In the midst of the relentless daily hardship that they endure, a Palestinian sports commentator says of his own people that they will drop everything they are doing to watch their beloved national soccer team play. He describes the Palestinian national team’s bid to qualify for the World Cup in 2006 as “one of our most beautiful dreams.” The commentator’s words set the tone for the documentary film Goal Dreams (directed by Maya Sanbar and Jeffrey Saunders). “Goal Dreams” charts the emotional path of the Palestine national team as its players gather from all over the world to wear the jersey that says “Palestine” and to represent their people on the international stage.
Goal Dreams is one of several documentaries produced in recent years that illuminate the effects of conflict and occupation on the lives of Palestinians. Like Ford Transit (directed by Hany Abu Asad) and The Color of Olives (directed by Carolina Rivas), Goal Dreams forgoes traditional documentary features such as timelines, maps and narration of historical facts in favor of showing the human story of Palestine. Though the afore-mentioned films benefited from tighter editing and well-paced scenes, Goal Dreams is worth watching because of the unique story it tells.
The film opens with a soccer team that is short several players, practicing in Ismailiya, Egypt, for their qualifying match against Uzbekistan in less than a month. The team’s Austrian coach, Alfred Riedl, is faced with more than the average load of challenges. “We are unique in the world,” he laments, describing a team made up of nationals of different countries, many of whom don’t even share a common language. The restrictions on the movement of players traveling from Palestine delay the team’s practice for days on end. “We don’t even have a country! We have to practice here [Ismailiya] … we don’t know what we are, who we are.”
The coach’s mood vacillates between passionate determination to make a strong showing at the qualifying match and exasperation at the obstacles his players encounter — individually and as a team — on the road to the World Cup. One of the memorable scenes of the film is a practice that has coach Riedl fuming in nearly indecipherable English, as his players look back and forth between him and the English and Spanish translators, trying to understand the instructions for a drill they have clearly failed to execute. Reflecting on the event later, the players share a laugh about the inferior quality of the translation.
The Palestinian national team seems like a microcosm of the global Palestinian community, a people living in exile or under occupation. While the team is made up of players of Palestinian heritage, they hail from many nations including Chile, Sweden, the United States, Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt. All the Palestinian players, even those who are several generations removed from the homeland, are driven by a desire to play for Palestine’s team and have some awareness of the political significance of their efforts. Murad, the Palestinian-American, describes this awareness as wanting to play for a team with “Palestine” written on his jersey.
Through each of the main characters in the film, we learn about a set of struggles that Palestinians encounter. The American and Chilean-born players represent the experiences of diaspora Palestinians and the difficulties they face in remaining connected to the larger community in spite of distance and language barriers. The player from Lebanon introduces the audience to the reality of life in Palestinian refugee camps, with the scarcity of work and opportunities as well as the daily struggle for survival. The goalkeeper, who arrives almost a week late from Gaza after several failed attempts to cross the border into Egypt and great hardship along the way, gives us a glimpse into the danger, violence, and total uncertainty that control the lives of millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation.
As each of the team members negotiates his own thorny path to Ismailiya, we watch as the Palestinian players work to unite as a team, mirroring the challenge that the global Palestinian community faces as it struggles to maintain the bonds that have frayed over years of dispossession. Goal Dreams is a testament to the power of the Palestinian dream and to the Palestinian people’s ability to cling to hope even in the darkest moments of their history.
This review was originally published by the Institute for Middle East Understanding and is republished with permission.
Goal Dreams will be screened during the Chicago Palestine Film Festival on April 21st and 26th.