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Gaza's Ronaldo holds onto dream of international football career

Mohammed Balah is seen as a great hope who could play with the Palestinian national team but this wish is being held hostage by Israel's siege of Gaza
Mohammed Balah and his teammates training at a stadium in the Netsariem area in the south of Gaza city (MEE/ Sanaa Kamal)

GAZA STRIP - Concentration is the name of Mohamed Balah's game. Not even the cheering fans that fill al-Yarmouk stadium can distract this Gazan football player from the only sound that helps keep his piercing eyes affixed on the soccer ball like a bird of prey, his heartbeat. The 23-year-old from Gaza's al-Shatea refugee camp has one constant objective: scoring goals. 

As the derby match between Balah's club al-Sadakah and the opposing team Khadamat al-Shatea got underway, he and his teammates established control by skillfully manoeuvring around the playing field until Balah seized the ball and scored.

Before dropping to the ground and thanking God, he greeted his fans in the signature style of Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. "Don, Don, you are our hero, you are our star," his fans cheered, while his friends carried him high on their shoulders. 

'Don, Don, you are our hero, you are our star'- Fans' chant

According to the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), Balah was honoured as Gaza's best soccer player in the premier league and was also named winter champion at the end of the first leg of the soccer season.

Mohammed Balah training at a stadium in the south of Gaza city (MEE/Sanaa Kamal)
The al-Sadakah club sees Balah as crucial to maintaining its dominant position against 11 teams that will be competing this season. His performance so far has kept his club in the front ranking of the soccer league after the team’s victory against the al-Ahly team. 

Club captain Emad Hashim is counting on Balah and his teammates in securing this year's championship. According to Hashim, "Balah is the best one because he has a special character," and he considers him to be the team's spearhead because of his exceptional footwork and ability to score goals quickly.

"We depend on Mohammed because he can take the right decision at the right time, and he possesses the appropriate athletic skills," Hasim said.

The don in the field

Fans continued to show their joy while a boy beat a drum in enthusiastic accentuations of improvised music, in harmony with the resounding applause. In the spirit of true sportsmanship, Balah did not forget about rival fans and gestured to them by putting his hands on his head, as if to tell them, "I am sorry for that."

'No one disagrees that Balah could lead his team to the highest level in Palestinian sport' 

"This gesture told us that Balah is polite in the field," sports journalist Aahed Ferwana told MEE.

"No one disagrees that Balah could lead his team to the highest level in Palestinian sport, if he can keep performing consistently and keeps developing his skills, such as his offensive ability and controlling the ball after hijacking it from opponents' feet," he added.

He pointed out that sports critics admire Balah because "he is the only player who can carry the international game to Gaza, suffering under the Israeli siege".

Not only is his physical appearance remarkably similar to that of his hero, Ronaldo, but above all his unique playing style, strong body, impressive height and his demonstrable ability allow him to make tactical decisions in the heat of the moment.

Gazan footballer Mohammed Balahtraining training at a stadium in the south of Gaza city (MEE/ Sanaa Kamal)
"Really, he is a special soccer player; he brings a lot of qualities that qualify him to be always on the forefront," captain Hashim said.

Yet Balah's dream to represent Palestine internationally and bring athletic glory and recognition to his people is being held hostage at the Erez Crossing.

Israeli obstacles

Balah is one of hundreds of thousands of trying to pass through the Erez Crossing and not being allowed to do so.  Balah said that he had requested a travel permit for unhindered passage to the West Bank, but  was told by an Israeli intelligence officer that he was a security threat.

"You are a security reject," the officer said, according to Balah.

According to Israeli authorities, Balah was denied entry "due to harmful security information and in the light of the security situation".

"It was not an acceptable reason, and they did not convince me," said Balah. "The Israelis know very well that I am just a [football] player and they are following these procedures to tighten the siege against the residents of the Gaza Strip," he added.

'The Israelis know very well that I am just a [football] player'

- Mohamed Balah, Palestinian football player

Balah has unsuccessfully applied for permission to cross Erez several times and has been working towards his goal of playing internationally since he was a child. "I have not been involved in any military activities," he said. 

"I would be proud to be associated with the resistance fighters, but really I am not. I am just an athlete who wants to succeed in his career," he added. 

In 2004-2005, Balah was invited to play with the Palestinian national team, which is based in the West Bank, only 60 kilometers away from the Gaza strip, but he was denied permission to cross through Erez.

Complicated procedures to obtain permits from Israel mean that it can take from two to four weeks before the Israelis even respond. 

Each time he is denied permission, he said that it becomes more difficult, and it weighs upon him. "My dream fades away. I cannot accept this situation and I will still do my best to join the Palestinian team," Balah said. 

"I do not know if I will ever [be able to] leave Gaza and follow with my dream," he added.

Gaza teams unable to leave

Since 2014, after the war on Gaza, the 12 Palestinian teams in the strip have not been able to participate in any championships abroad. Israel prevented them from travelling to host countries.

The PFA is in a bitter struggle with its Israeli counterpart over freedom of movement. Jebril Rajoub, the head of PFA, has led a campaign aimed at having Israel suspended from FIFA.

His biggest hope is to eventually join the legendary Spanish team Real Madrid - just like his idol Cristiano Ronaldo. 

"Under the widely ignored Oslo accords of 1993, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are defined as two territories of a single unit, between which Palestinians should be allowed to move freely and trade goods without restrictions," Rajoub told MEE.

As for the Erez crossing, the Israeli Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement reports that since March 2006, Israel has denied Gaza residents passage except for extreme humanitarian cases.

Israel had been using "security" as a pretext for restricting movement of people and goods between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank long before the current siege was put in place, Gisha said.

For example, since 2000, Israel has occasionally allowed football players to exit Gaza, but considering the large number of Palestinian players, Israel has only allowed 40 percent of athletes to pass Erez, according to Gisha.

To complicate matters further, Egyptian authorities have kept the Rafah crossing almost completely closed since July 2013, following the military coup that toppled President Mohamed Morsi, only opening it for rare, brief intervals for humanitarian cases, due to the tense security situation in Sinai.

Al-Sadakah captain Hashim blames the Israel occupation for the difficulties in crossing the Erez border. "Israel deliberately obstructs the athletes' travel because the occupation mentality recognises that Gaza could make a lot of achievements in the sport at the international level."

Hashim feels that if Balah gets a fair chance, he will achieve international recognition as a world-class footballer. "Mohammed is distinguished from his comrades, he has the physical strength which cannot be overcome easily in the variables of the game," he said.

In hopeful defiance, Balah keeps his bags packed ready to travel, believing he will eventually get permission to travel and join the Palestinian team in the West Bank, where he can turn professional.

His biggest hope is to eventually join the legendary Spanish team Real Madrid - just like his idol Cristiano Ronaldo. 

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