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The impact of the Israeli wars was not exclusive to Gazan football but also affected the corporations sponsoring clubs and the sport itself.
The Israeli blockade and recurring wars in the Gaza Strip worsen the future of Gazan football. In Gaza, 45 football clubs compete across all leagues. Frequent financial crises shackle these clubs due to the blockade, destruction of sports institutions, lack of financial resources and the scarcity of sustainable income.
The impact of the Israeli wars was not exclusive to Gazan football but also affected the corporations sponsoring clubs and the sport itself. The wars destroyed several factories which had been supporting local tournaments and football clubs for years. Furthermore, more than 5000 other economic institutions were closed because of the blockade.
The Yazegi Group for soft drinks, an agent for Pepsi in Gaza, was ahead of those who paid the price of the frequent wars. The last chapter in a series of events targeting the company was the bombardment of its factory in 2020, which led to a decrease in sales before ultimately shutting it down as a result of the Israeli blockade.
For many years, the Yazegi Group was a distinct and constant sponsor of football tournaments in the Strip. According to Hammam Yazegi, head of the company’s development department, the Yazegi Group had greatly supported the Palestinian national team by, for example, hanging street posters. The company also supported numerous football teams and sponsored countless tournaments.
Yazegi told Fanack, “The Yazegi Group sponsored The Gaza Strip Cup in 2013. The tournament was named the Pepsi Cup at the time.
However, we suffered the damages of Israeli wars over and over. It resulted in shutting down the company and laying off more than 250 workers. With this shutdown, Gazan football leagues certainly lost one of their most significant sponsors.”
At the same time, Israel increased restrictions on other economic aspects in Gaza, exemplified by the imposition of limits on money transfers into the Strip.
Consequently, such restrictions affected clubs’ funding and sources of income. Moreover, it created an income gap between Gaza’s football players and their counterparts in the West Bank, especially since the two regions have their own leagues and do not have shared tournaments.
The Premier League in the West Bank is stable, enabling clubs to buy foreign professional players. West Bank players receive high salaries and contracts, ranging from $43,000 to $86,000.
According to Faeq al-Bassous, secretary of the Players Affairs Committee of the Palestinian Football Association, West Bank players receive salaries starting at $1,500. In contrast, Gazan players’ monthly wages do not exceed $380.
Players In Harsh Professions
Most of Gaza’s football clubs cannot fulfil their players’ and trainers’ dues because of their weak financial position. This matter has pushed many players to take on harsh professions to provide for their needs.
Nevertheless, for their love of the most popular sport in Gaza, many players – such as Mohamed al-Refi, who plays for Ittihad al-Shejaiya football club – keep training and pay for their diets out of pocket.
Al-Refi is working in one of the popular market stalls in the al-Shejaiya district. He played for several Premier League clubs but faced complications with his former teams as they could not pay his salaries and bonuses. He actually waited two years for one of the teams to pay him in instalments.
Al-Refi told Fanack, “Most players take on tough jobs besides playing football. Some had to work as construction workers, and others worked as taxi drivers. The problem arises when we think of going professional. Players don’t get healthy diets. And clubs are unable to provide for the most basic needs. And because of our jobs, we don’t get the rest required for our football future. Many of us struggle to earn our bread and struggle for our love for football.”
Mahmoud al-Habibi, who plays for Ittihad Khan Yunis, is another example. Despite being one of his team’s vital players, he has to work as a taxi driver.
Al-Habibi, 24 years old, previously suffered two injuries that kept him out of action for four months. Although he received physiotherapy at the club, the club could not cover some of his medical expenses. He confirms that he is not the only one facing such a predicament, especially since his club, which plays in the Premier League, has a limited budget.
Al-Habibi says, “In Gaza, we play football because we love it, but we cannot rely on it as a source of income. All we get is a bonus of no more than $200 every two or three months. Many professional players abandoned their teams because they were occupied with their jobs or planned to migrate and seek asylum. Some others struggle, hoping to play abroad.”
Limited Presidential Grant
On January 2022, after a long wait, the Palestinian Authority released 50 per cent of the presidential grant fees allocated to Gaza’s clubs for the current season.
However, the authority still suspended the remaining amount owed for the past two seasons. It should be noted that no official date has been set for grant distribution.
Each Premier League club will receive $12,500 from the grant. The clubs in the first, second and third division will each receive $7,500, $2,500 and $1,500, respectively.
Ittihad Beit Hanoun, a club which competes in the premier league, is one of the clubs that suffered considerably because of the grant suspension.
In an interview with Fanack, Shady Shabbat, the club’s president, said, “The club is living the repercussions of the problems between the players and the board of directors. It is because many players and technical staff did not receive their financial dues due to the suspension of the presidential grant.”
He added, “Clubs require at least $80,000 annually to operate properly. Because we cannot provide such an amount, most clubs cannot secure their coach’s salaries.”
The sports sector had already suffered greatly because of the frequent Israeli wars on the Gaza Strip. During the war Israel waged on the Strip at the end of 2008, 15 sports facilities were destroyed, and 11 Palestinian players were killed.
Additionally, Israeli planes destroyed the Yarmouk and Palestine stadiums, the two largest stadiums in the Gaza Strip, during the 2012 war.
The Israeli war on the Strip in 2014 partially or completely destroyed more than 30 sports institutions and killed 16 football players.
In this context, the economic force that is the primary supporting pillar of local sports in Gaza was severely affected. Sports clubs were forced to rely on the Palestinian presidential grant distributed to the premier league clubs and the first, second and third division clubs.
On the other hand, Hamas does not support Gazan football at all, despite gaining control in the Strip since 2007. Hamas does not want to interfere in Palestinian football affairs, fearing the sanctions that might be imposed on its government if accused of government interference in football. FIFA does not consider Hamas a legitimate government under international law.
Ooredoo is sponsoring the Gazan Premier League, providing each team with $10,000. In contrast, first through third-division clubs primarily rely on the presidential grant, which has been delayed on numerous occasions.
The grant primarily covers the operating expenses of the football section for multi-sports clubs. Therefore, these clubs had no option but to reduce budgets allocated to other sports.
As a result of not receiving the presidential grant and the subsequent stifling financial crisis it went through, the Ittihad Shabab Deir al Balah club announced it would freeze most of its activities.
Despite winning several titles last season, the club decided to freeze its handball activities. The case applies to the juniors section as well. Only the football team, which competes in the second division, has been kept active.
As for the first division, in July 2022, Ihab Abu Ramadan, the owner of al-Galaa Sports Club, announced his willingness to sell his club owing to the financial crisis.
In an interview with Fanack, Abu Ramadan said, “I, along with the board of directors, spent years covering the club’s expenses from our own money. Sponsorship fund inflows are scarce and don’t cover salaries and bonuses. Now, a new board of directors will be formed.”
For his part, Mostafa Seyam, the secretary general of the Palestinian Sports Media Association, believes that the Israeli blockade and the wars Israel has waged on Gaza annihilated the private sector projects that used to provide support and aid for these clubs going through financial crises.
Seyam recalls the social, cultural and youth activities that clubs used to organise before the blockade, besides sports activities. However, these clubs have lost their cultural role, and many have turned to only practising sports, including those whose activities were limited to football.
According to Seyam, clubs cannot develop a new strategy to focus on nurturing and internationally selling junior players. He said, “The football industry, investing in and buying players, these aspects give clubs a strong push to keep going. But Gaza’s harsh conditions prevent its clubs from executing such strategies.”
Both Seyam and Abu Ramadan agree on their future vision of sports and football in Gaza. According to them, Gazan football will not survive its ordeal as long as the Israeli blockade stands and as long as Israel continues to wage wars on the Strip.