By Howard Schneider
The Washington Post
Like any soccer match among 6-year-olds, the gang behind the village school brought as much structure to the game as a swarm of bees.
But Omar Abu Hamad, coach of the champion Wadi al-Nees Blue Eagles of the Palestinian Football Association, was already scouting his next generation of players -- including the speedy sons of two of his current stars.
If all goes well, he said, this village of 800 in the occupied West Bank will continue to produce a punch-above-its-weight squad for Palestinian league play, and contribute to a Palestinian national team worthy of the world stage.
"Their talent puts them on the right track," he said of the children, indistinguishable to a novice eye but for the fact that some ran after the ball and some didn't. "The reputation is very important to us. We want to build our team."
More than 15 years after the Oslo peace accords put Palestinian society on what was envisioned as a path to self-government, prospects for the creation of a Palestinian state are in limbo. The current Israeli government has said that progress on security must precede steps to establish final borders or resolve other key issues. Palestinian society, meanwhile, is largely split between the Fatah movement, which favors a negotiated settlement with Israel, and Hamas, which rejects Israel's existence.
While the Oslo accords in 1993 gave the Palestinians more leeway to build civil institutions, the intervening decade and a half in many ways has been time lost -- a fact the two sides blame on each other.
But last fall, the soccer league completed a full 21-game season. That may not seem like a profound step forward, but it is one that gave fans of teams in 22 towns and villages a taste of normalcy, and a chance to wave a flag in a context that didn't involve rock throwing or tear gas.
Play had been suspended for years because of the violent Palestinian uprising, or intifada, that broke out in 2000. But the sport appears to be on the upswing under the guidance of Jibril Rajoub, better known as the general who ran one of the two main security services maintained by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Though still active in politics, Rajoub is head of the Palestinian Football Association and has used the job to promote the type of nation-building projects often missing following Oslo.
Roughly $3 million in overseas donations and some local funding paid for renovations that brought Ramallah's al-Husseini stadium up to international standards. Last fall, the Palestinian national team played its first ever FIFA-sanctioned home match: a 1-1 draw against Jordan.
Perhaps as significant, Wadi al-Nees -- for its winning effort in last season's league play -- earned a $25,000 prize that will let the Blue Eagles invest in new shoes and equipment and perhaps start developing a home pitch, or playing field. The team currently practices on the same blacktop playground where the coach scouts the 6-year-olds.
The association this year won the first-ever development award from FIFA, soccer's governing body.
"For the first time in years we had a league from A to Zed. For the first time in the history of Palestine we had a league for women. We had a home pitch. This has never happened," Rajoub said. "One of the problems we have is to convince the international community that we deserve independence. Presenting the Palestinian people through sport is an important development -- to convince the world that we are normal."
It has certainly become central to Wadi al-Nees, the playfully named "Valley of the Porcupines."
The village sits on a hillside south of Bethlehem, near the Israeli settlement of Efrat. Salim Abu Hamad, the soccer team's director, said their area had not witnessed serious clashes during the intifada. Many men in the town work as stonecutters in a nearby Palestinian-owned quarry. It's a quiet life in a village where most everyone is related, by blood or marriage, to the Abu Hamad clan.
Which makes the soccer, like everything else here, a family affair. The team is largely a gaggle of brothers and cousins, though they have imported a player or two from outside Wadi al-Nees.
Although that might seem a recipe for trouble -- particularly when it comes to benching your brother or telling your nephew he didn't make the cut -- Salim Abu Hamad said people trust his judgment.
A clubhouse full of trophies and banners shows why.
The team was formed in the 1980s, and at first was a doormat for one of the lower divisions in the nascent league. As the league expanded, Wadi al-Nees eventually started bringing home prizes even as it advanced to the top division -- a triumph, team members say, against the odds.
Goalkeeper Mohammed Abu Hamad is hardly a giant in the net. But he scoffs at mention of his short stature and notes that in 21 games last year the Blue Eagles allowed only 10 goals.
According to the coach, the blood ties make the team better. He imposes discipline -- $20 fines for anyone late to practice -- and believes the Blue Eagles cooperate better because they are all relatives.
"The secret is loving one another," he said. "Other teams fight among themselves."
Then again, there are the skinned knees and elbows that make blacktop practices such a challenge.
The Abu Hamads, coach and director, say they have the talent to stay atop the Palestinian league and, over time, help boost the national squad out of its ranking of 174, between Bangladesh and St. Lucia.
Ultimately, they said, a match against the Israeli national squad is not out of the question, but only after they have a few years to build.
"Now," said Salim Abu Hamad, "we just need a field."
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