Frontline Football

Monday, July 11, 2005 by

Ben Anderson presents some of the most interesting and thought-provoking documentaries currently on British television. It is a shame then, that more often than not they are tucked away either on BBC4, shown in late-night BBC2 slots or scheduled against soap operas on other channels.

Rather than concentrate merely on mainstream issues in the way that Panorama or even the shallow Tonight With Trevor McDonald do, the documentaries fronted by him and fellow traveller Simon Reeve are deep and absorbing. They go to places no other reporters seem to want to, and cover the stories that most of the media just isn’t interested in.

After the excellent Holidays in the Axis of Evil and Holidays in the Danger Zone, Anderson has turned his attention to football: a populist issue, yes, but there is no sign of your Beckhams or Ronaldinhos here. Part travelogue, part political comment, Frontline Football takes us behind the scenes of the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign for some of the world’s most troubled nations. There are no big name stars, no riches and little hope of ever getting through to the finals for most of the countries featured.

The first episode in the run concentrated on the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose squad kept absconding when the team visited Europe, while the second covered the Balkan flashpoint game between Bosnia and Serbia and Montenegro. This third part takes Anderson and his crew to perhaps the most troubled area in the world, and a national team that doesn’t officially have a nation to belong to: Palestine.

For the Palestinians, football is one of the main ways in which they are able to celebrate their nationality on a world stage, as FIFA is one of the few international bodies that recognises their right to exist. Despite this endorsement, the squad are forced to train in Egypt in the shadow of the ships that use the Suez Canal. The team have to play all of their games away from their home ground in the safety of the nearby mega-rich Gulf state of Qatar, and for their Hungarian coach simply assembling a side is one of the most difficult things he has to do. Heavy travel restrictions are in place for all Palestinians aged between 16 and 35, and a team has to be built from whatever the coach can find. The players from the West Bank find it difficult making it from there to the training camp, while some of the Gaza footballers end up being suspended by their own FA for leaving the area to visit their families. Meanwhile, star striker Ziad is banned from travelling by Israel for no apparent reason. Hence, we see players being recruited from a multitude of nations: Chile, Jordan, Argentina and the USA to name but four.

Internet adverts have to be placed to appeal for anybody with Palestinian ancestry to volunteer their services to the national team. So we see a player from America arrive who, up until now, had only ever played football for his college team, and a number of lower-league players from South America. This scouring of the globe results in a uniquely cosmopolitan line-up, with only a few of the squad able to converse with each other due to the multitude of languages.

The team is very poorly equipped for their campaign. There is only one grass pitch in Gaza (which we later learn had been destroyed by Israel after the filming was completed) and their boots don’t fit properly. It seems as though the rich businessmen, who are determined to have their home state represented, fund the entire football association of Palestine. Despite this generosity, resources are thin on the ground. Each player is given only $12 a day expenses, something that seems almost anathema to a footballer in the modern game. We see the squad on a shopping trip to a plush mall in Doha and the players are forced to browse, being unable to afford anything that is on display. One of them, Osama, wants to buy a phone card to telephone his wife and sick son back home, but is unable to do so due to a lack of funds. Can you ever imagine a Premiership player from England or a La Liga superstar encountering this kind of basic obstacle?

But the sheer pride that the players demonstrate is a welcome and refreshing attitude from footballers in this day and age. These players are concerned only with the game and representing their country.

The obstacles that the players and the Palestinian FA have to overcome would seem insurmountable to some, but despite the lack of proper facilities, despite the punitive travel restrictions and despite the best efforts of Israel to destroy their facilities, the proud Palestinians always try to do their best. The match against Iraq (with whom the Palestinians share great empathy as they also see it as an occupied country) takes place in a stadium in the middle of the Qatari desert and is preceded by the bizarre, yet amusing sight of a rousing bagpipe band in full uniform playing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. Fans, though, are thin on the ground, with the Palestinian team able to muster only around 30 – 40 supporters, their valiant cheers barely making an echo in the near-deserted stadium.

The match eventually results in a 4-1 victory for Iraq and may be a disaster for the World Cup campaign, but for the nation that is not a nation, battling against huge odds, it can only be considered a success. There is an eternal optimism amongst the Palestinians even in defeat. Due to their situation they have virtually no chance of ever getting through to the finals, but they are determined, no matter what, to try.

Anderson’s documentaries are part-travelogue, part-political study and are very rarely anything other than absorbing. The series is certainly worth seeing if you have even a passing interest in either football or current world affairs.


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