NINE THOUSAND MILES separate the Newcastle Stadium in southeast Australia and the Faisal Al-Husseini arena, Palestine’s home ground in Al-Ram, just outside Jerusalem. The real distance between the serene beaches and mountains of New South Wales and the poverty-stricken, divided West Bank, however, is more like a universe.
Newcastle is the place where, on Monday, the Palestinian national team will make their Asian Cup debut against continental giants Japan. Matches against Jordan in Melbourne and Iraq in Canberra will follow, with the two highest-placed teams advancing to the knockout stages. Considering that the last two tournaments were won by Japan and Iraq and that Jordan have made two of the previous three quarter-finals, it would be tempting in normal circumstances to label Palestine’s as the group of death. In this case, though, such a comment would be extraordinarily crude and insensitive: Palestinians know better than most that such a word has no place in a footballing context.
Theirs has been an overwhelmingly challenging struggle. The tragedies of poverty, conflict and displacement have combined to create an environment where, in some respects, football has come to be viewed as increasingly insignificant, an irrelevant pastime whose relative lack of importance is laid bare amidst innocent deaths and the destruction of homes, schools and businesses.
Yet in another sense, football remains vital. Sport, after all, has an almost unique ability to bring people together and offer hope even in the bleakest of settings. When Palestine defeated the Philippines in the AFC Challenge Cup final to secure their place in Australia last May, fireworks were let off in Gaza and street parties turned the strip into one big area of celebration. Countless numbers had fled to the coast to watch the tie on big screens, young fans banging drums to create an electric atmosphere.
Witnessing such an event would make it impossible to assert that football does not matter. Indeed, the game provides a vital escape for Palestinians, their team’s success offering temporary relief, joy when there is none to be found elsewhere and an opportunity to set aside for ninety minutes the multitudinous problems that they encounter on a daily basis.
There is awareness, too, that the national side can play a substantial role in their protracted struggle for statehood. “People know Palestine because of the football team,” defender Nadim Barghouti said in an interview in 2011. “It is [the] perfect way to prove to the rest of the world that we are human beings.”
FIFA’s official recognition of Palestine in 1998 was, for many, long overdue, yet it still remains one of the few instances of acknowledgment by an international body seventeen years on. As such, Palestine’s football team has become its most visible institution, the principal vehicle for representation of a collective identity on the world stage. The fact that they have made it this far is a modern-day miracle.
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IN A SENSE, the Faisal Al-Husseini – just a stone’s throw from the Israeli border and built on a patch of land where Israel parked their tanks during the second intifada which began in 2000 – is not really home at all. Only three official Palestinian fixtures have ever been staged there; Ammam, Doha and Damascus have become more regular bases. On the occasions when the side have played in Al-Ram – 1-1 draws with Jordan and Afghanistan, and a 1-0 win over Thailand – they have been backed by a fervent and boisterous crowd of men, women and children, several clad in the black, white, green and red of the Palestinian flag.
Football has always been popular in these parts. Palestine was one of the first places in the Middle East to take up the game, and reports describe organised football taking place as far back as the 1920s. A federation was founded in 1928, but its modern-day successor is considered to be the Isreali FA; a new governing body was then established in 1952 to allow participation in the following year’s Pan Arab Games, before another reform saw a new association replace it ten years later.
1998 was the key year for football in the region, with the team representing the future Palestinian state accepted by both FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation. This move facilitated Palestine’s inclusion in World and Asian Cup qualifiers but, more significantly, gave the Redeemers the chance to compete with established footballing nations in a competitive environment.
Initial results were poor. Palestine had previously won just two of their thirteen ties between April 1966 and July 1998 and, despite promising wins over Qatar and UAE in the 1999 Pan Arab Games, their disappointing record continued: only Pakistan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei were defeated in their next 41 full FIFA internationals.
There were, however, a vast number of mitigating circumstances that Palestine could point to. In June 2004, for example, the squad were preparing to travel to Uzbekistan to play in a qualifier for the World Cup that would take place in Germany in two years’ time. Palestine topped their group at that stage and were in confident mood after thrashing Chinese Taipei 8-0 and earning a highly creditable 1-1 draw with Iraq.
Just days before kick-off, though, the Israeli authorities refused permits for members of the squad. Palestine were able to field a team but it was significantly understrength, and they were comfortably beaten 3-0. From there, they never recovered: another defeat to Uzbekistan followed after five Palestinians were again barred from making the trip to Qatar where the match was taking place, and the Redeemers were knocked out after finishing in third place.
Travel restrictions, unfortunately, are an all-too-common impediment to the national side. In 2006, Palestine were forced to cancel their scheduled meeting with Singapore after being denied exit visas, while the players were also unable to get to India for the 2008 Challenge Cup, the tournament that provides the winners a place in the continent’s foremost competition, the Asian Cup.
Gaza-based players are the most affected, and difficulties with securing their availability continue to plague the team. Palestine recently appealed to FIFA president Sepp Blatter to intervene and help resolve the situation, calling for a complete separation of football and politics, but no solution has been reached and Blatter has dismissed pleas for the emplacement of sanctions on the Israeli FA. Israel cites security concerns for their strict approach towards Palestinians travelling overseas or between Gaza and the West Bank, but it is clear that a successful Palestinian football team receiving attention from supporters and media in the wider region and across the globe does not help the Israeli cause.
This internal separation of blockaded Gaza and the occupied West Bank has also caused problems. Palestinians are regularly detained when trying to cross the Israeli border, and footballers are certainly not exempt from this practice. This division of Palestine has become entrenched to the extent that both Gaza and the West Bank have their own separate domestic leagues, with different players, coaches, referees and administrators.
Such a situation predictably affects the coherence of the national side. The professionalization of the West Bank Premier League in 2010 has certainly improved the quality of football, yet thetwo-pronged system has inevitably led to an unwelcome division in Palestinian football – and, of course, in Palestinian life more generally.
Both leagues have had a turbulent existence: the former non-professional division in the West Bank began in 1977 but only completed five seasons in twenty years, while the Gaza Strip league was unable to run at all between 1987 and 1995, and 2000 and 2004. Although both competitions have become more regular in recent years, Israeli occupation, violent conflict and infighting among Palestinian authorities severely disrupted the sport in both Gaza and the West Bank for a long time, making progress at domestic and international level almost impossible.
Such nationwide problems have been afflicting, but it is perhaps only when the fate of some of Palestine’s individual footballers is considered that the true extent of the side’s troubles becomes fully comprehensible. Talented midfielder Tariq al Quto was killed by Israel Defence Forces in 2004, while Ayman Alkurd, Wajeh Moshtahe and Shadi Sbakhe were among the casualties in Operation Cast Lead, a three-week conflict in Gaza at the end of 2008 and start of 2009.Former playing star and well-respected coach Ahed Zaquout also lost his life after a shell hit his home in 2012; Mahmoud Sarsak, meanwhile, was locked up for three years after being accused of belonging to the Islamic Jihad Movement, and only released after a prolonged hunger strike and international pressure from Blatter, Michel Platini, and FIFPro.
Elsewhere, Ziyad Al-Kord has had his house destroyed, Omar Abu Ruways was detained in 2012 for being an alleged member of a terrorist cell and Samah Fares Muhamed Marava was accused of being employed as a courier for Hamas. Team facilities have been damaged – including the Palestine stadium in Gaza, which was bombed in April 2006 and now sports a gigantic crater in the middle of the pitch – and foreign members of staff have fled. Even the most fanciful of Hollywood directors would struggle to come up with more trying conditions.
If these personal tragedies were not enough to disrupt Palestinian football, the wider contextual environment of continual combat that has cost the lives of friends, family, colleagues and neighbours has also had a massive effect. One of the most harrowing episodes in recent times was the death of four children aged 11, 10, 10 and nine from Israeli air strikes while they were playing football on the beach last July. While several members of Japan’s Asian Cup squad have spent the preceding months playing in the World Cup and Champions League, Palestine’s footballers have been embroiled in the latest episode of the Arab-Israeli crisis. Finding the inner strength to carry on cannot be easy.
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THERE HAVE BEEN PURELY FOOTBALLING SETBACKS since the Challenge Cup too. Jamal Mahmoud, the manager who led Palestine to success in the Maldives and had overseen huge improvements since taking charge in 2011, resigned suddenly last September, apparently upset at the West Bank Premier League’s scheduling, which he saw as unconducive to Palestinian achievement (the growth of the division has certainly helped in terms of attracting and retaining a higher-level of footballer, but it has also created a challenge to the pre-eminence of the national team). Diego Maradona had been bizarrely linked with the job, but the inexperienced Ahmed El-Hassan was appointed boss in October, just twelve weeks before the encounter with Japan in Australia.
Palestine’s Asian Cup squad contains players who ply their trade in both domestic leagues, as well as in China, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Serbia and the US. Some of these players were drawn from the diaspora – a few years ago, adverts were regularly placed in newspapers and magazines around the world appealing for players with Palestinian blood – which numbers about 8.5 million and was viewed as a way to both increase the talent pool available and get around the infinite difficulties faced by those living within Palestine itself.
Ramzi Saleh, Palestine’s goalkeeper, captain and figurehead, is one of those squad members born overseas. Saleh has spent much of his career in his birthplace of Egypt and currently turns out for Smouha in the country’s second city of Alexandria; he is Palestine’s most-capped player in history and, even 15 years on from his international debut, remains one of their key players. Saleh kept a remarkable seven consecutive clean sheets as Palestine went through Challenge Cup qualifying and the tournament proper without conceding a single goal.
“We want to send a message to the world, to tell them that the Palestinian people exist despite all the Israeli obstacles”, he exclaimed last year. Japan’s Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, Iraq’s Younis Mahmoud and Jordan’s Abdallah Deeb will represent different challenges, but the 34-year-old – who had a trial with Sheffield United in their promotion campaign of 2005-06 but could not secure a UK work permit to stay in South Yorkshire for longer – is experienced and will not be fazed by the occasion.
If Saleh is tasked with keeping out the goals, the responsibility for scoring them lies predominantly with Ashraf Nu’man. The 28-year-old’s respectable international record of 13 goals in 42 appearances is impressive given that he is often fielded out wide or behind a central striker rather than directly up top, and his mazy dribbling, reliable finishing and dead-ball expertise make him an exciting and dangerous force going forward. Indeed, it was Nu’man’s free-kick against the Philippines that secured Asian Cup qualification and sparked wild celebrations throughout Palestine last May, and the Saudi-based number seven will be relied upon to both create and finish attacking moves.
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IT IS DIFFICULT TO DETERMINE what would constitute success for Palestine in Australia. It is hard to see the north-west Asians progressing from a strong group: holders Japan will likely advance in first place, Iraq are currently the continent’s highest-ranked team and Jordan were just a play-off away from making their World Cup debut in Brazil last year. Palestine will likely focus on sitting deep and compact before springing forward quickly on the counter, and El-Hassan’s men must remain disciplined and patient if they are to have any chance of proceeding to the knockout rounds.
Considering the almost permanent state of turmoil, Palestine’s mere presence at the tournament is something to behold. The Redeemers climbed as high as 94th in the FIFA rankings following the Challenge Cup last spring, making them statistically the sixteenth best side in Asia at the time. Their recent performances mean that they are set to receive a first round bye for the 2018 edition of World Cup qualifying for the first time in their history, while there is hope that sustained progress could soon see Palestine admitted to the regular Asian Cup qualification process, rather than having to reach the tournament through victory at the Challenge Cup reserved for ‘emerging nations’.
Given the situation back home, though, accomplishments for Palestinian football can never be defined in such narrow terms as scoring more goals than an opponent. The situation has calmed somewhat in recent months, but Israeli-Palestinian relations remain tense and the points of conflict emphatically unresolved. The emotional strain cannot be underestimated: in the time between kick-off and the final whistle against Japan, it is not inconceivable that the violence could erupt again.
Unlike in established Western nations, there will be no official television viewing figures available in Palestine for any of their fixtures in Australia. Nevertheless, beaches and public squares in both Gaza and the West Bank are expected to be swamped by fans, with thousands more watching in Palestinian communities across the Middle East, Europe and South America.
A recognised institution representing them in front of the watching world is an opportunity that does not come around very often, and the Redeemers provide a rare chance for the positive mobilisation of their people’s unique collective identity on the global stage. Palestinians have a team to be proud of. No matter what happens on Monday, that is their victory.
By Greg Lea. Follow @GregLeaFootball