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World Cup fever arrives early in Gaza

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Gaza World Cup?
  • Palestinians stage 16-team soccer "World Cup" in Gaza
  • Teams made up of local players plus international aid workers
  • "France" beats "Jordan" on penalty kicks in the final

Gaza City (CNN) -- Take a soccer-crazy crowd and a traditional Palestinian opening ceremony. Add a splash of corporate sponsorship, and sprinkle in some black-clad, gun-toting security.

What you're left with is the World Cup of soccer -- Gaza style.

The 16-team, two-week tournament culminated Saturday with the field narrowed down to France and Jordan.

The idea for the contest was the brainchild of American aid worker Patrick McGrann and a Palestinian colleague.

"There were a lot of us who were offended that Gaza is not allowed to participate with the rest of the world -- whether it's diplomacy, whether it's schooling, whether it's education or whether it's sports," McGrann said.

"So we chose to try and come up with something special. And in this case, a Gaza World Cup. If the rest of the world gets a World Cup, we thought Gaza should get one too."

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  • Gaza
  • FIFA World Cup
  • Soccer

While the teams wore the colors of France and Jordan, almost all of the players were Palestinian. Foreign nationals working for the United Nations and other aid organizations rounded out the teams to give it its international flavor.

American player Corey Pattison played for the French team. He said they found a way to work past the language barrier.

"When I get out there, it's more like, 'Corey, go forward, go forward, go forward. Don't kick the ball out of bounds,'" he said.

A crowd of several thousand men, along with a few women, watched the two teams battle in a game played down to the proverbial wire.

After scoring a goal a piece, the match went into overtime -- with the French besting the Jordanians on penalty shots.

The crowd, as expected, went wild. And the jubilation of the players could not be contained.

One jumped up on the rail separating the field from the spectators, took off his jersey and led the crowd in a raucous chant.

While organizers had hoped to keep politics out of the cup, the politicians could not stay away. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh presided over the award ceremony.

But this was a day for Gazans to put aside politics and their many problems, at least for a while, and bask in the glory of hosting -- and winning -- the World Cup.