Palestinian football team in Oz to contest Asian Cup

4 Jan

1420177305770Qatar’s Khalfan Ibrahim, left, fights for the ball with Palestine’s Mousa Abujazar during a friendly international match in Doha in 2013. (FADI AL-ASSAAD / Reuters)

William Booth, Washington Post, 3 January 2015

Sports fans love underdogs, but few face greater odds than the Palestinian football team

It is a sports cliche that fans love an underdog, and there are few international sports franchises more underdoggy than the Palestine National Football Team.

The Palestinian team is having the best season in its history: In 2014, it reached a plateau as the 85th best team in the world, according to rankings by FIFA, football’s world governing body. The team has since fallen to 113th place – still not bad – meaning it is better than Kuwait but not quite as good as Saudi Arabia. (Israel is ranked 32nd; New Zealand is 131st).

This has created big buzz among Palestinian fans of football. Even bigger is that the team has for the first time fought its way into the Asian Football Confederation’s Asian Cup, the most important competition for Asian teams after the World Cup. To be staged in Australia starting next week, the 16-team tournament is expected to be dominated by Japan, South Korea and Iran.

“Palestine qualifying is a very big deal,” said Bassil Mikdadi, a founder of the fan website Football Palestine. “Football is the number one sport, and short of qualifying for the World Cup, this is as big as it gets. It will be the first time we participate in the finals of a major tournament.”

On a recent chilly evening, the Palestinian team was having a final at-home practice at the stadium in Ramallah before hitting the road for friendly matches and then the Asian Cup.

The players were jazzed. A few hundred fans cheered from the seats, and after the practice, they came down to hand the team members roses and wish them luck.

The coach, Ahmed al-Hassan, said that running a Palestinian team was not easy, in part because it represents a population that has no sovereign state and is divided between the besieged Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Over the years, Palestinian football players have frequently been denied permits by Israeli authorities to travel between the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians in the diaspora, playing for teams in Poland, China, Canada and Saudi Arabia, also have had trouble getting home.

“I can’t gather my players in one place,” Hassan said. “Gaza players can’t come to West Bank. West Bank can’t go to Gaza. I have players in the other leagues who can’t come here.”

There are other obstacles, too, such as the cyclical Mideast conflict. In 2009, during the Israeli military offensive in Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, three Palestinian footballers were killed.

One Palestinian player was imprisoned for three years for alleged membership in the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad, an allegation he denied. Another was arrested by Israeli security forces for working as a courier for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that controls Gaza.

So there have been problems not usually faced by footballers, who in other places more commonly make news off the field for bad divorces.

“We are the only team in the world who competes under occupation,” said Abdelhamid Abuhabib, 25, a high-scoring playmaker who had just left the pitch to ice his knee. He shrugged. “Nothing is easy for us, but we are strong.”

Their fans say the team has come a long way, from a shambles just a few years ago to real contenders today.

“We follow them very closely,” said Warda Batsch, 21, a student at Arab American University who is majoring in physical education and came out to cheer the practice. “They are playing very well. You can see a certain elegance.”

Mikdadi, who runs the football website, recalled the team’s victory over the Philippines in May, which earned the Palestinians entry to the Asian Cup.

“The day of the match was pure bedlam in Palestine,” he said. “People gathered in large outdoor spaces to watch the match, and when Palestine clinched a 1-0 win, there were crazy celebrations that lasted through the night.”

After practice, the team headed to the Grand Park Hotel to be honored by Palestinian politicos, sports fans and business leaders.

There was a surprise, too. The Palestinian singer Mohammad Assaf performed. He is the former wedding singer from the Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip who won the “Arab Idol” contest in 2013 against tough odds.

Palestinian football fans say they hope another long shot might clinch a title this month.

The Washington Post

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