Each week their passion resonates as they spill blood, sweat and tears on futsal courts around Victoria, but as Joe Gorman discovered, there is far more than just a love of the sport uniting the players of the Palestinian Community Association Futsal League.
On the futsal court, Ahmed Azzam is a whirlwind of aggression. The captain of the Gaza Warriors team is barking orders at his teammates, the referee and occasionally the opposition. Misplaced passes, perceived injustices and clumsy tackles are all met with mini-explosions of anger, but as Ahmed stalks around the court, his dedication and focus is infectious. He plays those 40 minutes of futsal like they are his last moments on earth.
When you speak to him, you soon learn it's a case of white-line fever. Away from the court his voice carries the confidence of his on-court persona, but he's otherwise calm, polite and doesn't stop smiling. Ahmed, 27, has just opened his own optometry business in Melbourne's northern suburbs, and over the last six months has volunteered his time to raise over $25,000 to rebuild infrastructure in Gaza.
Ahmed was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents and most of his family lives in Al-Zaytoun in Gaza. During the last Gaza war in July 2014, an Associated Press report found that 844 Palestinians were killed, around 60 per cent of whom were civilians. Other reports had the number killed at more than 1000. Watching on in horror from the safety of his home in Australia, Ahmed felt compelled to raise money for his people. "If we as Palestinians didn't try to do anything, who would?" he asks. "It's easy to go on Facebook and comment, but what helps is action."
Ahmed put out a donation box in his optometry clinic, but the real work was done through social media to spread the word, with the money sent directly to family members. “You can raise awareness all you want but short term solutions are important too,” he says. Some of the money raised was used to build a water well, pictured here, in Jabalia in Gaza, an area that has been heavily targeted by Israeli airstrikes.
The futsal competition involving diaspora Palestinians also helped to raise money within the community. Gaza Warriors is one of eight sides competing in the Palestinian Community Association (PCA) Futsal League. In Sunday afternoon’s grand final against Gaza FC at the Olympic Village in Heidelberg, Ahmed lead his side to a thumping 7-3 victory.
“This group isn’t interested in chit-chat,” says Imad Sukkar, the president of the PCA. Imad, 55, approached young Palestinian-Australians to become involved in the organisation last year. According to Imad, a generational shift in the PCA, which is run mostly by older men, is “the most critical and the most important issue for the organisation.”
Football was the key.
Initially the PCA elders felt it would be good to establish a Palestinian football club in the Victorian state leagues, but the hurdles were insurmountable. Many of the players – including Ahmed who plays for Brunswick City in the second division – already had a club to commit to. The capital, time and energy to start afresh was simply too great. Besides, Football Federation Australia requires all teams to drop any foreign or ethnic references in their team name and logos. This, of course, ran counter to the whole point of the exercise for the Palestinian community.
The response from young men and women was astounding. A professional website, complete with highlights packages, Facebook links, articles and information was quickly set up, while each team was named after lost or occupied Palestinian towns and villages with reference to the particular area the players (or their families) came from.
Ghassan Zakaria, 25, is one of the organisers and plays for Al-Tira Stars, named after an occupied town near Haifa in Israel where his family is from. “The idea was to reintroduce the youth to Palestinian culture,” he says. “The names are to get players thinking of where they come from.”
For many of the younger Palestinian-Australians, that link with the past is very important. Both Ghassan and his little brother Kamal knew they were of Palestinian heritage, but never made much of the connection until becoming involved in the futsal league.
This is echoed by Saad Dawwas, a clear-eyed, strikingly handsome 25 year old who was born in Kuwait and migrated to Australia with his parents in 1992 after the Gulf War. “It’s about identity,” says Saad, who also dances in the Jafra dabke group which performs before the games. “I was really proud to wear this jersey that says Gaza FC even though I live in Australia.”
So proud, in fact, that he and his teammates have decided to take Gaza FC to a different futsal competition in Box Hill. “My team has always been the same players but we never called ourselves Gaza FC until the PCA league. We should carry this name over to different leagues – same jersey, same colours and same players.”
The PCA have worked for years to raise awareness of Palestine in the wider community but, as the recent Asian Cup has shown, football is a powerful way to connect people. “When people talk about Palestine, they think about politics and protests,” says Dana Chamma, the 22 year-old leader of the Jafra dabke group and the scorekeeper for the futsal league. “But football is a celebration.”
Although the community is spread around three main centres in Melbourne – Dandenong in the south, Doncaster in the east and Roxburgh Park in the north – the futsal league is designed to bring Palestinian-Australians closer together. Personal links have also been forged and strengthened between the Palestinian players and their non-Palestinian teammates.
Ahmed’s Gaza Warriors team, for example, includes an Iraqi and a Turkish player, while Saad’s Gaza FC has Greek and Anglo-Australian players. “When we had the Gaza protests in July, a lot of the guys who aren’t Palestinian who play soccer with us came to the protest,” explains Ghassan.
The futsal may be more fraternal than competitive, but it’s providing this group of young Palestinian-Australians with a sense of purpose and community. Over shisha, the elder statesman, Imad, tells me he can see a few leaders emerging. He’s looking for a permanent residence for the PCA in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, but he knows steady foundations for the organisation are set by people.
“These youngsters,” he says proudly, “this generation is probably more Australian than any of us. They know the culture and they can communicate effectively. I want them to hold the flag and take over the responsibility. The world is for them.”
Saad, Dana, Ghassan and many others are about to start teaching at an Arabic Sunday school, but for Ahmed, the dream is to represent Palestine. Seeing them play in Australia at the Asian Cup has given him a new goal. And it’s not an unrealistic one – in 2010 he trialled with 2003 AFC Champions League winner Al-Ain in the Emirates before injuries curtailed his progress. Next week he’ll start the Victorian state league season with Brunswick City, but the long road starts here with his three brothers Abdullah, Ismail and Abdulrahman at Gaza Warriors.
“I love futsal, and it’s great to see the Palestinian community do something like this,” he says. “This is one way to stay in touch with our identity. For me, it’s inspiring.”
Joe is editor for Leopold Method