Thousands of Palestinians celebrated the arrival of Barcelona in the West Bank on Saturday where Argentine forward Lionel Messi and his team mates showed off their skills to adoring fans.
Some 25,000 spectators, many clad in Barca shirts, packed every corner of a new stadium in the town of Dura in the southern West Bank as the Barca players held an hour-long clinic with some 40 young Palestinian boys and girls.
Hundreds of other fans itching to get in were left stranded outside the packed ground as a large security force secured the perimeter.
The streets of Bethlehem, where the team visited the traditional birthplace of Jesus, and the city of Hebron near Dura were adorned with Barcelona flags as people lined the route to catch a glimpse of their heroes and the team bus.
“It’s great to see Barcelona, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Neymar in Palestine. This is my lucky day,” said 17-year-old Fadwa from Bethlehem.
The Spanish league champions were making a brief stopover in Israel and the Palestinian territories en-route to a pre-season tour of Asia. They will hold a similar meeting with young Israeli players in Tel Aviv on Sunday.
Palestinian sports supremo Jibril Rajoub described Barcelona’s visit as “the most important event in the history of Palestinian sport.” The Catalonians and Spanish arch-rivals Real Madrid are the most popular teams among Palestinians.
In February, Barca said they wanted to play a friendly match against a side made up equally of Palestinian and Israeli players in Tel Aviv but the Middle Eastern neighbors could not agree on arrangements to facilitate holding the fixture.
The Palestinians have complained that Israel’s security forces often prevent athletes travelling freely between the Gaza Strip and West Bank, where the Palestinians have limited self-rule but over which Israel maintains overall security control.
The West Bank is controlled by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the secular Fatah faction but the Gaza Strip is ruled by the Islamist Hamas faction which calls for Israel’s destruction.
Israel cites security concerns but says it has eased travel for athletes between Palestinian territories. Last month FIFA president Sepp Blatter said during a visit to the region that a task force would address Palestinian concerns on the matter.
The Palestinians want the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a future state with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital.
Even though they live side by side, Israeli and Palestinian teams do not play each other in competition, as Israel are members of European soccer’s governing body UEFA and the Palestine soccer team play in Asia.
While in Bethlehem, Barca’s players also met Abbas and on Sunday they will meet Israeli President Shimon Peres who was involved in organizing the visit, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They will also visit Jerusalem’s Western Wall.