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Sunday Jan. 31, 2010 4:10 PM (EST+7)
Soccer gains ground on politics in Gaza Strip

Read more: Gaza, Gaza Srip, African Cup, soccer fans, soccer, sports in Gaza, football

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 conflict.

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)







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