GAZA, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Palestinians in the Gaza Strip will
be cheering on Egypt in the African Nations Cup final on Sunday
with an enthusiasm that contrasts sharply with their
disappointment over economic hardship and prospects for peace.
In coffee shops where political talk used to reign, soccer
is now king. Seats were booked days in advance to watch holders
Egypt, Gaza's southern neighbour, take on Ghana in the final in
Luanda later on Sunday.
This is an expression of people's disgust with politics and
losing hope, Palestinian political analyst Talal Okal said,
citing high unemployment and an Israeli blockade of the
Hamas-ruled enclave that has deepened hardship.
When people ... cannot find solutions to their political
problems, they shift their interest to movies and sports. Sports
have become a prime interest, he said.
Soccer has always been popular in the Gaza Strip but is
overshadowed by intense focus on the Israeli-Palestinian
In recent months, however, Palestinians have rallied to the
sport, avidly following the fortunes of Spanish teams Barcelona
and Real Madrid, whose games are televised via satellite.
A new sporting goods store, named Kaka, in honour of the
Real Madrid playmaker, has opened in Gaza.
Many cars in the enclave now sport team flags, and children
wear training suits emblazoned with the names of their favourite
Arab or European players.
Restrictions imposed by the territory's Islamist rulers on
political demonstrations have turned support for soccer teams
into a safe outlet for pent-up emotions.
It is safe to support Egypt and Barcelona, to chant, sing
and dance for them much more than to do that for a faction of
your choice at home, said Khalid Ali, a Gaza soccer fan.
The economic, political and social conditions are
exhausting. Crossings are closed and therefore people are trying
to entertain themselves, said 20-year-old student Izzeldeen
Filfil, a supporter of the Egyptian team.
Raed Lafy, a Gaza journalist, agreed.
There is sense of despair and there is a mistrust in the
leadership whether in the West Bank or in Gaza Strip, he said
before turning his chair in a restaurant to watch the second
half of the Egypt-Algeria semi-final last Thursday.
Support for the Egyptian team is still high in the Gaza
Strip despite tensions between Cairo and Hamas over Egypt's
construction of a border wall aimed at choking off arms and
commercial goods smuggled into the Gaza Strip.
People are lining up like crazy to buy Egyptian flags to
wave, said Tareq Abu Dayya, a flag shop owner.
(Editing by Justin Palmer)