The story of five young Palestinians at the World Cup in Paris

Al Jazeera English's chief political analyst, Marwan Bishara, tells here the story of a group of young Palestinians who came to Paris to attend the football World Cup in 1998. "I think about these young men and those glorious days whenever there’s a World Cup," he writes, "and I bet, like me, they wish Croatia luck but are rooting for Les Bleus on Sunday."

Twenty years ago, I was asked by the General Council of the Parisian suburb Seine Saint Denis to invite four Palestinian youths to attend the World Cup in France and organise their visit.

At the time, football was the last thing on my mind. I was finishing my doctorate in France, doing my research on Israel/Palestine and, in between, participating actively in human rights campaigns.

But then, that wasn’t just football; it was the world cup. And it was an act of solidarity and fraternity by French Progressives.

So, I accepted the mission, only to realise that this would turn into an experience of a lifetime for me and for the lucky ones who made it to Paris.

I managed to run a lottery in a local weekly, Fasl Al Maqal, published in Nazareth but distributed throughout Palestine and ended up with four lucky winners from the Galilee, the West Bank and Gaza. And the French consulate in Jerusalem was just as excited as we were and issued the visas rather swiftly to enter France.

That was the easy part. Leaving Israeli-controlled Palestine was another matter.

At the checkpoints we had to pass, we were stopped and questioned. At Ben Gurion airport it was the same scene. Once the security officers heard where we were going and what we were going for, their jealousy would transform into harassment.

The winner from Gaza was not let in. The poor guy had to turn back and go to Rafah, cross into Egypt and fly to Paris from Cairo. He, too, made it in the end, albeit a bit late.

Once in France, we were accommodated in youth facilities to the west of Paris along with youth from France and elsewhere. Their only common language was football and that’s all they needed to communicate, as they hung out and kicked the ball around.

When we made it to the Stade de France stadium, located in Seine-Saint-Denis, for the semi finals between France and Croatia, to our surprise, all five of us were in fact VIP guests at the council’s special suite.

It is difficult to describe the scene of four young men who had never been outside their camp, town or homeland being introduced to Parisian elegance.

Imagine, young Palestinians in jeans and sneakers and with a big passion for football walking into the VIP lounge of Stade de France and mingling with the French elites and world celebrities.

Imagine them strolling across the lounge, past beautiful hostesses, and onto the open balcony that overlooked the pitch where 22 football superstars were lining up to the cheers of 80,000 fans.

And that’s not all, for me at least, the menu featured the best of French cuisine and wines. As the guys cheered, I ate.

As the match started one whispered in my ear: “Isn’t this just a perfect place to plant a Palestinian flag?” And so it was. One of the Palestinians had brought a small one along just in case.

Our French hosts were generous and gracious with the Palestinian boys. And the most excited and passionate among them was a progressive French Jew. He was also the funniest. This added yet another twist to our journey, for until that moment a couple of my travel companions had never met a Jew who wasn’t a soldier or a settler.

And here they were - on an exciting trip, watching a World Cup match, in an amazing city, at a spectacular stadium, hanging out with wonderful people.

Oh, and did I mention that France beat Croatia 2-1!

It was our win too. It was heaven on earth. There was no fear, no hate, just bonheur.

And it went on. Three days later, on Saturday we went to the 3/4 game at the Parc Des Princes stadium where this time Croatia beat the Netherlands for the third place.

But the reality came back to them after the match as we began to prepare for the departure. One or two began to wonder why they had to leave, or more accurately, how they could go back, how they could live a normal life after all they had seen.

But this wasn’t going to be the end of the wonder trip. We were going to the World Cup final. We were going to see France and Brazil play. They just couldn’t believe it.

It was an unforgettable day. The match was exciting. Zidan scored, France won. But it seemed the sweetest victory that day belonged to my young Palestinian companions. They saw it all and they were going to tell and retell that story into their old age.

After the game, we went to the Champs Elysees to celebrate along with thousands of French fans until the early hours of the morning. One of us even got a French kiss.

When in Paris, you kiss and tell. And what happens at the World Cup doesn’t stay at the World Cup. Now there was an urgent need to go home. Who else could tell the story about a dream come through.

I think about these young men and those glorious days whenever there’s a World Cup. And I bet, like me, they wish Croatia luck but are rooting for Les Bleus on Sunday.

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