By Paul Nicholson
June 16 – A country that faces more political difficulties and military interference than any other when it comes to getting matches played, has been the first anywhere in the world to crown a league champion by results on the pitch rather than points allocation off it.
Palestine’s Markaz Balatah have taken the country’s league title in what is one of the most positive stories to date to emerge from a football world easing itself out of lockdown.
What is perhaps even more remarkable is that Markhaz Balatah and most of their players come from the Balata Camp, a refugee camp that was established in the West Bank in 1950, adjacent to the city of Nablus whose stadium the club uses for their home games.
It is Markaz Balatah’s their first ever Palestine league title which they won by defeating last year’s champions Hilal Alquds 4-1 on Friday, to secure the championship with two rounds remaining.
The win took Markaz Balatah to 45 points, giving them an unassailable seven-point lead over second-placed Markaz Shabab Al-Am’ari, who defeated Al-Ahli Qalqilya 6-1.
Palestine was one of the first countries to go into coronavirus lockdown in February. The 12-team league is played September to April and though some games were played in March, it was suspended with three rounds still to play.
The return to play has been focussed on completing all games in three stadiums with the Palestine FA working closely with the government ministry of health to ensure grounds, players and officials are safe.
AFC President Shaikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa congratulated Markaz Balatah saying the “achievement reflects the efforts of the club, including the management, the technical staff and the players, throughout the season, and also reflects the spirit and dedication needed to win such a big title.”
Balata Camp is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank and the most densely populated with 30,000 residents in an area of 0.25 sq km.
“The success of Markaz Balatah is a promising indication for much wider competition in Palestine tournaments, which will reflect positively on Palestine football in general,” said Salman.
The club has further cause to celebrate with a revamp of its facilities – an AFC project initiated by Shaikh Salman having visited the camp – nearing completion with the addition of new mini-pitches.
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