Palestinian football pays high price for Gaza war

Palestinian football pays high price for Gaza war
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (C) receives, in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 1, 2014, the Palestinian national football team which won the AFC Challenge Cup.

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories - Palestinian footballer Ahed Zaqqut was a local legend. Hanging up his boots after a stellar career as a midfielder, he went on to coach in Gaza until an Israeli missile slammed into his home.

The 49-year-old was killed outright, robbing Gaza of one of its best-known players and most well-respected coaches.

"I heard an enormous explosion. I rushed out of the bathroom and saw a cloud of dust," his wife Mayada told AFP of the day when a missile hit their Gaza City home on July 30.

"Then I knew that the rocket had fallen on us. I saw Ahed, his head and chest were soaked in blood. I couldn't stop crying. The neighbours came and took him to hospital but he was already dead."

Although Zaqqut never played internationally, he was a local Palestinian celebrity and just one of a number of sportsmen killed as a result of Israel's bloody five-week confrontation with the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza.

The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) says it has not yet assessed the total cost from the war.

But several members of the footballing community have been killed along with countless fans in a territory where people are passionate followers of "the beautiful game".

Football is hugely popular across the Palestinian territories, where it has been played since the 1920s during the time of the British mandate.

The best footballers go onto become stars in the Arab world, playing for teams in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, for example, but local stars are much loved heroes in Gaza and the West Bank.

Playing Platini

Zaqqut himself hung up his boots in the 1990s after several career highlights which included a friendly against a French side headed by former French international Michel Platini, now president of UEFA, his wife said.

"In 1993, he played a friendly in Jericho between a Palestinian team and a French team captained by Michel Platini," she said.

He went on to set up the first football training ground in Gaza with his team winning the local championship in 2000.

But the intensive fighting in Gaza has laid waste to most of the pitches used by local teams to train.

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