Soccer was the joy of the Porcupine Valley. Then the virus came

Soccer was the joy of the Porcupine Valley Then the

WADI AL-NIS, West Bank – The stands were almost empty, the coach was nowhere to be seen and the players were dejected as they suffered another crushing defeat.

A sense of pessimism washed over the soccer field outside Jerusalem as the Taraji Wadi al-Nis soccer team played the penultimate game of its worst season in decades.

The palpable frustration of the players in their bright blue and white uniforms had a lot to do with knowing that their legendary, semi-professional soccer club – the pride of a tiny herding town with only 1,400 residents, almost all belonging to the same family. extended – in the next season he would descend to the shame of the second division.

For the inhabitants of Wadi al-Nis in the occupied West Bank, the team’s disappointing season was yet another example – one particularly painful – of how the coronavirus has exacerbated already difficult circumstances in the village, where many people suffer poverty and irregular employment.

Since the pandemic hit the town last year, low-income families have reduced their meat consumption, day laborers working in Israel and nearby Israeli settlements have sometimes been unable to get to their jobs, and some people have become ill. of COVID-19 have racked up expensive medical bills.

“The coronavirus has been devastating for our people,” said Abdullah Abu Hamad, 46, a member of the local council and president of the soccer team, as he gazed at the rocky outlook of the village. “It has shaken the lives of everyone from builders to farmers to players.”

Despite how tough life was for many in Wadi al-Nis even before the pandemic, what had long brought them joy and made a difference from similar villages experiencing difficult circumstances in the occupied territories was the the disproportionate success of his football team, a traditional West Bank powerhouse.

However, the coronavirus took that too.

The virus-fueled financial crisis has cut off sponsorships for many Palestinian clubs, according to Susan Shalabi, a senior manager at the Palestinian Football Association. For the team in Wadi al-Nis, whose tiny fan base meant money was always tight, the loss of around $ 200,000 in government sponsorship and private initiative was devastating.

Instead of training on rented pitches in neighboring towns, players now run for hours on dirt roads alongside vineyards and olive groves.

Although the team’s setbacks have depressed the spirits of almost everyone in the village, its poorest residents have concerns that go far beyond defeats on the court.

Haijar Abu Hamad, a 64-year-old widow, relies on family and friends for basic expenses such as food and water and electricity bills, but few have been able to support her due to the virus.

“There are days when I only eat a slice of bread for dinner,” he said, unable to hide his concern. “It is a terrible feeling: you open the refrigerator and it is almost empty.”

Abu Hamad – the last name of almost everyone in the village is Abu Hamad – has two children and four grandchildren who were born with hearing disabilities. She said the family could not afford to repair the hearing aid of one of their grandchildren.

Just as soccer has been the main entertainment option of the people, its main economic engine has been jobs in Israel or in neighboring settlements.

However, during the first weeks of the outbreak, Palestinian workers faced additional restrictions on crossing into Israel. In general, people over the age of 50 were not allowed in, while some day laborers in settlements were unable to get to work.

“It was a devastating moment,” said Ghaleb Abu Hamad, 39, who works as a tractor driver in a nearby settlement and has long played as a defender on the village soccer team. “Unlike the Israelis who have unemployment funds, we were left to our own devices.”

Still, the job outlook has improved a bit. Villagers working in Israel and neighboring settlements say they have been able to get to their jobs regularly lately, in part because they have received vaccinations from Israel.

The name Wadi al-Nis, which means Valley of the Porcupine, is associated with soccer success throughout the West Bank. For most of its existence, the team, founded in 1984, has played in the territory’s most prestigious league, winning the first division championship in 2009 and 2014, according to Ghassan Jaradat, media manager for the Association of Palestine football.

But in addition to its history of soccer triumphs, there is another aspect in which Wadi al-Nis stands in stark contrast to many other West Bank towns: it has developed strong ties to neighboring settlements.

Many residents work in construction, factories, agriculture, and sanitation in the settlements. They often share holiday meals with their Jewish neighbors.

“We treat our neighbors with politeness, respect and morals,” said Abdullah Abu Hamad, a member of the people’s council. “We have good relations with them.”

Oded Revivi, 52, mayor of the nearby Efrat settlement, agreed that the two communities were close, calling the cooperation “never-ending”, whether it was to return a lost dog or to work together. Residents of Wadi al-Nis use the Efrat emergency medical center, he said.

However, like many other West Bank towns, the political future of Wadi al-Nis is linked to one of the most difficult conflicts in the Middle East. Furthermore, it lacks basic infrastructure such as properly paved roads, public parks, drainage, and decent public lighting. Public transportation runs infrequently during the day; there is only one store in the center of town.

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

The Wadi al-Nis Charitable Society, which provides services to the village, said it had historically faced obstacles in collecting money, but the virus had created even more setbacks.

“Basically, we did not receive anything this year,” said Walid Abu Hamad, 46, director of the society. “The virus has led us to the deepest crisis in our history.”

The organization’s kindergarten is struggling to purchase essential supplies for the school campus, such as pens and paper. Your financial assistance for poor people has been cut. Long-standing plans to build a quality community center seem more distant than ever.

However, when it comes to football, the locals are optimistic that the club will rise again… one day.

Ahmad Abu Hamad, 33, a veteran defender, promised that the team will return in the next few years. However, he accepted that last season’s failure had compounded the miseries of a horrible period in his hometown.

“They called us the King of Championships. We won cup after cup and celebrated them in the center of town like we do during weddings, ”he said as he sat next to four relatives who also play for the club. “Now the streets are empty and silent and the sense of despair is palpable.”

Adam Rasgon reports from Israel for the Times office in Jerusalem. He previously covered the Palestinian territories and the Arab world for The Times of Israel. @adamrasgon