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Football has always been a fascinating lens through which to view historical and political events. What follows is an extract from Ramon Usall’s Kicking Off Around The World: 55 Stories From When Football Met Politics, which tells the emotional story of the football team that grew out of the terrible conditions of the al-Wehdat Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan.

Translated from the Catalan by Luke Stobart.

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Before FIFA eventually recognised the Palestinian national team in 1998, after a long fight for official recognition that took over three decades, the main footballing embodiment of the Palestinian national cause was Al-Wehdat Sports Club. This was a modest team that had been formed in the main Palestinian refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Amman.

The camp was one of the consequences of the first armed conflict between Arabs and Jews for sovereignty over Palestine that broke out at the end of Britain’s colonial mandate over the land. The 1948 war ended with the proclamation of the state of Israel and the mass flight of Arab citizens in what the Palestinians termed the ‘Nakba’: the catastrophe that drove them from their homes due to the birth of a state that sought to be the exclusive national home of the Jewish people.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forced into exile sought sanctuary in neighbouring Jordan. This led to the forming of the Amman New Camp, a refugee camp commonly known as ‘al-Wehdat’ (also al-Wihdat) – an Arabic name meaning ‘units’ and that referred to the precarious housing it consisted of.

Al-Wehdat had been built and was run by the UNRWA, the United Nations’ Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees created after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War to care for Palestinian nationals who had fled their homes because of the war. It quickly became the biggest camp for Palestinians in the country.

Among the activities that the UN agency promoted at the al-Wehdat camp was physical exercise among the exiles. In 1955, this led it to create and manage a multi-sports club which would represent the camp and encourage the refugees being housed in the camp to do sport.

Al-Wehdat Sports Club quickly became a very popular institution among the large Palestinian diaspora in Jordan. The fact that it had the same name as the main centre taking in such refugees helped its football section – the best known in the club. Its football team participated in Jordanian championships, attracting thousands of fans. Furthermore, these were not only from the al-Wehdat Camp but from all over Jordan. A further wave of forced migration into Jordan (on top of that produced by the 1948 war) had been in response to the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank.

In September 1970, armed Palestinian militias clashed with the Jordanian army in fighting that ended with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) being expelled from the country it had been exiled to. These events sowed discord between Jordanian citizens and Palestinian refugees.

From then on, matches pitting al-Wehdat against Jordanian teams became political platforms for the growing Jordanian–Palestinian confrontation to be played out. Such tension ratcheted up in 1975, when al-Wehdat earned a long-awaited promotion to the Jordanian first division.

Five years later, the refugee club won its first top-division title – once again cheered on by thousands of Palestinians. This was after a dramatic clash on the last match day with al-Ramtha, the Jordanian team which came runner’s up. During the match, serious battles between both sets of supporters took place.

Despite the incidents, the team’s success was widely celebrated in the streets of the al-Wehdat camp. So too, in the main streets of Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip – occupied Palestinian lands which in the absence of local or national football teams to stand for them had adopted al-Wehdat as their standard bearer.

Palestinian flags and their colours tended to fill the stadiums the club played in, leading the club to adopt them for its own kit. And, in keeping with the sporting embodiment of Pales- tinian nationalism that history had bestowed on it, al-Wehdat also included in its crest the Palestinian flag’s colours, accompanying these with an image of the al-Aqsa mosque. This was a clear demand for al-Quds – the name Arabs use for Jerusa- lem as the capital of Palestine.

Al-Wehdat’s nationalist symbolism heightened its rivalry with al-Faisaly, the biggest Jordanian team and also from Amman. Games between the two featured real pitched battles between fans in which the police would always side with the Jordanians. The unrest that often accompanied al-Wehdat matches was the excuse used by the Jordanian sporting authorities to heavily punish the club in 1986. Concretely the club was forced to change both who ran it and its name. The authorities even went as far as demoting it to a lower division – although that was never carried out.

Since then, the Jordanian Ministry of Youth took over al-Wehdat, renaming it al-Difftayn. The name conjured up a union between the two ‘Jordans’: ‘Trans-Jordan’ (Jordan) and the Palestinian ‘Cis-Jordan’ (the other name for the West Bank). The aim of the club’s new management was to bring together Palestinian and Jordanian supporters alike. It did not come to fruition as the club’s faithful was still almost exclusively from the Palestinian refugee community in Jordan.

The club’s new name had an obvious nationalist meaning, alluding to an alliance between Arabs from both ‘Jordans’ (which from the angle of Palestine could also be interpreted as the coming together of Cis-Jordanian Palestinians and Palestinians in Jordan). Yet club fans flatly opposed the change, never seeing the Jordanian–Palestinian union as their own.

In the Amman ground stands, fans still referred to the club as al-Wehdat, as figuring in one of the most popular chants from that era: ‘March! Move! All the people will move with al-Wehdat from the Amman stadium to Jerusalem!’. This also expressed Palestinian refugees’ desire to set foot again on a land having al-Quds as its capital.

The relaxation of the Jordanian regime that took place in the late 1980s led to the holding of the first parliamentary elections, in November 1989. Although political parties were still banned, many independent candidates linked to the pan-Islamist and conservative Muslim Brotherhood did stand. The electoral success of the Islamist candidates, who were particularly sensitive to the Palestinian issue, eventually spurred a parliamentary discussion on al-Wehdat which led to the return of the club’s original name and management to be handed back to the refugee camp representatives that had originally created it.

Yet despite this, the rivalry with al-Faisaly only increased. The trading of insults between the Jordanian and Palestinian sets of fans was commonplace in any match between the two football clubs. The fans of al-Faisaly – Jordan’s dominant club until al-Wehdat started being able to rival its game – even popularised a chant in its ground calling on Prince Abdullah, who was made King in 1999, to divorce his wife Rania – referring to the Palestinian origins of the future Queen.

In 1995, as the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians was unfolding, al-Wehdat was finally able to travel to Palestinian territory. There it played several matches in the West Bank and Gaza in front of large crowds. It was during this emotional tour that the team was received by Yasser Arafat, the celebrated leader of the PLO who became the first Rais (President) of the Palestinian National Authority that emerged from the peace process. During the unique meeting, Arafat addressed leading club figures with the words, ‘Once, when we [Palestinians] had no voice, al-Wehdat was our voice’. By doing so, the Rais was explicitly recognising the symbolic significance of al-Wehdat for Palestinian pride.

The club, for its part, stayed faithful to its Palestinian identity. In 1996, it refused to play Israeli teams in international competitions. It therefore stood up to a state that had forced most al-Wehdat supporters into exile, and which was refusing to acknowledge their right to return even in the middle of peace talks.

In the last decade of the 20th century and the first years of the next, al-Wehdat became a successful club, winning many titles over three decades, and challenging al-Faisaly’s longterm grip over Jordanian football. This was helped by its fans’ allegiance to the club, even when it was the victim of persecution and bans, which conclusively proved the Jordanian authorities’ dislike of the club.

Besides the reprisals following the 1970 Black September conflict, fans of the refugee-camp club saw the Jordanian government try to prohibit Palestinian flags in its matches. The measure was to no avail and only increased the popularity of a team which on the pitch was constantly bringing joy to those barely in a position to speak out. As Arafat had said, al-Wehdat helped break the silence for a Palestinian community that mostly lived a long way from what had been its home.

Al-Wehdat’s crowning year came in 2009, when it won all four of the Jordanian competitions it entered: the league, cup, league cup, and super cup. This was unprecedented and was very widely celebrated both in the al-Wehdat camp and the occupied Palestinian territories, whose streets have become used to celebrating the club’s (numerous) triumphs since then. This is the clearest sign that al-Wehdat still has a special place in the hearts of organised pro-Palestinians, even though the country now has a national team to stand for it internationally and in its own domestic competitions – both in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. All the same, the Palestinian refugees’ club in Amman will always be a footballing representative of the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom.

Ramon Usall is a writer, academic and political activist. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Lleida, and regularly writes in different media on the relationship between sport, history, society and politics. He is the author of Futbol per la llibertat, which won the Josep Vallverdú Essay Prize.