One family behind West Bank's best soccer team
WADI AL-NEES, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian farmer Yousef Abu Hammad sired enough boys for a soccer team — literally. Over the years, his 12 sons have formed the core of what is now the top-ranked team in the West Bank.
The current roster includes six of Abu Hammad's sons, three grandsons and five other close relatives. The players from the hamlet of Wadi al-Nees consistently defeat richer clubs and believe their strong family bonds are a secret to their success.
Having no distractions also helps.
There's little to do in the village except play soccer. It is perched on a hilltop just south of the biblical Bethlehem and has only about 950 residents, virtually all members of the Abu Hammad clan. Until the late 1980s, Wadi al-Nees had no running water or electricity.
"We all love soccer — kids, men, women, old and young," said team director Ahmed Abu Hammad.
Wadi al-Nees heads the West Bank's top league which has 12 teams. It retained the No. 1 slot with a five-point difference even after losing 1-0 last Friday to archrival al-Khader, a team from a village near Bethlehem that is ranked second.
But any defeat is hard to take for Wadi al-Nees, which has collected a cupboard full of trophies, including as league champions in 2008 and 2009 and winners of various local tournaments.
During halftime on Friday, some of the players yelled at each other in the dressing room. Coach Abdel-Fattah Arar, 45, the only team member who is not from the Abu Hammad clan, allowed the players to let off steam and then reassured them that they can still recover.
Wadi al-Nees stepped up in the second half. Striker Hazem Abu Hammad, a 17-year-old grandson of the clan leader, fired off several long shots on the goal but missed. He quickly ran off the field after the closing whistle, visibly frustrated.
"We controlled the game, but our players were tense," said the captain, 34-year-old Samih.
Soccer in the West Bank is highly emotional, both on the pitch and off.
For the fans in the stadiums — virtually all of them young men — soccer serves as a release from the pressures of their restricted lives. The rules of patriarchy mean they can't rebel against their elders. They are not allowed to have girlfriends before marriage. High youth unemployment clouds their futures and Israel's military occupation adds further constraints.
In Friday's match at a stadium in the town of Dura, a few dozen Wadi al-Nees fans sat on one side of the stands, separated by fences and helmeted Palestinian riot police from a boisterous crowd of several hundred al-Khader supporters.
Post-game fights between supporters of rival teams are common, and after Friday's match police chased fans outside the stadium to keep them from clashing.
On Tuesday, ahead of a game against the No. 4 team, Dahariya, players stepped over burning incense before boarding the team bus to ward off bad luck.
Soccer has mostly brought blessings for Wadi al-Nees.
Yousef Abu Hammad, the 75-year-old village elder, said he wanted to put the village on the map when he founded the team 30 years ago.
At the time, Wadi al-Nees was not recognized by the local authorities. As a result, it was not connected to the electricity grid and water network and lacked a school.
"I visited the mayor of Bethlehem," he said. "I asked for services. He said, 'I don't know where it (the village) is.' Then I showed him the newspaper stories about the soccer club. We got electricity in 1986, water in 1988 and the school in 1993."
There's still no soccer pitch, but the plucky team has inspired Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to pay for one. It will be ready in a few months and will make a big difference, said the coach.
Samih, the captain, said that as children, he and his brothers often practiced in the alleys of the village and in the tiny playground of the school.
Now the team trains twice a week in the Dura stadium, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, and once a week at an indoor gymnasium in Bethlehem. During a fourth weekly session, the players run through the village.
Despite the lack of facilities, Wadi al-Nees has defeated bigger clubs that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy players. The top league is professional and all players draw salaries, including those from Wadi al-Nees.
The secretary-general of the Palestine Football Association, Abdel Majed Hejeh, said the village team is the best of a total of 79 in the West Bank and 53 in Gaza. "The players are very loyal," he said. "They even resist attempts by other teams to attract them."
Two team members played for a Jordanian club last year. A third was offered this year to play for the Saudi team al-Faisali for $130,000, but couldn't go because his visa was delayed.
Abu Hammad's six oldest sons — he also has one daughter — initially formed the core of the team. Now it's the turn of the younger six.
This includes the captain, midfielders Hassan and Khader, defenders Mohammed and Ghaleb, and Amer as a spare. Three grandsons are also playing, including Hazem, goalkeeper Tawfiq and defender Walid, whose father Omar was once considered the best player in the West Bank. Three cousins and two other relatives round out the formation.
Only young men accompany the team to its games. Women, children and older men watch the matches on TV. On Friday, some gathered at the house of the team director to cheer on the team.
The patriarch has also stopped traveling with the team.
"He talks to my brothers before and after every game," said Saleh, 42, a former player. "He listens to them, gives them advice. When we lose, he tries to strengthen their morale. When we win, he encourages them to keep up the good work."
The players believe that in addition to family bonds, little rituals help them win. They recite the Muslim traveler's prayer before boarding the team's small bus. In the dressing room, they form a circle, holding each other by the shoulders and mutter a Quranic verse.
Construction worker Fadi Abu Hammad, 22, who was among those cheering on Wadi al-Nees from the stands, said he's proud to be a supporter of the best team in the West Bank.
"Being a family team is a big advantage," he said. "The players will do their best for the reputation of the club and the reputation of the family, too."
Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Dura, West Bank contributed to this report.