Sports

The Palestinian Schoolboy Dreaming of an International Soccer Career

Palestinians in Lebanon are largely excluded from the political and cultural sphere, but for 11-year-old Omar, soccer has helped build bridges.

by Mat Nashed
May 26 2015, 5:30pm

Photography by John Owens

Standing on the goal line, Omar Mohammed bounces on the balls of his feet. An 11-year-old Palestinian schoolboy, he finds sanctuary on the rugged pitch in Beirut's Shatila refugee camp—a 66-year-old enclave, built to shelter Palestinians expelled during the creation of Israel. Fenced away from the camp's dangling electric wires and garbage-ridden streets, it was here that Omar's father first brought him to meet coach Majdi.

"We forget about our problems when we play together," Omar told me while watching his peers compete from the sidelines.

Majdi, a 41-year-old man with a short beard and black hair, created a football association in 2009 to train young players and keep his own children away from violence. But since Palestinians are prohibited from playing with Lebanese sport clubs, scouts never had an opportunity to see his team play.

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Palestinians in Lebanon are excluded from the political and cultural sphere. They are prohibited from pursuing citizenship, performing high-skilled labor and owning property in the country. Marginalized and confined, many youths are pushed into child labor or enticed by the glamour of militias and gangs.

But for boys like Omar and his friends, football has offered a glimmer of hope to overcome the political and social hardships of statelessness.

While Majdi's association quickly earned him the trust of families in the camp, he struggled to convince Lebanese clubs to play a match against his team. Shunned by almost every football side in Beirut, he had nearly given up when he approached David Nakhid.

A former international for Trinidad & Tobago and the founder of the largest football academy in Lebanon, David invited Majdi's team to play a match against his club. And though Majdi's squad lost, the two men quickly formed an unlikely bond.

"Before David, Lebanese clubs refused to play with us when they realized we were Palestinian," Majdi told me while watching his youngest son dribbling a football on Shatila's ragged field.

"I respect Majdi," said David, a tall thin man with dark skin and black sunglasses. "A lot of people in his situation would lose their optimism."

During one of Majdi's recurrent visits to the academy, David told him that he needed a goalkeeper to train with his club. Excited about the academy's ties to Europe, Majdi called Omar's family immediately. That week David witnessed Omar's potential first hand. And soon after, he sponsored him to play with his team.

Omar's father, Walid, was jubilant when he heard the news. Driving to the academy each Sunday, he watched his son learn how to anticipate and dive for the ball. Under David's guidance, he also saw his confidence grow.

"David helped me realize my talent," Omar told me, sitting next to his father in their home.

"I hope football can allow my son to belong to a country one day," added Walid, throwing an arm around Omar.

After training with the academy for nearly a year, Omar began preparing for his team's biggest tournament in Barcelona. And while playing against international competition enthralled him, he knew statelessness and poverty made it extremely difficult for Palestinians to acquire a visa. Abandoning expectations, he handed David his travel documents and waited anxiously for an answer.

In March of this year Omar got the news: he was going to be the first Palestinian boy from Shatila to play in the Copa Maresme tournament. When he came home to tell his family, his parents embraced him and his brothers celebrated.

A few weeks later he travelled with the team to Barcelona. With scouts from across the globe watching, Omar made himself known. Saving five penalties in six matches, he demonstrated extraordinary leadership to help his team to the final. And despite losing on penalties against a club from Germany, he was named the most valuable goalkeeper in the tournament.

"It was amazing," he said, before showing me his goalkeeping gloves in his home. "It was like each match ended too fast."

While his performance on the pitch amounted to a dream come true, one of his most memorable moments came as a spectator. On April 8, Omar and his team-mates attended a La Liga match between Barcelona and UD Almería at Camp Nou; Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez both scored in a 4-0 win for the hosts.

When he returned to Shatila three days later, Omar made his way back to where he first started. Standing on the sideline next to his father, he watched coach Majdi train his peers on the pitch where he first played.

Omar continues to train with David's academy and hopes to play in more international tournaments. And though a professional career is far from guaranteed, his greatest ambition is to play internationally for Palestine when he's older.

"I hope to play for my people," said Omar, smiling at his father across the living room. "I want to be a goalkeeper for Palestine someday."