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Mixed Middle East football team brings hope

The Peace Team brings Israelis and Palestinians together

(Keystone)

A team of young Israelis and Palestinians are playing side by side in a Swiss football tournament as the violent conflict in the region escalates.

The "Peace Team" overcame enormous difficulties to get to Bad Ragaz in eastern Switzerland to compete in the United Nations-supported International Swiss Under-16 Cup.

It was unsure whether the mixed squad, which is made up of nine Israelis and nine Palestinians, would make it to the four-day tournament, which finishes on Sunday.

Several Israeli players live in areas affected by the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah which started last month.

And some of the Palestinian youngsters struggled to make it through military controls to get to the airport in Israel.

"It was very difficult to get them here, especially in the past few days. We only knew that they would be here when they actually touched down in Zurich," tournament organiser Andrea Fatzer told swissinfo.

The original idea behind the first International Swiss Under-16 Cup in 2001 was simply to provide youths with the experience of playing against other teams from around the world.

But two years ago the former Swiss cabinet minister and now UN special advisor on sport for development and peace, Adolf Ogi, asked the organisers to include a Kosovan side in the tournament.

Following the success of that experiment, Ogi set about organising a combined Israeli-Palestinian side in an effort to promote peace in the troubled region.

Universal language

Ogi said including the Kosovo youth team had been a very valuable experience and had helped raise awareness of the issues facing the province.

"Now we must try to resolve the biggest problem we have right now [the Middle East crisis], and the current conflict makes this a particularly symbolic event," Ogi told swissinfo.

"It will not bring results tomorrow, but it will in 20 or 30 years' time when these youngsters become the next leaders of their countries.

"Sport is a universal language that helps people understand one another. No other instrument could have persuaded these youngsters to come together than sport."

Peace Team manager Gal Pereg told swissinfo that the players could send a message to political and religious leaders in the Middle East, especially in Israel and the occupied territories.

"This is just a small symbol, but it sends a strong sign of hope that children from both sides can play together in the same team," he added.

"When they go back to their homes and hear the names Israeli and Palestinian they will realise that they are not enemies, but ordinary people just like themselves."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Key facts

The fourth International Swiss Under-16 Cup took place in Bad Ragaz from August 3-6.
An impressive list of youth teams included England sides Chelsea and Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and VfB Stuttgart from Germany and Anderlecht from Belgium.
FC Basel, FC St Gallen and host side FC St Gallen Oberland represented Switzerland.

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In brief

The project to bring the combined Israeli-Palestinian Peace Team to Switzerland took two years to organise.

The team is being coached by former Swiss national team coach Uli Stielike, who until recently coached German youth sides.

The participation of a team from Kosovo two years ago was followed up by UN visits to the country to train referees and players.

However, the current conflict in Lebanon, which started between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah last month, has put any similar plans for that region on ice for the time being.

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