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Mahmoud Sarsak: Palestinian player and cause celebre for Green Brigade who believes football can bring peace

MAHMOUD Sarsak was just an ordinary football-daft young man.

Despite his ordeal, Mahmoud Sarsak still hopes to play for Palestine's national team. Photograph: Stewart Attwood
Despite his ordeal, Mahmoud Sarsak still hopes to play for Palestine's national team. Photograph: Stewart Attwood

He grew up dreaming of emulating childhood idols such as Alessandro Del Piero, Frank Lampard and most of all Zinedine Zidane, and by the age of 21 his talents were sufficient to see him play regularly for his country's Olympic side and twice for the full team, against China and Iraq.

But things are never simple when the country in question is Palestine, and on July 22, 2009 his story took a turn which the rest of the world would regard as extraordinary.

En route from the Gaza Strip to train for the first time with West Bank club side Balata Youth, with all the requisite papers in his possession, he was arrested by the Israeli security forces on the pretext that he was an "unlawful combatant".

Thus began three years' detention without formal charge or trial, during which, he says, he was a regular victim of physical and mental torture, unable to see his family.

Having waited in vain for the world footballing community to intervene, it was only when Zakaria Issa, another imprisoned Palestinian international player, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died just months after his release, that Sarsak took matters into his own hands. He went on hunger strike, and 97 days later, he was free.

Sarsak, now 25, hopes to return to the ranks of the Palestinian national team one day, but his body is still recovering from the withering effects of his hunger strike, and for now he feels his country would be better served by him learning English and raising awareness of the Israeli government's apparent persecution of Palestinian footballers, as well as protesting against what he regards as Uefa's apparent endorsement of their activities by allowing them to host the European Under-21 Championships.

Thus he is in Scotland, where he was particularly keen to come as his story became a cause celebre amongst certain groups of football fans such as Celtic's Green Brigade.

"Of course the thought about going on hunger strike is very tiring and very scary for an individual to contemplate, but in the three years I was in prison I observed a lot of death happening," Sarsak said. "When my friend Zakaria Issa was diagnosed with cancer and died because he was refused treatment, that was when I lost hope and realised I would have to do things myself. He played for the national team but Uefa and Fifa stood by and didn't do anything. In that moment I lost all hope that international organisations would interfere so I decided to go on hunger strike.

"The decision was very difficult to make between your own life and freedom, but freedom was much more important than everything you would call life without freedom. I began on March 15, 2012, and I finished the strike on June 18, 2012, and of course during this time I saw death many, many times due to tiredness and thirst and fell unconscious many times. Those days were so difficult that I cannot put them into words, I cannot describe how hard they were. However, I knew my freedom was much more valuable than a life without respect.

"After losing more than half my body weight it was very difficult when I resumed eating. Before seeing my parents again, Israel treated me for 20 days, but unfortunately they gave me blood which was dirty, it was the same blood group but because it was filled with viruses it took me seven months to recover.

"Despite everything I was happy to have freedom and smell the air of freedom and see my mother who I hadn't seen for three years. Although I had to appear to the outside world that I was very happy to be released, at the same time my heart was still aching for my friends who were still in jail and were being tortured. I was smiling but my heart was scarred."

Fifa, Uefa, the world's players union FIFPro, high-profile players such as Freddie Kanoute, Abou Diaby and former French centre-half Lilian Thuram, have all had their say on his case, but their combined efforts were unable to prevent a promising footballer being incarcerated for the best years of his career.

"I was 21 when it happened and still at the beginning of my career, so I was in a mediocre position," he said. "But three years is a very long time, especially for a football player. Then afterwards I also lost a year being treated. I lost a lot of weight and my muscles had to redevelop. You could say it is almost half the lifespan of a footballer."

The political context in Israel is complex but Sarsak, who had official meetings with Celtic, Hibs and the SFA during his speaking tour of Scotland, feels the checkpoints and security forces are emblematic of Israeli governmental paranoia about Palestinians using football to make a political statement.

"Palestine has strong and amazing players, however Israel is afraid of every great player raising the Palestinian flag at a game," he says.

They may play under different flags but Sarsak also feels a kinship with Beram Kayal, the Celtic midfielder, an Israeli-Arab born in Jadeidi-Makr in the north of Israel who chooses to represent Israel.

"Football is a way to bring about peace and I cannot condemn anyone for playing football," he said. "I am sure it is his dream to play football and he may have no other choice. It may just be a simple thing, but him playing here in Scotland and raising awareness is a great thing. It is of course very nice to see that Arab-Israeli players can play here in Scotland or Italy or wherever. However, the Palestinians who live in the Palestinian territories are not allowed to go out and play."

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