Pitch Battle, a one-hour documentary that followed the against-all-odds story of the Palestinian football team as they compete for the first time in the biggest football tournament in Asia, has been selected as a finalist in the Australian Sports Commission’s media awards for 2015.
Featured from Al Fida’i – The Redeemers, as the team is known locally – are Sameh Maraaba, a Palestinian striker imprisoned by Israel on accusations of being a courier for Hamas; Abdelhamid Abu Habib, an exile from Gaza who lives on the West Bank and hasn’t been home in three years; and the team’s assistant coach, Saeb Jundiyeh, whose house in Gaza was bombed during last year’s Hamas-Israel war.
Then there’s the team’s boss, Jibril Rajoub, who spent more than 15 years inside Israeli prisons and is unashamedly playing political football with the team; and Amr Hannoun, their photo-journalist whose candour about the conflict is revealing and confronting.
The Palestinians became the Cinderella story of world sport in 2014 when their team defied 18 other Asian minnows to win the Challenge Cup, their first ever piece of international silverware. But what they won was not just a trophy; they real prize was the 16th and final ticket to Australia to play in the 2015 Asian Cup for the very first time.
For the throng of Palestinians who watched the Challenge Cup final, the victory suspended the misery of the Israeli occupation. But not for long. Within six weeks Gaza again became the Ground Zero of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over 52 days, Israel’s army pounded Hamas in retaliation for its rocket strikes. More than 70 Israelis and more than 2000 Palestinians were killed, among them 37 sports players, according to Jibril Rajoub.
Now Al Fida’i, the ultimate underdogs, are en route to Australia. Football is the (relatively) easy part; travelling as a team is much harder. With no international airport in Palestine, they must conquer a geopolitical steeplechase out of Palestine, through Israeli border patrol and across Allenby Bridge to Jordan before flying to Australia. But some of the team – especially those from Gaza – have been detained by Israel, and they are never sure who will, and who won’t, make it.
Filmed over five months in Gaza, Ramallah, Nablus, Kalkilya, the Philippines and Australia, Pitch Battle captures a story seldom told: the human story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of ordinary players who love football but struggle to compete on a level playing field. Set partly in Palestine against the backdrop of the war in Gaza, and partly in Australia, which does not officially recognise Palestine, Pitch Battle avoids the black and white of everyday political discourse and thrusts viewers into the nuanced grey zone of the century-old conflict where freedom fighters and terrorists collide, and where players become pawns in a political game.