Eager fans line the sides of the simple sand pitch in the Rafah refugee camp, the southernmost point of the Gaza Strip, for the Ramadan Popular League final.
Defying hunger and thirst, the amateur football players of the besieged Gaza Strip have put on a display of their skills all month as they battled it out in the league to get to Tuesday’s final between the Rail Stars and Tadamon.
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Before getting to the tournament, they had played in a number of local amateur leagues all year, throughout Gaza, working their way up to the Ramadan League.
The residents of the Rafah refugee camp – more than 12,000 people – look forward to the football every Ramadan, and excitement builds as the pitch is smoothed over and the teams announce their lineups.
The players look forward to the Ramadan League games as well, as they have become an annual opportunity for some of them to be spotted by talent scouts, Al Jazeera reporter Hesham Zaqout said.
“This may not even be a regulation-size pitch,” one of the organisers told Zaqout, “but it’s a good pitch that’s a space where players and the audience can let off some steam.”
That these are not professional games is obvious not only from the ardent fans having to sit on the sand or stand in the back rows but also from some of the players who prefer to play barefoot or in socks on the shifting sandy surface.
A match commentator stands on the sidelines with his notes in his hand, his commentary being amplified over the entire pitch and stands.
The pitch itself is on the site of the old Egypt-Palestine railroad, which has given rise to some of the teams’ names, like the Rail Stars.
“This pitch is more popular than many other stadiums, it is a playground for refugees. We played here as children,” said Ahmed el-Loulahy, who plays for Khadamat Rafah Club.
Palestinian sports journalist Khaled Abou Zaher told Al Jazeera that the Ramadan League is as much a part of Ramadan as any other tradition people practise, adding that Rafah especially is known as an incubator for Palestinian football talent and that tens of Palestinian football stars had played in the tournament.
“This is an opportunity for players to let the world know of their skills in hopes that they are picked up by one of the clubs, like the Rafah Youth,” Abou Zaher continued.
“And at the same time, it’s an outlet for those players who won’t be able to make it to the clubs to play for their audience.”
As the final whistle sounded, announcing that the Rail Stars had won 2-1 over Tadamon, ecstatic fans poured onto the pitch to celebrate their heroes and the safe space in which they were able to enjoy the beautiful game.