“It all started about a year and a half ago,” recalled Numan Abu Shamla, Secretary General of the Palestine Amputee Football Association.
“They are the first Palestinian national football team made up entirely of amputees, who lost their limbs under different unfortunate circumstances as a result of the Israeli siege.”
The Palestine National Team for Amputees was formed in 2019 by Simon Baker, the General Secretary of the European Amputee Football Federation, who has been working with amputee players alongside the International Committee Red Cross (ICRC) for three years, helping them hone their skills through high-level coaching.
The team is aiming to participate in the Asian qualification round scheduled to be held in March in Iran. If the team succeeds, they will go on to the Amputee Football World Cup, slated to be held in Turkey in late 2022.
Breaking common stereotypes about the disabled, the team train in crutches and stretch, run and dribble in prosthetic legs for three hours every Thursday at the Palestine Stadium in the Palestinian enclave under the supervision of the ICRC.
Discussing the selection process, Numan from Deir al-Balah Municipality, explained that the best 20 players were selected from a pool of 47 athletes representing five Gaza clubs.
“The players don’t let their disability get in the way while they train, they just focus on trying their hardest to win so they represent Palestine internationally,” he said.
“Football is an important and popular sport here in Gaza,” added Numan. “The majority of the players used to play football at quite a high standard before they lost a leg but since then, they have developed their skills like any mainstream player would by training.”
“It shows if you put the hard work in, anything can happen. For some of these players, it’s changed their lives.”
In the Gaza Strip, severe limb injuries caused by live ammunition are a significant burden on the already overstretched health system.
Between 30 March, 2018, and 31 July, 2019, more than 7,500 Palestinians were injured by live bullets fired by Israeli forces during the Great March of Return protests along the border fence separating Gaza from Israel, according to the Occupied Palestinian Territory Health Cluster; 87 per cent of those injuries are limb injuries and 5 per cent are injuries to the abdomen and pelvis.
Among more than 6,500 limb injuries, 148 directly resulted in amputations with 122 affecting lower extremities and 26 affecting upper extremities, according to the same statistics.
Just 16-years-old, Abdullah Mukhaimar is the youngest in the team. After losing his leg to an explosive bomb planted by Israeli soldiers in 2014 while playing in the streets, Abdullah remained secluded in his home the following years and gave up pursing his dreams of becoming a professional football player.
However, after reading of the first Palestinian national football team of amputees online, Abdullah contacted Numan and signed up straight away.
Playing is important to the development and well-being of children in any context. The lack of safe places for children to play and feel safe in Gaza is detrimental to Palestinian children’s mental and physical well-being.
“He plays with so much passion now on the field. He’s found new hope and is making up for the years he has missed playing.”
Ranked as the current best player in the team, Hossam Abu Sultan too, persevered through the trauma of losing his leg in 2014, while facing the daily struggles of life under occupation.
“Hossam was a player for one of the famous clubs in Gaza before he was shot in the leg during the March of Return protests, which had to be amputated. So, he suffered psychologically until joining the amputee football team. Now he is the best and most skilful player in the team.”
This, Numan says, was a testament to football’s highly technical and strategic nature.
Under the guidance of 55-year-old Simon Baker’s coaching, who is an amputee himself, 15 Palestinian coaches, 12 referees, and 80 amputee players were trained.
There’s discipline and routine from the coaching they also benefit from, noted Numan. “It’s structured, it’s competitive, not just a kick-around in the park.”
“Simon Baker once said the perfect words: Lionel Messi needs his two legs to play, Cristiano Ronaldo needs both his legs to play too. But Palestinians are the best players with just one leg and crutches.”