The news cycle over the last ten days has been completely dominated by Abdallah Jaber’s decision to leave the WBPL and join Israeli Premier League side Hapoel Hadera.
Jaber’s decision drew the ire of a small but vocal minority of fans with many upset that he would no longer be part of the national team set up.
For his part, the left back has reiterated his intent to continue representing Palestine. The PFA had to state that Jaber had the right to make the move and for its part could not publicly state their unofficial policy of not calling up professional players that play for Israeli clubs.
Palestinian players have crossed the green line several times in either direction for the better part of a decade with little fanfare and without the attention of Palestinian, Israeli, and the international press.
Consider the case of Shadi Shaban, a midfielder who played a key role in Palestine’s 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualification campaign. Earlier this year he announced his intent to leave his current side Jabal Al-Mukaber, his move was met with well wishes from the fans and little interest from the media.
شكراً شكراً شكراً على هذه الفتره الجميله , امل اني كنت شخص مريح على الجميع واني احترمت اي فرد كلمني وتعامل معي في المواسم التي لعبتها في الدوري الفلسطيني . كان فخر لي ارتداء زي المنتخب الوطني واستمتعت في كل لحظه بتمثيله ! الى اللقاء ✌️✌️ pic.twitter.com/VfW9OlyfhF
— Shadi shaban شادي شعبان (@Shadishaban1992) February 5, 2020
A couple of months before deciding to leave the WBPL, Shaban voiced his displeasure at the quality of refereeing. Stating that there are unwritten rules in the league, such as “a goal not being a goal unless it hits the back of the net” and “offsides being not counted if a ball ricochets off the post or crossbar”
Shaban’s destination? FC Dabburiya Osama. A fledging Liga Alef (third tier) side. There was no inquest as to why a current national team player with 23 caps and three assists since his debut in March 2016 would make such a move.
Two years earlier, Palestine’s most consistent goalscorer decamped from the WBPL to join third tier side Hapoel Iksal. A scorer of six goals in nine appearances (five starts), Abu Nahyeh left because the league has underlying deficiencies that are being constantly ignored.
Nine years ago, Haaretz wrote about an influx of players leaving the Israeli lower leagues to play in the WBPL for higher wages, in front of bigger crowds, in newly built stadiums. The players who were interviewed for the article made it seem as if the WBPL was a godsend- deliverance from the underfunded lower leagues of Israeli football
A decade after its inception, the league is in a rut and faces serious questions about its future and has lurched from crisis to crisis.
The league has had its successes. Developing many young players who have since gone on to play abroad in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. It also provided a career development option to Palestinian players who were ignored by Israeli Premier League clubs. Many of those players- Rami Hamadi, Haitham Dheeb, Abdallah Jaber and Mohammed Darweesh have become the spine of the national team.
Higher profile players have also made the jump to the West Bank Premier League in recent years. At first, the league attracted players from Liga Alef and Liga Bet (third and fourth tier) but by 2017 it was able to convince Alaa Abu Saleh- captain of Bnei Sakhnin with nearly 200 Israeli Premier League appearances to sign.
The league is able to offer its top players between $40,000 and $50,000 USD per annum. For Palestinian citizens of Israel, this amount is a fortune as they do not pay taxes on their earned income. These respectable salaries raise a question about the league’s financial stability. How is it that this fledging league can provide a wage that is comparable to that paid out to some players in Europe’s smaller top flight championships?
From the outset, clubs were never able to cover these massive wage bills themselves. While the league’s stars are fully professional the vast majority of the league’s workforce is semiprofessional and dependent on other jobs to make a living.
Life as a Palestinian footballer or manager is fraught with uncertainty. Contracts are voided in midseason which results in a merry-go-round of players every January. Unpaid wages are the norm with players going months without seeing a paycheque.
Weeks before Palestine’s famous win over Uzbekistan in World Cup qualifying PFA President Jibril Rajoub was talking openly about the possibility of cancelling the league season.
The fact that the local league could be in such dire straits is confounding as the period since its inception coincided with the best period for Palestine’s national teams. A period which saw unparalleled success in the form of two Asian Cup Finals berths in 2015 and 2019, two trips to the Asian Games knockout stages in 2014 and 2018, and a quarterfinal berth at the 2018 AFC U23 Championship.
If the league could not generate cash in good times, how could it possibly sustain itself in a downturn?
A Failed Business Model
In today’s globalised world, it has never been easier to generate revenues on the back of the world’s most popular sport. FIFA’s coffers are flush with cash and Gianni Infantino has been elected to consecutive terms as FIFA president on the backof a promise to share more wealth with the world’s Football Associations.
E-commerce and free-to-use Google and Facebook platforms have also opened up revenue streams that were not there a generation ago.
A football club makes money one of three ways: Match day revenue from gate receipts, sponsorships, merchandising, and TV/digital revenue.
WBPL teams have no merchandising income, most have no individual sponsorships, and broadcast/digital remain untapped sources.
Ticket sales are brisk and at 10 shekels cannot cover the operating costs which for most clubs is about $750,000 per annum.
Even when factoring in Oredoo/Jawal’s sponsorship (estimated at $1 million) and the $1 million payout from the state there is no way clubs can cover their liabilities- especially those with high profile players. Equal payout of these revenues would mean Palestine’s 48 professional clubs in the West Bank and Gaza would only receive $42,000.
Small leagues are also dependent on selling their best players to turn a profit, and although there is no shortage of talent in the league, there has been no effort to market and sell them in order to generate revenue. Islam Batran, Mohammed Saleh, Mahmoud Wadi, Oday Dabbagh, Tamer Seyam, Shadi Shaban, and Abdallah Jaber net the league a grand total of zero dollars.
The league’s operators are intent in engaging in zero sum negotiations whereby a player has no choice but to play in the league for whatever wage he can scrape. A proposal to create a Palestine Players’ Union to address underlying concerns of footballers was struck down in 2016, preserving the status quo.
FIFA’s $6 million contribution
According to FIFA’s reporting Palestine was eligible for $4.3 Million in funding over the last cycle. From 2015-18, $3.7 Million was paid out to the PFA as part of FIFA’s forward programme. Football’s governing body is set to be even more generous this cycle with $6 million worth of funds available to the PFA.
The PFA also receives payments for the Asian Football Confederation and received $200,000 from the team’s participation at the last Asian Cup.
The free flow of funding from the regional and global governing bodies of football makes the current state of affairs even more troubling.
Things have to change
If the WBPL wants to survive it must change. It can be a viable alternative to Palestinian players playing in the Israeli leagues but it has to create the conditions that make playing in the West Bank an attractive proposition.
Clubs also need to be viable, revenue generating businesses. The clubs and the PFA are currently claiming that COVID-19 has badly affected their league. The reality is, however, that most games were played in empty stadiums and that no broadcast deal has ever been in place. Poor fields, atrocious refereeing, and subpar coaching are all issues that have to be addressed with immediate urgency.
The WBPL has to transform itself into a selling league; one that generates substantial profits from exporting talents it develops, while working on creating new revenue streams from untapped sources. Failure to do so could cost the league its life and set Palestinian football back a generation.