Top football stars unite for the children of Gaza exhibition match

Anwar El Ghazi has played at international level. He’s played in some of the toughest leagues across Europe. But he described the charity football match he helped organise — to raise much-needed funds for the children of Gaza — as “the most special one” he’s played in.

“It’s great to be here today,” said the former Aston Villa winger at the end of the star-studded Children of Gaza exhibition match organised by Nujum Sports, a not-for-profit supporting Muslim athletes.

“The emotion kicked in before the kickoff. I knew how special this was, and what I’m doing it for. I felt really proud and happy on the pitch.”

El Ghazi and the players line up before the game

The pitch is something he hasn’t graced professionally in recent months following his sacking in November. German football club Mainz controversially terminated his contract over social media posts in solidarity with the people of Gaza. A court case is now in play.

The exhibition match brought together an impressive list of current and former international stars from across Europe’s top leagues at Barnet FC’s ground on the first day of summer. 

Even though El Ghazi knew it was slightly bad timing, coming at the end of the season with players either on holiday or preparing for the Euros, he was really pleased with the player turnout. 

“You see the players that were on the pitch today. Alhamdulillah, it’s amazing,” said El Ghazi.

There were legendary figures like Bacary Sagna (ex-Arsenal and Manchester City), Eric Abidal (Barcelona), Younus Kaboul (ex-Spurs), Adlène Guedioura  (ex-Algerian international). Others also showed their support, including Leicester City’s Hamza Choudhury and football influencer Taiyo Kimura.

Ex-Manchester City and Arsenal legend Bacary Sagna

Billed as Anwar El Ghazi XI v Nujum Sports XI, Ipswich Town’s Sam Morsy was El Ghazi’s opposing captain in the match. 

Morsy has been vocal about the situation in Palestinian — even draping himself with the Palestinian flag when celebrating Ipswich’s promotion to the Premier League in May.

Given the politicised nature of the war in Gaza, you can understand why a footballer might be hesitant to participate — as publicly showing support, even for a humanitarian cause related to Gaza, can inexplicably draw controversy.

But Morsy told Islam Channel he was happy to be with everyone for a ‘fantastic’ cause.

“As you know people can be tentative, even though today wasn’t about politics, it was about humanitarian needs,” he said. “I’m really pleased with the player turnout.”

Ipswich Town captain Sam Morsy

He said the atmosphere was “really good.” “People have come out, they’ve paid their money, they’ve supported; I salute every person here today.”

Solidarity on show

Despite the weightiness of the cause, El Ghazi also noted the uplifting atmosphere.

“There’s a spirit of positivity. You are here just for one cause: for the children of Gaza. And I think we made a nice statement today,” he added.

The match attracted passionate fans from diverse communities. Ali, part of a large contingent from the Iraqi community in West London, was surprised by the calibre of the players on show.

“They [the footballers] decided to come and join and be part of this incredible cause, which is to show solidarity with Palestine and Gaza,” he said.

His reason for attending was to show “that the Iraqis; their hearts are with Palestine. He added: “The atmosphere is incredible, the passion is amazing. And we get to see great footballers as well.”

Ali and his friends

Murshad Rob, joined by his YouTube friends Grizz and Tobs from The Big 6ix, praised the players for using their platforms to raise awareness.

“What should always be the case is that morals should be worth more than money,” said Murshad.

“We’ve seen already with Anwar El Ghazi; he put his career on the line to support this cause. It’s noble what they’re doing and shows these players empathise with what’s really going on [in Gaza].”

“Because it’s all well and good sharing something on your Instagram story, but this is action. So, I really respect it.”

Murshad Rob with his friends Grizz and Tobs from The Big 6ix YouTube Channel

And he had a few words for the organisers for bringing all this together: “Sometimes, a lot of us feel like we don’t know how to help. And Nujum Sports gives us an avenue to actually support as a collective.”

“The power is in numbers. The media serves us. If we show that we support causes like this, it empowers us to actually bring it to the spotlight.”

The power of football

The impressive turnout was a testament to how football can unite people for a greater cause.

The game was action-packed ending 4-1 to Anwar El Ghazi XI

“Today’s about the power of football; this is the people’s game,” said Tufail Hussain, Director at Islamic Relief UK — the proceeds from the match will go towards its Gaza Emergency Appeal.

“We’ve seen some famous footballers, premier league players — present and the past — that came here, that represented, that wanted to raise awareness of the plight of our brothers and sisters in Gaza.

“And it’s heartening to see around 3,000 supporters coming to passionately support them. The most important thing was to raise funds and awareness.” 

Hussain highlighted the urgent need for aid in Gaza. Islamic Relief has spent nearly £20 million since October, providing medical care, food, shelter, water, and sanitation. “We’ve recently shifted to serving warm meals,” he said. “We’ve distributed over 18m meals so far, and that’s thanks to our generous donors in the UK.” 

The players perform sujood after a goal

For El Ghazi, the event’s success was a source of immense pride despite some challenges in organising it.

“It wouldn’t be possible without all the people behind the scenes, so I’m really grateful for them as well.”

“I think this has never been done before. I want to stick with the positivity but I know behind the scenes there were people who didn’t want this. But as we said, we do it literally for the children of Gaza.

“No child on Earth deserves what’s happening right now in Gaza. I have a little one myself. I think maybe as a parent you can understand. So, it makes it special.”

And what about the game? It ended with El Ghazi’s team winning 4-1. The quality was excellent despite it being an exhibition game. Even though there was a celebratory atmosphere – thanks mainly to the vocal Iraqi contingent — the one-minute silence before kickoff for the children killed in Gaza provided a sombre reminder of what inspired the event.

“We all see the images and the videos on a daily basis,” said El Ghazi. “And we’re trying to send the message that we support them, that we are with them, and we will always be with them.” 

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