Gaza gripped by Clasico fever despite boycott call
At the Omda Cafe on Gaza City's seafront, dozens of men and boys filled rows of chairs set up on a lawn, many sporting gelled coifs worthy of their footballer heroes.
The Hamas government, and some Palestinian activists, had called for a boycott of the match over Barcelona's decision to invite Gilad Shalit, a former Israeli soldier who was held captive by Gaza militants for nearly five years.
After an outcry over the invite, Barcelona sought to appease angry Palestinian fans by also inviting Mahmud Sarsak, a Palestinian footballer who went on hunger strike while detained without charge by Israel.
But Sarsak ultimately turned down the invitation, saying he could not attend a game alongside Shalit, and some Palestinian activists urged their football-mad compatriots to follow his lead by boycotting the match altogether.
The call seemed to have fallen on largely deaf ears, judging from the turnout at cafes and hotel restaurants in Gaza City.
"I'm a Barcelona supporter and I'm definitely angry that they invited Shalit," said 27-year-old Hamza Azzam, smoking a waterpipe at the Omda Cafe.
"He's a criminal, not somebody to be invited to a football game," he said. "But in the end it's football, and I'm still rooting for Barcelona."
His friend, Haythem Estawi, expressed similar outrage.
"I watch every Clasico, and usually I don't mind who wins, but this time I'm definitely supporting Madrid. I want Barcelona to lose because of their invitation."
The broadcast in the Omda Cafe did not feature Shalit in the crowd, but the sight of an Israeli flag in the stands prompted boos and jeers from the assembled fans.
Shalit himself addressed the controversy, writing in an article published by Israeli news site Ynet on Sunday, that he was as excited about the match as "a small child whose parents took him to a huge candy store."
"As everyone knows, pro-Palestinian groups threatened to demonstrate during the game," he wrote.
"As of now, everything here is calm, and let's hope that this mountain will continue to be a molehill. But if things change, we have professional bodyguards to look after us," he added.
Despite Hamas's call for Palestinians to boycott the game, there was no sign that police were intent on enforcing the appeal, and fans said they were not expecting any trouble.
And it seemed that passions were running much higher over the eventual result than the Shalit controversy, with crowds of mixed Barca and Madrid fans taunting each other when their respective teams scored during the fast-paced first half.
"Barcelona should know that they have many, many supporters in the Middle East who are unhappy about what they did," said 53-year-old Zakaria Atun, himself a Barca fan.
"I'm not worried about the (Hamas) government, I'm just upset that politics had to get involved with our sport."
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