Football team was lone bright spot in West Bank village. Virus took that, too

The bleachers were mostly empty, the coach was nowhere to be found and the players were dejected as they suffered another lopsided defeat.

A feeling of gloom hovered over the football pitch, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, as the Taraji Wadi al-Nis football team played the penultimate game of its worst season in decades.

The visible frustration of the players in their bright blue-and-white uniforms had much to do with the knowledge that their storied, semi-professional football club — the pride of a tiny, pastoral village of just 1,400 residents, almost all from the same extended family — would be downgraded next season to the shame of the second division.

For the residents of Wadi al-Nis, in the occupied West Bank, the team’s disappointing season was one more example — but a particularly biting one — of how the coronavirus has aggravated the already hardscrabble circumstances in the village, where many people suffer from poverty and inconsistent employment.

Since the pandemic first emerged in the village last year, low-income families have cut down on meat consumption; labourers who work in Israel and nearby Israeli settlements have at times been unable to reach their jobs; and some of those sick with COVID-19 have racked up hefty medical bills.

“The coronavirus has been devastating for our town,” said Abdullah Abu Hamad, 46, a member of the local council and president of the football team, as he overlooked the village’s rocky landscape. “It has shaken up all of our lives, from the builders to the farmers to the players.”

Despite the hard life for many in Wadi al-Nis even before the pandemic, one bright spot that had long set it apart from similarly struggling villages in the occupied territories was the outsize success of its football team, traditionally a West Bank powerhouse.

But the coronavirus has taken that, too.

The financial crisis spurred by the virus has curtailed sponsorships for many Palestinian clubs, according to Susan Shalabi, a senior official at the Palestine Football Association. For the team in Wadi al-Nis, whose tiny fan base meant money was always tight, the loss of about $200,000 in government and private sector sponsorships was ruinous.

Instead of practicing at rented fields in neighbouring towns, the players now often train by running for hours along dirt paths beside grape vineyards and olive orchards.

While the team’s floundering has depressed the spirits of almost everyone in the village, its poorest residents have concerns that go well beyond losses on the pitch.

Haijar Abu Hamad, 64, a widow, usually relies on family and friends to assist her with basic expenses such as food, water and electricity bills, but few have been able to continue supporting her in the wake of the virus.

“Some days I only eat a piece of bread for dinner,” she said, doing little to hide her distress. “It’s a terrible feeling: You open the fridge and there’s barely anything there.”

Abu Hamad — the family name of almost everyone in the village is Abu Hamad — has two children and four grandchildren who were born with hearing deficiencies. She said the family could not afford to fix one of her grandchildren’s hearing aids.

If football has been the town’s primary entertainment option, its main economic engine has been jobs in Israel or neighbouring settlements.

During the initial weeks of the outbreak, however, Palestinian workers faced additional restrictions on crossing into Israel. Those over 50 were generally not allowed to enter at all, while some labourers in settlements were unable to reach their jobs.

“It was a devastating time,” said Ghaleb Abu Hamad, 39, who works as a tractor driver in a nearby settlement and has been a longtime defender on the village’s football team. “Unlike Israelis who got unemployment funds, we were left to fend for ourselves.”

Still, the employment picture has improved a bit. Villagers who work in Israel and neighbouring settlements said they had recently been able to reach their jobs on a regular basis, in part because they had received vaccines from Israel.

The name Wadi al-Nis, which means Valley of the Porcupine, is associated with football success across the West Bank. For most of its existence, the team, established in 1984, has played in the territory’s most prestigious league, and it won the top division championship in 2009 and 2014, according to Ghassan Jaradat, a media official for the Palestine Football Association.

But in addition to its history of football triumphs, there is another way in which Wadi al-Nis contrasts with many other villages in the West Bank: It has developed strong ties with the neighbouring settlements.

Many residents work in the settlements in construction, factory, farming and sanitation jobs. They often share holiday meals with their Jewish neighbours.

“We deal with our neighbours with manners, respect and morals,” said Abdullah Abu Hamad, the village council member. “We have good relations with them.”

Oded Revivi, 52, mayor of the nearby Efrat settlement, agreed that the two communities are close, calling the cooperation “endless,” whether that meant returning a lost dog or working together. The emergency medical centre in Efrat is used by Wadi al-Nis residents, he said.

But like many other West Bank villages, the political future of Wadi al-Nis is tied to one of the Middle East’s most intractable struggles. And it lacks basic infrastructure such as properly paved roads, public parks, sewage and bright street lighting. Public transportation infrequently passes through during the day; there is only one store in the centre of town.

For years, local leaders have tried to persuade the Palestinian Authority and international donors to invest in developing the area, but they have made little progress.

The Wadi al-Nis Charitable Society, which provides services to the village, said that it had historically encountered obstacles in raising money but that the virus had set it back even more.

“We basically got zero this year,” said Walid Abu Hamad, 46, director of the society. “The virus has sent us into our deepest crisis ever.”

The organization’s kindergarten has faced difficulties in purchasing essential school supplies such as pens and paper. Its financial assistance for poor people has been slashed. Long-standing plans for a top-of-the-line community centre seem further off than ever before.

When it comes to football, though, villagers are optimistic that the club will rise again — someday.

Ahmad Abu Hamad, 33, a veteran defender, vowed that the team would bounce back in the coming years. But he conceded that the team’s failure this past season had compounded the miseries of an awful period in his hometown.

“We were called the king of the championships. We won cup after cup after cup and we would celebrate them in the centre of town like we do during weddings,” he said as he sat beside four relatives who also play for the club. “Now, the streets are empty and quiet and the feeling of despair is palpable.”

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