Inside Jordan’s fiercest football rivalry

They may not be household names in international football, but the intense rivalry between Al Wehdat and Al Faisaly, Jordan’s two best teams, runs deep. Wehdat, founded in a refugee camp in southeast Amman, is the main team of the Palestinian diaspora, and Faisaly, associated with so-called ‘native’ Jordanians – and the most successful club in the country – are very much Jordan’s team. To witness the undercurrent of regional politics, you won’t get a better view than at a football match between these two opponents, open to anyone willing to take a seat.

Security guards patrol the premises of the King Abdullah II stadium complex during the Faisaly vs Wehdat football match near Amman, JordanSecurity guards patrol the premises of the King Abdullah II stadium complex during the Wehdat vs Faisaly football match © Frank Andrews / Lonely Planet

The first glimpse I get of the fixture is a silver car cruising past me a few hours before kickoff. Seven or so green Wehdat flags fly out of the windows, whipping about in the hot afternoon air. Later that evening, as locals sit down to tune their radios and fill cafes showing the game, I take a taxi southeast, down through the squat, square, sand-coloured houses that cover Amman’s rolling hilltops, in the sweeping pink and beige light of dusk.

At the entrance to the King Abdullah II stadium complex, four beefy, granite-grey armoured vehicles face out onto the street. Men in urban camouflage gear and helmets check tickets and bags, and they shoo along anyone trying to take photos of the arena.

Riot police surround the field during a Wehdat v Faisaly football match in Amman, JordanBecause of previous instances of violence and rioting, police line the field for the match © Frank Andrews / Lonely Planet

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A fractious relationship

The presence of the riot police is a reminder that this game – like many other big footballing rivalries – has seen its share of violence. In 2009, a match was abandoned because of rioting, and the following year, more than 250 fans were injured when a fence collapsed at a stadium. The clashes are due, in part, to the fact that this game carries all the baggage of Jordan and Palestine’s interwoven past.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA) created the Al Wehdat Sports Club in 1956, after an influx of Palestinian refugees settled in Jordan in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The club’s success is a source of pride for Palestinians everywhere. On the other hand, Al Faisaly, Jordan’s most trophied club, is traditionally supported by ‘East Bank’ Jordanians (those who live east of the River Jordan, as opposed to the Palestinian West Bank).

Wehdat fans closely watch a match against Al Faisaly near Amman, JordanWehdat fans closely watch a match against Faisaly © Frank Andrews / Lonely Planet

The clubs’ rivalry mirrors historic tensions, and relations between the two were never worse than in 1970, when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation called for the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy, which oversaw the country that had recently absorbed Palestinian refugees and granted them citizenship. During a period called Black September, thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Jordanians were killed. Today, almost half of Jordan’s population has Palestinian roots, so these matches are at the core of identity, and disagreements over who is a ‘real’ Jordanian abound.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the atmosphere at these matches is still so intense and the chants so caustic. Al Faisaly fans sometimes sing ‘one, two, divorce her Abu Hussein’ – a reference to the Jordanian king’s wife, Queen Rania, who is of Palestinian descent. Al Wehdat fans are known for singing ‘Allah, Wehdat, Arab Jerusalem’. In 2017, the Jordanian Football Association disciplined both teams for using discriminatory chants and closed their matches to the public. Hostilities between the clubs were severe enough to catch the eye of the US Embassy in Amman and were the subject of a diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks. The vitriol and occasional violence mean many Ammanis are wary of going to games, and few visitors to the capital choose to go to the stadium.

Wehdat fans at a football match against Al Faisaly near Amman, JordanWehdat fans at a football match against Faisaly © Frank Andrews / Lonely Planet

Kick off

The game has already begun when I arrive – Amman traffic can be unforgiving. I’m ushered through a metal detector and frisked, and then I pass through a tunnel and emerge pitchside into the noise. The 13,000-seat stadium, a mass of green, white and red – the Palestinian colours – is all but full, save for a pocket of bouncing, chanting fans away to my left in the sky blue of Al Faisaly.

The evening is warm, and the game is physical. I’m separated from the pitch by a row three-deep of police, who sit facing the crowd on plastic chairs on the stadium running track. But I’m close enough to feel the crunch of a careering two-footed tackle and to see the strain on a player’s face as he clambers for a header.

The Wehdat fans are singing unsavoury lines about the mothers of anyone Faisaly. I pick up a few of the words, and soon a smiley, stocky guy in a green replica jersey puts his arm around me and videos us singing along together. So far, I feel none of the hostility I was told to expect.

Wehdat fan watches a football match against Al Faisaly near Amman, JordanSeats in the family area are slightly more expensive than standard tickets © Frank Andrews / Lonely Planet

I’m in the slightly more expensive seats – my ticket cost JD4, roughly US$5.50. There are groups of women here, some with young children. One scurries about in a little green t-shirt, sipping from a straw, stopping now and again to stare transfixed at the match and then up at the noisy adults towering above him. A teenager carrying a metal tray walks along the front row selling tea. There’s so much going on around me that I’m barely watching the game.

Half an hour into the match, a few men go to a quiet corner of the stadium and kneel silently to perform the post-sunset prayer, the maghrib, their backs to the pitch as the floodlit game continues. The packed main stand erupts as the referee gives a free-kick to Faisaly. The men rise slowly, one by one, from off their knees. When they walk back to their seats, they have small patches of dust on their foreheads from the stadium floor.

Wehdat fans react to the football match against Faisaly near Amman, JordanCaustic chants are still a common part of the game, despite the fact that both clubs were previously penalised and had their matches closed to the public © Frank Andrews / Lonely Planet

‘No Time for Mistakes’

The referee blows for halftime; the game is goalless. A man smoking straights ties a small green ribbon around my head that reads ‘Al Wehdat SC, Club of Champions’. We talk about English football, the difficulties of learning Arabic, and Palestine. He smokes another cigarette.

In the second half, Wehdat fans in the stand across the pitch unfurl a large banner emblazoned with the words ‘No Time for Mistakes’. When the banner tumbles down to the row of waiting hands in the front seats, the fans link arms and begin to jump as one – a teaming sea of green and white. My stand does the same. I jump with the people next to me, hands on their shoulders.

I feel like a bit of an impostor for plunging myself into the midst of all this intensity. The pain, the lived experience of this rivalry, with all its personal and historical significance, is too vast for me to grasp. But I am treated as a welcome novelty, not an unwanted outsider. At one point, a few guys beckon me over so one of the club photographers can take a photo of us all.

Fans react as Wehdat fails to net a goal during a last-minute chance to clinch the match in the stadium near Amman, JordanWehdat gets a last-minute chance to clinch the match © Frank Andrews / Lonely Planet

On the pitch, the game is slowly becoming frustrating – neither team is incisive enough to net a goal. A scuffle breaks out at midfield between the players after a heavy challenge. The photographers near the corner flag peer through their viewfinders and start shooting, and the TV camera operators swivel to focus in on the drama.

There’s a golden chance for Wehdat just as the game feels like it’s petering out, but the wiry striker it falls to balloons the ball metres over the bar. He collapses to the turf in despair, hands covering his face, to a furious cacophony of howls and whistles.

Full time

I leave in the 88th minute, just in case things turn sour: a friend who joined me at the game was told to either leave early or leave last. As I walk out toward the road, I put my eye to a gap in one of the gates to get a last look. The referee blows the final whistle. The game has finished nil nil. Some of the players square off, all bravado, and the respective dugouts empty as substitutes and coaches rush to intervene and break them up. A few fans throw whatever they can get their hands on at the players – half-full drinks, food – and the projectiles land around them on the pitch.

Footballers on both sides play for Jordan’s national team, and when they’re not on opposing teams, they apparently get on well. But for many of the home fans, Al Wehdat is a central part of their identity, and the rivalry doesn’t fizzle out with the final whistle. Far more than just a gameday frenzy, their support is a symbol of their Palestinian roots. Many of them grew up, and still live, in the Al Wehdat camp, just minutes from the stadium.

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