You don't need to know the ins and outs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to know that it's bad. In fact, it has been so bad for so long that whenever another bombing or act of terrorism is reported, it just seems to roll like water off a duck's back for most folks.
It says something when a story of cooperation is more unexpected and surprising than a story of people blowing each other up. It says something sad about the way things are there. But it also says something awe inspiring at just how far some people will go to try to change things, even on the tiniest of levels.
When you say "football", people from different parts of the world will think of different things. Most, of course, will think of what we call in America "soccer". In Australia though, they think of their own variation of "rugby" - Australian rules football.
In 2002, Australia hosted the first ever Australian Football International Cup. The idea was to promote interest in the sport in other countries by hosting a tournament that Australia itself would not participate in. It's the kind of thing I can't imagine America bothering to host - we'd want to win our own tournament, after all. But since Australia has the only professional league for their unique sport, it made sense to sit out this tournament because winning was almost guaranteed. Why not give other teams playing their sport in other countries a chance to compete and measure their talents?
The tournament was enough of a success that it was hosted again in 2005, and now it will happen a third time here in 2008. This year 16 teams from around the world will compete for the trophy, the most since the tournament started.
When you look at the list of teams competing, one jumps out at you: Peace Team.
A strange name for a side participating in a rough and tumble game.
In January of 2008, Australian football legend Robert "Dipper" Dipierdomenico, along with some other league representatives, presented the rules of the game to a room full of 100 young men. Out of that 100, 40 were selected to participate in a 3 day clinic to learn the basics of the game.
The unusual part of the story: these young men were a mix of Israelis and Palestinians, and the clinic was in Jerusalem.
Perhaps crazy enough was the idea of getting a team of men completely unfamiliar with the sport ready to compete internationally in just under 8 months.
But even crazier was the idea of trying to do it here, with these men.
The team faced complications trying to train that would be completely unheard of elsewhere. The coach's instructions needed to be translated to both Hebrew and Arabic. The team was shut out of their Israeli training facility for 4 days during a visit by President Bush when all Palestinians were denied access, including Palestinian members of the team. Team members received threats from both sides of the conflict, either enduring the usual hate from one side or being called "traitor" by the other. Palestinian team members needed to obtain work permits for every training session, sometimes traveling upwards of 4 hours through various security checkpoints.
The pressure was too much for a number of the players. Some of them, facing threats from their own friends and neighbors, left the team.
In spite of all of this, a few kept practicing. A few kept playing. In spite of the lack of a proper field (they played on soccer fields) with proper goalposts (they had none), they kept learning.
The first time the team had seen real goal posts was when they arrived in Australia a week ago.
They play their first match of the tournament today against Great Britain.
New Zealand and Ireland will be the favorites going into the tournament. The Peace Team will probably be lucky to win a single match.
But win or lose, they will do it together.
"Everyone knows the story in Israel and Palestine, the occupation, the killings, bombings, we came here to show the people, we came for the peace, we need the peace," says Palestinian ruckman Fares Switte.
In January, it's not likely Fares Switte knew what a ruckman was.
But then again, in January, the whole notion of a team like this was pretty unlikely too.
After the tournament is over, the players on the Peace Team will return to their normal lives. They will return to face the same strife and conflict they faced before they started playing together.
They might even return to find themselves reviled in their own homes.
But they'll return changed in this small way, knowing this simple thing: if we can play together, we can live together.
Note: For a tremendous introduction to the various factions and pieces in play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I can't recommend the game Peacemaker enough. It is easily the most engaging introduction I've ever seen, better even than any book I have read on the topic.
And yes, it has a Mac version.