Football school kicks off Palestine 2022 World Cup hopes

Most popular sport in Palestinian territories

At a state-of-the-art football stadium in the Palestinian city of Al-Bireh, three-year-old Adam is trying to pass a ball as coaches shout encouragement.
The dark-haired youngster, who is not much bigger than the ball he is racing after, is one of scores of children attending a football training school run by a non-governmental organisation called Palestine: Sports for Life (PS4L).
Their dream is that Adam and the dozens of other Palestinian youngsters could one day play professionally for their country -- and even go on to represent Palestine in tournaments such as the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Established in 2010, PS4L brings together Palestinian athletes committed to raising the level of sports training and education in the West Bank.
It is headed by Tamara Awartani, a 29-year-old former basketball star who used to play for the top women's team in the Palestinian territories.
She makes no secret of the ambitious dreams she has for the children.
"The main goal is to produce qualified footballers who are capable of representing Palestine in the World Cup in 2022," she said. "This is our vision and this is their dream."
The school, she says, emphasises "the basic skills of football, like team play, discipline and communication with each other from an early age, with a team of qualified coaches and former footballers who are passionate about football and who work here for a nominal fee."
Some of the coaches used to play for teams in the Palestinian first division, while others were part of regional or women's squads. And still others come from overseas to volunteer their skills.
The school also offers children the rare chance to travel overseas to international coaching camps in places such as Turkey and Jordan.
And in keeping with the organisation's broader goals -- to use sports as a way to build "healthy and vibrant communities" -- Awartani also wants the school to teach skills that will serve students off the pitch too.
"We are trying to create a place for these children to blow off some steam instead of sticking to television, Facebook and video games," she explains.
Last summer, PS4L kicked off its first football programme which caters to around 100 children between the ages of three and 12, giving them two hours of training twice a week.
At the stadium, the youngest are put in a group of their own to protect them from the more boisterous older children.
While the smaller children learn how to kick and field the ball, their older counterparts are working on more advanced skills, such as dribbling around cones.
The World Cup in Qatar may be far off yet, but it's clearly in the forefront of the minds of many of the kids.
"I will be on the 2022 team!" shouts 10-year-old Karim Omar, one of the most promising students.
"I started playing football when I was young, and I am here to be in the 2022 national team," declares another student, a confident 12-year-old called Mustafa Shaltaf.
Football is easily the most popular sport in the Palestinian territories, where ferocious local rivalries coexist with enthusiastic support for foreign teams, the most popular being Spain's Barcelona and Real Madrid.
But the national team, ranked 162 in the world, has had little success and has never qualified out of its Asia group for the World Cup.
Awartani believes PS4L could change that, and insists the students train on a proper pitch, renting out the Majed Assad international stadium in Al-Bireh twice a week so the children can get a feel for the real thing.
"They have to get used to quality from an early age, you can never learn the game right without a real stadium," she insists.
While PS4L's students can experience playing in a proper stadium, for most aspiring footballers the lack of sports facilities across the West Bank, which has just three professional-standard pitches, is "a huge problem," she says.
But sharing a stadium with the professionals sometimes means the children have to miss out.
"We often have to cancel training because there is a professional game going on, or training, and of course they take priority," Awartani says.
As well as its bigger dreams, PS4L, which also runs a basketball scheme for teenagers and is planning to offer professional training in martial arts, also has a slightly more immediate plan for its students.
"With all this talent we will form a football team under our name that will take part in junior leagues, both for the under-12s and the under-14s," she says.
"We have got so much talent here that needs to be refined and developed, so someday they can represent Palestine internationally."