FIFA President Sepp Blatter with Palestinian soccer coaches.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since the jubilation of qualifying for a maiden Asian Cup campaign the Palestinian national team has lost its coach, seen friendly matches cancelled and had players blocked from travel, but still it refuses to be downhearted.
Few expect the Palestinians stay in Australia to last longer than the group stage, where they face holders Japan, former winners Iraq and fellow West Asians Jordan, but that does not matter to the side ranked 113th in the world.
Their greatest victory has already been achieved – earning the opportunity to show the world they have a team capable of competing against the top sides in Asia despite the issues they face.
“This is a historic occasion for us,” forward Ashraf Nu’man told FIFA.com. “Our goal is to let the world know that the Palestinian national team are moving forward despite the difficulties facing us.
“We want to convey the message that the Palestinian players have the right to play and develop. Furthermore, we want to bring a smile back to the faces of our people and make our fans happy.
“The opener against Japan (on January 12) will be a hard match for us as they are considered as one of Asia’s best teams. The Japanese players are better than us.”
Nu’man’s attitude is a big part of the reason the Palestinians are competing at the Asian Cup for the first time.
They traveled to the Maldives for the Challenge Cup in May shorn of six players because of the restrictions of movement outside of the Palestinian Authority.
With most of those being strikers, Nu’man was pressed further forward from his usual midfield role and flourished in the honeymoon islands, finishing as top scorer with four goals.
As the emerging teams battled sea sickness from the never ending boat trips to matches, training sessions and hotels, Nu’man proved he had the stomach for the fight – scoring the only goal in the final as they beat the Philippines to book the final spot in Australia.
That golden ticket was a brief moment of joy to hold onto in the dark times that would follow.
Former international Ahed Zaqout, one of Palestine’s best ever players, was killed by an Israeli bomb that hit his apartment in Gaza in July during the conflict that claimed the lives of over 2,100 Palestinians and more than 70 Israelis.
Coach Jamal Mahmoud quit for “personal reasons” late last year, with his deputy Ahmed Al Hassan stepping up.
A friendly against Iran last week was cancelled at the last minute for unspecified reasons, while Al Hassan works with a committed squad he knows is not his best because of availability restrictions.
Undeterred, Palestinians are cherishing the global window of the Asian Cup.
“It’s a big thing because you know, Palestine the life is very difficult and all of the sports have many problems,” Mahmoud said. “To send a message around the world that we can do very good if we have space, if equipment is allowed for us to play [with, if we are Allowed] to go outside and we send message – we want peace.”
Palestine’s first Asian Cup finals appearance is likely to end in three defeats and a group stage exit but the rank outsiders have long proved capable of punching above their weight.
They held China to a goalless draw in an Asian Cup warm up in December to give them hope of taking points from a tricky Group D featuring Jordan and the last two winners of the continental tournament.
They open their campaign by facing holders Japan in Newcastle on January 12, where they will be sure to employ a backs-to-the-wall defensive lineup in an attempt to stifle and frustrate Javier Aguirre’s talent-laden side.
But what the Palestinian national team, recognized by FIFA in 1998, produce in Australia almost seems inconsequential.
Their greatest victory is qualifying for the finals for the first time despite all the problems.
“It’s a miracle,” FIFA presidential candidate and Palestine FA advisor Jerome Champagne told Australia’s SBS previously of the achievement.
“It’s unbelievable to see the Palestine national team in the first 16 teams in Asia.”