Bethlehem soccer fans making the most of it – inspite of the occupation

Editorial note: The following  are a series of articles referring to the joy of football (soccer) for the people of Bethlehem.

Conflict and El Clásico in the Little Town of Bethlehem
Matthew Vickery, 21 January 2012

Overlooked by a military watchtower, in a region known most for conflict and a town known more for Christmas, a few hundred Barcelona and Real Madrid fans are packed into a make shift outside viewing arena.

This is El Clásico in Bethlehem, a city where you either support Barca or Real; to support another team is at best unheard of, at worse disgraceful.

Lionel Messi playing for FC Barcelona

In a region which is dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has been for over 60 years, El Clásico provides a welcome break from life under occupation and a chance for Palestinian football fans to be like any other throughout the world: sing songs, curse the referee and yo-yo up and down off a seat for 90 minutes. And for the Christians in the crowd it’s a chance to drink the local Taybeh beer — brewed just a few kilometres away in Ramallah — and for the odd Muslim as well it seems…. as long as you’re elusive about it.

As one Palestinian Barcelona fan once told me “Our days and our conversations always revolve around the conflict, but when Madrid and Barca play, that is the only thing on our minds.”

Bethlehem famed as the birthplace of Jesus and immortalised in dozens of Christmas songs about little donkeys, shepherds and of course its famous son, is very different from the idyllic Christmas card image we see perched on our mantelpiece every December. Today’s Bethlehem is surrounded by a concrete wall which at its highest point is over 8 metres tall — twice the size of the Berlin Wall — and has two crowded refugee camps on either side of it, each pocket marked with bullet holes. The residents of Bethlehem even need permission from the Israeli military if they want to travel the 7km to visit friends or family in Jerusalem. And permission is hard to come by. Life here is not one full of optimism.

But at the start of any El Clásico in Bethlehem, optimism is in abundance. Hundreds always gather to watch; their plastic seats sprawled across the ground in front of a giant screen, a looming military watchtower nearby, but ignored. The need for seats is minimal however. Men, women, children and families spend their time up on their feet shouting support in Arabic, English and Spanish: almost as if there is an unwritten code where the more languages you use, the better the fan you are.

The make-up of fans in Bethlehem is around 50:50; the almost identical numbers of Barca and Real fans make the atmosphere of the place electric. As with every encounter between the two teams, the tension is evident; it is fair to say that this game is more than just a game in the little town of Bethlehem.

Barcelona were the victors last night (18/01/2012), and for half of Bethlehem that means a night of celebrations which inevitably spill out onto the streets in the early hours of the morning. For the other half, it’s a night of what could have been. However the result in the wider context has very little relevance, the game on the other hand does. What happens in Bethlehem on the evening of an El Clásico: the excitement, the passion, the joy of winning, the sadness of defeat — allows thousands of people who have been imprisoned simply due to being Palestinian, have a sense of freedom like any other avid football fans throughout the world.

The occupied Palestinian territories are choc-a-bloc with Barcelona and Real Madrid fans; it almost makes the West Bank and Gaza, the place to be for such a night. This is despite a military occupation, where water, trade, vehicles and an impoverished people are managed by a militaristic nuclear power. Hats off to the Palestinians, because for an apparently ‘imagined’ people they sure do create an atmosphere rivalled nowhere bar the cities of Barcelona and Madrid themselves.

Today, however goes back to the daily grind: Applying for permits to farm your land and visit relatives, though you probably won’t receive them; making it to work without being fired because you were held up for hours at a checkpoint for no reason bar your age; hoping no-one you know falls ill, hospital treatment is never guaranteed. Never mind the daily humiliation of having your day-to-day life controlled, the threat of being attacked by militant settlers, or being gassed for non-violently protesting that giant wall that runs through your families centuries old land, rooting up your olive trees and livelihood.

There are slight sighs of boredom in other parts of the world, complaining that Barcelona and Real Madrid play each other too often in a year. In an area of the world where constant conflict grinds individuals down, that constant hope for victory in the next El Clásico is just what this place needs; and the more games, the better.

Matthew Vickery has worked previously for Palestine News Network covering the protest movement against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. He is currently studying an MA Politics and International Relations at Aberdeen University and is a previous graduate of the Hunter Leadership Scholarship. He can be reached at:


A footnote to the rivalry of El Classic:
Castilia (Madrid) vs Catalonia (Barcelona)

El Clásico (Catalan El Classic) is the name given in football to any match between Real Madrid and Barcelona. It is contested twice a year in the Spanish La Liga competition, and more often if the clubs meet in other competitions. Other than the UEFA Champions League Final, it is the most followed club football match in the world, watched by hundreds of millions of people.


The Castilian people (Spanish: castellanos) are the inhabitants of those regions in Spain where most people identify themselves as Castilian. They include Castile-La Mancha, Madrid, and the major part of Castile and León.


Catalonia is an autonomous community in northeastern Spain, with the official status of a “nationality” of Spain.[1] Catalonia comprises four provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona. Its capital and largest city is Barcelona. Catalonia covers an area of 32,114 km² and has an official population of 7,535,251


See also

Football Palestine: the unofficial blog of the Palestinian National Football Team


Women’s football in Palestine

Womens Football in focus: FC Basel 1893 and Bayer 04 Leverkusen realising the third Episode of their Educational Programme in the Westbank
19 June 2011.

Don’t dream your life, live your dreams“ is the motto of Honey Thaljieh, former Palestinian national player and team captain. The young woman with her wild, curly hair and expressive, dark eyes is currently leading the workshop about “Women’s football in the Palestinian society” within the social football initiative of the Scort Foundation and its partner clubs FC Basel 1893, SV Werder Bremen and Bayer 04 Leverkusen.

Honey Thaljieh working to develop Palestinian soccer (Bethlehem, June 2011)

Honey has got a strong personality and is role model for many young women in Palestine. As young girl, she was fighting for playing football and kicked together with the boys of the neighbourhood. Due to the support of her physical education teacher, she got the chance to join the football team at school later. She was the only girl. “At the beginning it was quite difficult, but when my colleagues realised that I was really talented they started to accept me.” At university Honey bumped into an advertisement looking for football players to set up a Palestinian women’s team and out of that, a Palestinian national team. “I didn’t hesitate at all and got in touch with Samar al A’raj, who was the woman behind this idea. Together, we started to establish the women’ s team and later on the national team. The interest the media showed in our team, helped us a lot to get more acceptance in the Palestinian society.?Last year, at the 26th of June 2010, the first international cup between the Jordan and Palestinian women’s team took place in Palestine. A groundbreaking event! 14’000 spectators came to see the game. All this made it even harder for Honey when she realised that she couldn’t be part of the game. She had broken her knee some days ago. “It was a shock of course. But still, it had to go on and I supported my team as much as I could. Finally, I was put in for the last three minutes.”

Besides her passion for football, Honey studied business administration at the University of Bethlehem and will start the FIFA Masters this autumn. After her knee operation last year, she isn’t part of the national team anymore. But she still works in the football field and is involved in building up the structure of football in Palestine.?Currently, she is working at the Diyar Consortium, Scort’s main local partner in Bethlehem. Thus, she is also involved in the football education programme of the 22 young Palestinian women and men. The workshop, she is leading at the moment, is part of the theoretical pro-gramme. Honey knows how to get one’s attention.?With her stories, her charisma and her distinct power of volition, she knows how to awake the interest of the Young Coaches and to encourage them in their work as football trainers for kids. In her workshop she emphasises, how important it is to have a dream, and to follow it continuously. Whereof her way of life is the best example.

The Young Coaches and the instructors admire Honey’s commitment and power.?„I’m impressed, how Honey followed her target on and on, despite defeat” Khaled, one of the young coaches, emphasises. For him women’s football is something normal in the meantime.?The trainers Willy Schmid (FC Basel 1893) and Peter Quast (Bayer 04 Leverkusen) also point out the good acceptance of women’s football in Bethlehem, above all in their schooling group. “I was surprised, how much ambition the female participants showed“ according to Quast, who didn’t know the group before. Willy Schmid completes: I discover, that often the female Young Coaches take over the lead, not only in organisational tasks but also concerning the practical exercises on the field.„?The young women and men from the surrounding of Bethlehem are absolving their third and second last part of the one year education programme. According to the instructors from FC Basel 1893 and Bayer 04 Leverkusen conducting the practical part together with SV Werder Bremen, the participants have improved a lot since the project start in October 2010.?Honey is proud of her Palestinian friends and is happy about their participation in the education programme and their engagement as children’s coaches. “Football is playing an important social role and can foster the youth in their development.”

Inauguration of Palestinian women’s football team
10 February 2011

Palestinian players vie for the ball during a match to inaugurate the Palestinian Women’s Football League at a stadium in the West Bank town of al-Ram near Jerusalem on February 10, 2011.

Palestinian women’s soccer team (February 2011)


Women’s Palestinian national team plays first home match, U-20 suffers consecutive defeats
28 October 2009

On October 26th 2009 in a repeat of their male counterpart’s encounter on the same day last year, Palestine and Jordan’s womens national teams faced off in a friendly in the Faisal-Husseini stadium. The match ended in a 2-2 draw, heres the Ma’an news agency article on the match.

Palestinian women's soccer team (October 2009)


Israeli Cellcom Advertisement
26 July 2009

Palestinians responding to Israeli Cellcom advertisement
July 2009


Palestine News Network

Maan News



This entry was posted in News and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.