For all of his exploits around the world — from flying kites in Darfur, creating toy factories in Nairobi and being chased by machete-wielding tribesmen in New Guinea — Patrick McGrann has really outdone himself this time.
For the past year, he has lived and taught in the Gaza Strip, the besieged slice of land where 1.6 million Palestinians live but can’t move. He is in the middle of sealing a cooperative pact between Palestine’s two major political factions, the ruling Hamas and opposition Fatah.
McGrann, a Minneapolis native who is a one-man non-governmental organization, has brought together the rivals on an unlikely venue: the soccer field.
In an event conceived to simulate the real FIFA World Cup in South Africa this June, McGrann and others in Gaza have organized the Gaza World Cup 2010, which is set to kick off on May 2 with 16 teams made up of elite Palestinian players and a ragtag collection of aid workers, security contractors, diplomats and journalists from a variety of nations.
The reality of the world’s biggest sporting event, the World Cup in South Africa, triggered a longing for the revival in Gaza of soccer (called football in Palestine and most of the world).
Suspended soccer group resumes operations
The Palestine Football Association, or PFA, the governing body for the sport in Gaza, is resuming operations there after a three-year hiatus. Historically, Fatah controlled the league, but Hamas gained political control in 2007 and, with its ascendancy, the PFA suspended operations.
McGrann said when the idea of staging a tournament in Palestine was raised by him and some Palestinian colleagues, “Hamas and Fatah realized how much they have to lose” by not joining together to play. The Palestinians see their desperate situation in the context of the South African celebration.
“After struggling under apartheid for almost five decades, South Africa Is now moving forward as a powerful example for the rest of the world of how differing people can come together to address mutual challenges,” reads the official document announcing the Gaza World Cup. “Because of South Africa’s involvement in hosting June’s World Cup, the reality in Gaza is both disheartening [and] inspiring. Difficult that the world moves on without Gaza, yet hopeful that progress is possible by working together.”
About half of the players on the 16 teams will be Gazans. The others will be an assortment of foreigners in the impoverished territory. There are two grass fields where all 16 Gaza World Cup games will be played over the course of two weeks. Amid a blockade and unemployment at about 40 percent, among the highest in the world, this mini-World Cup is designed to build as much normalcy as Gaza can experience.
“We were playing soccer the other day and the foreigners were so-o-o bad,” McGrann said in a recent phone interview from Gaza City with MinnPost. “We had a 45-year-old Italian diplomat who was 20 kilos overweight, and me sucking wind, and other guys who smoke far too much trying to keep up with these good Gazan players. But the fans wouldn’t even laugh at us. They were happy we were communicating in the same medium. It was an easy way to relate to each other instead of focusing on the differences between us.”
Gaza World Cup gains U.N. agency support
Among the organizations sponsoring the Gaza World Cup is the United Nations Development Program. McGrann also received the blessings of FIFA, the sport’s worldwide governing body. Palestinian soccer isn’t all that highly rated; out of 207 men’s national teams, Palestine is currently ranked 173rd, below Mongolia and above Comoros. Among the 105 women’s teams globally, the Palestinian women’s team is ranked 87th.
Speaking of women, none will be playing. But McGrann is still battling with the locals to allow women to be referees and coaches, and to sit among the men in the bleachers.
Part Indiana Jones, part Che Guevara, part Mother Teresa, McGrann is the son of Bill McGrann, the well-connected Twin Cities lawyer and state Capitol lobbyist, and Judith McGrann, the owner of a women’s clothing store in St. Louis Park. His early years were far from the mean and littered streets of Gaza; he’s a Breck School grad and an alum of Trinity College in Connecticut.
He got his master’s degree in science and technology policy from the University of Minnesota, and began a life’s journey, helping rural towns in Bolivia with economic development plans and then working on hunger issues for the U.N. By 2003, he had seen Ethiopia, its hunger and its AIDS, and he dived into dangerous humanitarian work. En route, he helped found Kitegang, a group that helps kids play with and manufacture kites, a project that has expanded to skateboarding and cycling.
Besides bringing Hamas and Fatah together on the playing fields of Gaza, McGrann teaches at the University College of Applied Sciences. His course is called “Beyond the Wall,” and he trains students on how to deal with foreigners, and how to engage in critical thinking.
As for what the Israeli authorities think of this sports event that will bring Palestinians together, McGrann isn’t sure. His permit to move in and out of Gaza and through Israel was recently renewed. He can’t figure out if that renewal was a sign of approval, or a ruse to get him to leave and then restrict his return.
But Pat McGrann isn’t going anywhere for the next month or so. There’s a soccer tournament to be staged. It’s not the actual World Cup, but it’s as good as it’s going to get in Gaza.