Ex-diplomat Hopes Gaza Soccer Facility Built with Japanese Aid Will Again be a Field of Dreams

Courtesy of U.N. Development Program
Teams representing Gaza and the West Bank vie for the ball in the “Tokyo League” final at a soccer facility in Rafah, Gaza Strip, that was rebuilt with assistance from Japan.

Takeshi Okubo, a Japanese diplomat at the time, watched with pride as two soccer teams played a thrilling game while spectators roared their support in Rafah, a city in the southern Gaza Strip. Repairs to the soccer stadium were completed in 2019 thanks to financial support from Japan. This was the stage for the “Tokyo League” final held between teams representing the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank.

But the facility has not been used for soccer since December 2023. From that point, field hospital tents covered the ground. Set up by the United Arab Emirates, the hospital had 150 beds and was necessary to treat the injured after the start of Israeli military attacks aimed at eliminating the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas.

“Right now, I want the soccer field to be used for saving people’s lives,” said Okubo, a former ambassador for Palestinian affairs and representative of Japan to Palestine who had been involved in reconstruction projects in Gaza. Okubo hopes peace will return to Gaza and that people there will once again be able to enjoy playing sports.

Residents in Gaza have fond memories of the soccer stadium as a sports venue. But in 2008, an Israeli military attack destroyed the roof and spectator seating area, leaving parts of the steel frame exposed. The Japanese government stepped up to help rebuild the facility.

Artificial grass was laid on the pitch and floodlights were installed. In April 2019, the soccer facility was the stage for a highly anticipated game — the final between teams with players aged 19 or younger that had won qualifying matches to represent Gaza and the West Bank. The tournament was called the Tokyo League in a nod to Japan’s assistance. After the Gazan team emerged victorious, winning 3-2, the players swapped uniforms and were radiating joy.

“That was the moment when Palestine, which had been divided in two, came together as one through soccer,” recalled Okubo, 65.

Ex-diplomat lends a hand

Courtesy of U.N. Development Program
Japanese diplomat Takeshi Okubo, center, mingles with players after the game.

Okubo joined the Foreign Ministry in 1982 and was appointed to posts at various Japanese embassies in the Middle East. His second stint in the Palestinian territories began in 2015, a time when Gaza had already been blockaded by Israel and despondency about the uncertainty of the future was spreading among residents.

“I felt that young people in Gaza had very few chances to prove their own presence and value in a public setting,” Okubo recalled.

Okubo focused on the power of sports to help people. The Japanese government and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) provided financial assistance to buy soccer uniforms, shoes, balls and other equipment, as well as cover the teams’ operational costs. The government and the UNDP also helped rebuild the soccer stadium. In a refugee camp, they hosted a table tennis tournament for female players and a volleyball tournament for people who had lost a leg.

The horrors of war returned to Gaza in October 2023, four years after Okubo had left his position. Israeli armed forces first entered northern Gaza and worked their way south. Rafah, which sits next to the Egyptian border, became the last place of refuge for Gaza’s residents. About 1.5 million people are taking shelter there.

“I’m beyond sad,” Okubo said, his shoulders slumping. “It feels like all the assistance we provided has come to nothing. I’m tormented by a feeling of helplessness.”

Even so, Okubo will never forget the sparks of hope he saw in the players’ eyes when he handed them medals at the awards presentation after the Tokyo League final. It was a moment when the players finally felt recognized for their efforts.

“The assistance we provided through sports might not be tangible, but I’m sure that it encouraged the people of Gaza, including the spectators. I hope that will someday help Gaza move toward recovery,” Okubo said.

Total aid reaches $2.3 billion

According to the Foreign Ministry, Japan started providing aid to Palestine in 1953. The government has adopted a position of supporting the “two-state solution,” in which Israel and a future independent Palestinian state coexist and prosper together. Japan has provided assistance in a wide range of fields, including medical care, food and education. This assistance has totaled about $2.3 billion since 1993, when records began.