one of the little things that takes them from their real life. When you go to matches in Gaza, you see many, many fans.”

With these words, Mahmoud Wadi, a footballer with Palestine’s national team, pinpoints why football is so loved in the place he calls home.

This “little thing” he speaks of seems all the smaller as Israel’s assault on Gaza continues but when Palestine meet Australia in a World Cup qualifier on Tuesday, Wadi will carry with him the words of his mother, Zeina, delivered from the family home in Khan Younis in the southern part of the Strip – words about this game’s significance to a whole nation.

“I called my mum three days ago and she asked me to train well and sleep well and not think about her,” says the 28-year-old forward. “‘We need you to carry on and to succeed as that makes us feel happy’ is what she told me.”

Owing to the Israel-Hamas conflict, Palestine, who received Fifa recognition in 1998, will play this “home” fixture against the Socceroos on neutral ground in Kuwait, having begun their campaign last week with a goalless draw with Lebanon in the United Arab Emirates.

Despite his mother’s message, Wadi admits “it is not easy to think about football”.

The home of teammate Mohammed Saleh, a fellow Gazan, has been destroyed, and Wadi’s worry for his own family – from whom he heard nothing for 48 hours after the Lebanon match – is constant.

Speaking to i from Kuwait, he says: “I can’t stop thinking about them. People there are being killed and bombed every moment. After training and after meetings and eating, we go to our rooms and watch the news channels to know what’s happening.”

Though based in Egypt with Arab Contractors, Liverpool star Mohamed Salah’s old club, Wadi returns to Gaza each close season and describes a place of light as well as darkness.

“I love to go to Gaza to meet my friends and family. I go to play football, I go to the beach and have dinner with friends. I take dessert from Abu al Saoud [a cafe] – it is knafa [a sweet pastry], the best in Gaza. I take ice cream from Kazem in the centre of Gaza. Everything there is gone. It is destroyed.”

The response of Australia’s players to this destruction has been a pledge to donate a five-figure sum from their match fees to support the aid effort in Gaza. “That is humanity,” says Wadi.

Palestine had two warm-up fixtures cancelled due to the conflict but, as defender Mohammed Rashid – another of the squad’s 13 foreign-based contingent – tells i, they see clearly the importance of a strong performance in this campaign to help “people start looking at Palestine as a country that has people who can do the same thing that any other country can”.

(From up L) Palestine's goalkeeper Rami Hamadi, Palestine's forward Mahmoud Wadi, Palestine's midfielder Mohammed Darwish, Palestine's midfielder Shadi Shaban, Palestine's midfielder Tamer Seyam, Palestine's defender Abdellatif Bahdari (From down L) Palestine's midfielder Alexis Norambuena, Palestine's midfielder Nazmi Albadawi, Palestine's midfielder Jonathan Zorrilla, Palestine's defender Abdallah Jaber, Palestine's midfielder Musab Battat pose for a photograph prior to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup group B football match between Palestine and Australia at the Maktoum Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai on January 11, 2019. (Photo by Karim SAHIB / AFP) (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images)
The Palestine team line up for a group photo prior to the 2019 Asian Cup game against Australia (Photo: Getty)

So often, this is not the case. Palestine have not played on home turf since 2019. In Wadi’s case, his family have never seen him play in person for his country.

“Because they’re Palestinian, travel is very difficult for them,” he explains.

His own footballer status has not spared him the restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities.

Wadi cites his experience in 2015-16 after he gained a permit to leave his amateur club in Gaza, Ittihad Khan Younes, to play professionally for Ahli Al-Khalil in the West Bank Premier League.

As a Gazan, he could not travel freely between West Bank cities – “I couldn’t move anywhere, just from my house to the pitch and back” – and when Al-Khalil travelled to Gaza to play the winners of the Gaza Cup and decide the Palestinian championship, he was denied permission to return afterwards, despite holding a permit to travel both ways.

“I wanted to go back with my team to the West Bank and continue,” says Wadi.

Instead his career with Al-Khalil was abruptly over. Another example was a mere 24-hour visit made for one international fixture.

“I had the permit for just one day. I trained in the last session before the match then played the match and on that same day I had to leave.”

Yet he is one of the lucky ones. “I’ve heard many times that players I played with or against are killed or injured or their homes destroyed,” he says.

The sporting infrastructure has suffered too though, when asked if bombs have hit Sport City Stadium, his old stamping ground in Khan Younis, he places his concern elsewhere: “This isn’t about football or the stadium or the streets. It’s about life. How will [people] continue their lives?

“Where is their work? Where will they live? They have no homes or money.

“Will they live in camps? Winter is coming already and the rain will come and everything will get wet and they have no clothes. It is about life, my friend.”

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