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Refugee United: Palestinians debut at Homeless World Cup

By James Montague, CNN
  • Palestinian team makes its debut at the 2010 Homeless World Cup in Rio
  • The tournament aims to raise awareness of global homelessness
  • 64 teams will compete, with the final taking place Sunday
  • The Palestinian team is drawn from Lebanon's refugee camps

Tyre, Lebanon (CNN) -- The highway south from Beirut towards the small football pitch on the outskirts of the Al Buss Palestinian refugee camp is dark and littered with the tell-tale signs of a dysfunctional state.

Every few miles are broken by army roadblocks manned by heavily armed troops, and roadside portraits of Hezbollah's heroes -- both dead and alive -- increase in number the further south you travel.

Potholes the size of dustbin lids spring out of nowhere; lights, thanks to Lebanon's chronic power shortage and electricity rationing, are virtually non-existent.

Out of the darkness the Palestinian footballers arrive one by one. Some have traveled three hours to make it for training.

But the journey is worth it. They are preparing for the biggest tournament of their lives: The 2010 Homeless World Cup, taking place this week in Brazil.

"We are going to prove to the whole world that the Palestinians have a right to play," said Sameh Zeidani, a member of the Palestinian Sport Office in Lebanon who put the team together, greeting each player as they arrived on the pitch.

Every team can only play two Palestinians. If I want to play, it is hard
--Ismael Mashaal, striker

"It's very hard here for the Palestinians," he continued. "Every time they want to leave the camp they have to pass many checkpoints. Inside the camps we do not have electricity all the time; six hours with electricity, six hours without. Life is very hard."

There are 64 national teams competing in Rio, all with the aim of raising the issue of homelessness on a global stage, while trying to use football as a way of giving motivation and structure to lives that previously had little or none.

The organizers estimate that 70 percent of the players who have competed in the tournament since the first in 2003 have gone on to make life-changing decisions, either by giving up alcohol and drugs, getting work or repairing ruined relationships. But there have been some notable footballing successes too.

One member of the Brazilian homeless women's team, Michelle Da Silva, was spotted by former Manchester United star Eric Cantona and picked for the under 20s national team.

Patrick Mbeu, a former goalkeeper for the Rwandan national team who was in the squad for the 2004 African Cup of Nations, used to live on the streets in France and now coaches at Paris Saint-Germain.

But for the World Cup organizers, the definition of homelessness is necessarily amorphous. In Europe it is associated with actual, physical homelessness; people living on the streets, on the very edges of affluent societies.

In the developing world, homelessness takes a very different form. Brazil and Argentina pick their teams from shanty towns known as "favelas" or "villas miserias."

But the Palestinians, who have no state of their own, define those who live in Lebanese refugee camps as homeless -- as many as 227,000, according to January 2010 figures from the U.N., out of a total Palestinian population in Lebanon estimated at 426,000.

Almost five percent of Lebanon's population live in the country's 12 camps which, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), are in a dire state.

"All 12 official refugee camps in [Lebanon] suffer from serious problems -- no proper infrastructure, overcrowding, poverty and unemployment. [Lebanon] has the highest percentage of Palestine refugees who are living in abject poverty," says the report.

We are going to prove to the whole world that the Palestinians have a right to play
--Sameh Zeidani, team manager

For decades the Palestinians have also been denied the right to work in a host of professions, study or own property. In the vacuum, Palestinian militias have thrived.

In 2007 the situation came to a head when clashes broke out between Fatah al Islam, a Palestinian jihadist group, and the Lebanese army at the Nahr al Bred refugee camp near Tripoli. The camp was virtually leveled and as many as 500 people died in the fighting.

A few days before we arrived in Tyre, a gun battle had broken out in the Al Buss camp between forces loyal to Fatah and Hamas. According to the Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star, three people were injured.

"They say that the Palestinians, we do not want to give him the right to have a house, maybe it will help him forget his country. Forget Palestine," shrugged Zeidani. "At the Homeless World Cup, a lot of people are homeless, but they are inside in their homes. The Palestinians are the real homeless people."

As training begins, the players patiently wait their turn as two teams of local footballers play out an ill-tempered game. The coach Mullah Abduallah Yousef has spent months picking the best players, but it has been tough. Once there was a separate Palestinian league. But now the money has run out.

"We chose the best players from the Palestinian camps and clubs [but] there is no stadium [in the camps] and no [financial] support," said Yousef, before running his team through their paces.

"But we hope the players can show the flag of Palestine."

Yet for Palestinian footballers there are few opportunities in the Lebanese football league, which has its own sectarian problems.

Each side is aligned with different religious and political groups, meaning that almost every game was mired in sectarian violence, so much so that the government banned spectators from attending football matches four seasons ago.

The Lebanese Football Association also imposes a strict quota on first division clubs: Each club is allowed three foreigners, and only two Palestinian players.

Only one player in the squad, striker Mohammad Balawni, plays in the Lebanese league, for the Christian side Racing Beirut.

Balawni scored four goals in the team's first match of the tournament, an 8-2 demolition of Finland. "Yes, there's a problem as a Palestinian to play in a Lebanese team," explained the team's star striker Ismael Mashaal, a student who comes from the Rashidiya camp. "Every team can only play two Palestinians. If I want to play it is hard."

But it is his life outside of football that provides the real hardship. "I'm a student. If I finish my studies -- I am a civil engineering student -- I have to leave Lebanon. I am Palestinian and can't go to my country so I have to find another country," he told CNN.

The situation, on paper at least, has improved slightly. Last month the Lebanese parliament announced that the Palestinians would finally get the legal right to work, as well as some worker protection.

But despite the change they are still barred from buying property, as well as being barred from certain professions including law and medicine.

After training, the players finish with a match against some of the local men, who have waited patiently on the sidelines, smoking bubbling hookahs as they watched the team prepare for their trip to Rio.

Tackles fly in, players are admonished for their failures when a goal is conceded; others feted when they score. One more goal is required for either side to win.

But suddenly the pitch is immersed in darkness. The nightly power cut ends any hope of a result, and a diplomatic draw is declared. The homeless players feel their way towards the camps they call home.