Few clubs have left an impression on Jordanian, and Arab, football as significantly as Al Wehdat, one of the nation’s best and most iconic sporting institutions.
It is a football club born out of the grim reality and daily suffering of the Palestinian community. For decades it has stood as a symbol of defiance for its people in Jordan, across the world and above all in the Occupied Territories.
“Al Wehdat is an inspiration to the Palestinians. We have been brought up to love this club since childhood,” says Firas Arouri, spokesman for Palestinian club Al Am’ari, a club that not so long ago lost a 20-year-old football player by the name of Mohammed Al Qatari, gunned down by an Israeli soldier.
Al Am’ari are one of many clubs that look to Al Wehdat for inspiration.
The club was founded in 1956, and is named after the Al Wehdat refugee camp, also known as the Amman New Camp which was established a year earlier in 1955, seven years after the Nakba – “the catastrophe” – saw 750,000 Palestinians displaced and expelled from their homes.
“The roots of Al Wehdat is that it is one of the first refugee camps in Jordan, Wehdat, or “units”, the system by which UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) organised the refugee camp,” said Dag Tuastad, a researcher for Norway’s PRIO and author of the article Al Wihdat: The Pride of the Palestinians in Jordan. “The name of the club is thus the same as the name of the camp, so the root of the football club is the camp where it originated.”
The camp was initially home to around 50,000 of those refugees seeking refuge in nearby Jordan, as others were dispersed in Lebanon and Syria.
“After the Nakba of 1948 a great number of Palestinians sought refuge in Jordan to escape persecution,” said Zakaria Al Awadi, a sports journalist close to the club. “A majority of them hail from ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages like Al Lydd, Beersheba, Bait Nabala, Al Ramla, Al Abbasiya and Deir Tarif. The first place they headed towards was Al Karama where preliminary camps were created for them in light of assurances that they will be allowed to return to their homes in Palestine. But unfortunately that promise never came to fruition, and as the number of refugees in Jordan continued to climb, UNRWA was established to assist and help these refugees, who were given a small piece of land that doesn’t exceed a half square mile.”
Today UNRWA runs around 60 refugee camps that houses around five million Palestinians.
The club is located at the heart of the refugee camp, an everlasting reminder of the gravity of their dispossession and expulsion from their homes. The “Green Ultras”, as Al Wehdat and their fans are also known, first began as a cultural centre providing classes and other forms activities for those living in the refugee camp.
That changed in 1968, when Al Wehdat began playing in the second division – two years after being officially recognised by the Jordan FA – before working their way up to the country’s top division in 1975.
Al Wehdat have brought upon a sense of unity among Palestinians highlighted not only through the colours of the shirt, but also with their badge which displays the Dome of the Rock, a long-time symbol of Palestinian nationalism.
“I’ve been a supporter of the club since I can remember, probably since I was in kindergarten” said Jehad Jamal, a member of club’s supporters group, Al Wehdaty. “I was even forced out of college for defending the club’s colours, and Palestine is a major part of my life and who I am.”
This support and Palestinian identity was evident when Al Wehdat won their first league title in 1980, five years after a successful promotion to the top flight. According to Tuastad, huge celebrations erupted not only in Jordan, but also in Palestine where they chanted slogans glorifying the players and comparing them to “Fedayeen”, or Palestinian freedom fighters.
“Al Wehdat supporters differ a lot from other supporters,” said Omar Anati, a photographer who works for the club. “The passion for it isn’t just for the trophies and accolades, but also because of the homeland, our homeland, that was taken away from us and so the club is the only part or symbol that remains as a reminder of our dispossession.”
The supporters chants reflect the passion and devotion not only to the club, but to their homeland; “God, Wehdat and Jerusalem is Arabian; May God bless you the people of Palestine; I’m a Wehdaty, son of the refugee camps”.
“We represent all Palestinian people and we play for them,” said Ahmed Louis, a footballer for Al Wehdat. “We try to put a smile on their faces and support them through our stances for their causes, or by consolidating our relationships with Palestinian clubs through holding training camps here in Jordan at our expense.”
Al Wehdat are perhaps most famous for, internationally, for their fierce rivalry with Jordan’s most successful club, Al Faisaly.
While Al Wehdat is the club of the Palestinians, Al Faisaly – itself a historic club that has many Palestinian supporters – is mainly supported by East Bankers or the Hashemite Jordanians.
Few matches in the Arab world can match Jordan’s “Clasico” for passion, tension and, often, trouble. In one instance in July 2009, as Al Wehdat and Al Faisaly were about to meet in a Jordanian Shield match, riots erupted in the city of Zarqa and anti-riot police had to step in to stop the violence. It continued to the stadium where players from both sides refused to play and walked off the pitch.
Though ferociousness of the rivalry remains undimmed and there have been many more controversial incidents before and since.
“The issue is more ethnic than political,” said Luigi Achilli, the author of an article on the club: Fun, Football and Palestinian Nationalism. “And of course, the two things are intertwined.”
Today, miles away, across the Jordan River, Palestinians continue to suffer. The daily subjugation can only bolster the support Al Wehdat holds in Palestine, or the Occupied Territories.
“Palestinians saw the club as a window from where they can view the world around them, and that’s why they ensure they always provided their full support to inspire the team to success,” said Ghassab Khaleel, board member and spokesman to the club. “It was their sole source of joy and hope in the face of despair and agony.”