Jaka Ihbeisheh’s heartwarming journey from Slovenia to Palestine — via football

Jaka Ihbeisheh in action for Slovenian side Rudar Velenje. (Photo / Twitter: @ihbeisheh)
Updated 18 November 2018
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Jaka Ihbeisheh’s heartwarming journey from Slovenia to Palestine — via football

LONDON: Jaka Ihbeisheh’s eyes glisten as he recalls the moment his father first watched him play for Palestine. While the midfielder’s path to the national team may have been unconventional, those feelings of pride on his debut were wholly natural. From western Yugoslavia to the West Bank, Ihbeisheh’s journey was fueled by a desire to rediscover his roots.
Ihbeisheh was born in Ljubljana in 1986 to a Slovenian mother and a Palestinian father, who met while the latter was studying medicine in Croatia. His parents separated when he was seven years old, however, and his father moved back to Palestine.
It would be 18 years before he saw his father again.
An early love of football developed into a career for Ihbeisheh, who played for a number of Slovenian clubs. But while he lived out his childhood dream professionally, in his personal life there remained a nagging question about the whereabouts of his father.


In 2013, Ihbeisheh finally decided to try to reach out to the man from whom he had been estranged for three quarters of his life.
“After getting married, I started to question more where I was from and what my father had been doing,” Ihbeisheh explained. “We still had an envelope at home with an address on it so I decided to write a letter to him asking him if he wanted to meet me.
“I wrote three letters — in Slovenian, Croatian and English — and to be honest I had no idea if I would receive a reply.”
A month passed by with no response but then one day Ihbeisheh opened his Facebook account to see a friend request from someone whose name was written in Arabic.
“It was a strange moment after all those years but the date of birth matched my father’s so I knew it was him. We started to talk on Skype first, in Croatian. I was amazed he could remember but he said that because he studied medicine in the language he had never forgotten it. He still used Croatian medical textbooks.

 

Jaka Ihbeisheh in action for Slovenian side Rudar Velenje. (Photo / Twitter: @ihbeisheh)


“After a few calls, my wife and I decided the time was right to go and visit him in Palestine. A lot of people said things like, ‘Don’t go there you are crazy, you will get shot’ — but my father lived there and I wanted to go and visit him. I was not afraid.”
That first trip was fraught with nervous excitement as Ihbeisheh made his way to his father’s homeland via his aunt’s house in Jordan. The midfielder had read and heard about the potential difficulties of the crossing into Palestine and his own passage was not straightforward.
“The security at the border was very heavy and when they asked me where I was going, I said Palestine. He said, ‘No, to Israel’ and I said, ‘No, Palestine’. Then he separated me and my wife and a soldier came and took me into a room to ask a lot of questions.
“They asked about my life, my father, my work, my wife. They went on Wikipedia to check if I really was a Slovenian professional footballer. Then they called my wife inside — they were checking our stories matched. They asked my wife the name of my coach and fortunately she knew it. We were there for five hours in all.”
For Ihbeisheh it was glimpse into the border woes that are a regular part of life for Palestinians, though happier experiences were to come.


“When we got off the bus, my father and all his family were there waiting and it was very emotional. Of course, we had a big meal to celebrate.
“After that trip, I knew that if the opportunity came up I would want to play international football for Palestine. My father didn’t need to say anything for me to know how much it would mean to him.”
When Ihbeisheh returned to Slovenia, the thought of playing for Palestine was still on his mind but he had no idea how to put the wheels in motion. Then a fortuitous meeting with a Palestinian diplomat’s son opened the door. Six months later, Ihbeisheh received a text inviting him to be involved with the squad for the first time.
“My first game was a friendly in Dubai ahead of the 2015 Asian Cup and it was an amazing day. When the national anthem played, I was so proud. You meet the other players and hear their stories, then you understand why it means so much to represent Palestine.
“Since then I have come to play every time they call me. I love being part of this team.”

 

Jaka Ihbeisheh meeting hero Xavi, and on the sidelines of a Rudar Velenje game. (Photo / Twitter: @ihbeisheh)


Ihbeisheh went on to make a major impact at the Asian Cup in Australia, becoming the first Palestinian player to score at a major international tournament in a 5-1 defeat to Jordan.


But while that was a moment to savour, it paled in comparison to the first game he played in Palestine.
“It is a totally different occasion playing in Palestine. Everyone is supporting their country and they make incredible noise, they want to take pictures with us. We feel like heroes. It’s a shame that our home games are often moved away from our land and our people — I hope this stops.
“My first game there was a 0-0 draw with UAE in (the West Bank town) Al-Ram and of course it was the first time my father saw me play in Palestine. This was an emotional moment for him and for me. He said, ‘I was really proud to see you play but I am proud even when you are not playing. You are always representing your country.’
“The more I am called up to play for Palestine, the more I see him so, for us, football has an important meaning.”
That sentiment is true for many in Palestine, for whom football offers a temporary escape from difficult lives. Palestine may often appear to be a byword for conflict but Ihbeisheh has found the opposite to be true, the country uniting him with both his father and his heritage.
“I feel really sad about some of the things I hear, some of the experience my friends and family have. It is difficult to imagine for people like me who have always lived in Europe. You just hear the things on TV or radio but it is not the same as when my teammates tell me their stories.
“What each of them has gone through, and achieved, to play football for Palestine is inspirational. They know how football can help to give the supporters something, for a little bit of time they forget about all the worries. This is important to them, and me.
“I may not come from Palestine but when we are together as team-mates, there is no difference if you have lived your whole life in Palestine or outside of Palestine. We are all the same, we are family.”


Lewis Hamilton tells rivals ‘catch me if you can’

Updated 20 February 2019
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Lewis Hamilton tells rivals ‘catch me if you can’

  • Five-time world champion feeling confident of a sixth crown ahead of new season.
  • Pre-season testing going well in Barcelona.

BARCELONA: Lewis Hamilton has warned his rivals they had better get ready to catch his dust as he is feeling “better than ever” ahead of the season.
The 34-year-old Briton enjoyed a near flawless run to secure his fifth drivers’ title last year. He won 11 of the 21 races to beat Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel with two races to spare, and he expects the Italian marque to once again keep him on his toes.
“Ferrari are very strong,” Hamilton said in Barcelona on the third day of pre-season testing.
“It appears they have a better package than last year, which means it will be a bigger challenge for us.
“In the last few years, Ferrari has looked good from the very beginning so that’s to be expected.”
But he said it would be a mistake to draw any hard and fast conclusions from the evidence thrown up by testing.
“We’ll have a better idea I guess this time next week where we stand but still then we won’t know what fuel loads everybody is on and who is showing their cars and who isn’t.”
Hamilton, with a new two-year deal that will earn him £40 million ($52 million) a season, is buzzing after the winter recess.
“I feel in the best shape that I’ve been in,” he assured his fans, as he embarks on his quest for a sixth championship and record sixth consecutive constructors’ crown for Mercedes.
On a sixth title he shrugged: “I am not even focusing on that. It’s a new season, a new year, a new chapter and we have to approach like it’s our first.
“We’re going for number one, that’s how I approach it.
“But it’s not something that I allow my peers to talk about. It’s not what we are here for to focus on that number.”
He dismissed out of hand any notion of complacency setting in at his all-conquering team.
“We are always driven to do something new and to break boundaries and do stuff that no one else has done before but we are fully aware of the work that it will take to deliver something like that and it’s by no means like ‘yeah we are going for the sixth’ like it’s a relaxed thing.
“It’s not like that.”
Hamilton’s bid for title number six begins at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 17.