It was a chilly evening in Lower Manhattan, few of us were at this café, smoking our lungs away on the hookah’s and discussing football in the Arab region. As the discussion carried on, a friend hit me with a question?
“Does Palestine have a football team?”That got me excited to the point where I ended up buying a round of second tobacco fill-up’s for the group. The simple answer to that question was a “Yes”. But me being me, wanted to explain to them the little that I knew of the sport in Palestine.
Football had been present in Palestine since the 1920’s, the earliest of all when you compare the time when the sport was introduced into the region. In fact, the country had provided excellent footballers at the time, that were even recognized at a global stage. One of them was Jabra Al Zarqa who, based on his performance, attracted the likes of Arsenal FC. That was 1920’s.
Where is the country now in terms of football? Fifa ranks Palestine at 157 in the latest world ranking release. Is it justified to an average individual that concentrates on stats and numbers? Yes, it does.
But if you go beyond the numbers and look at how a once dominating country in Arab football just turned lame ducks, it is quite pitiful and inspiring at the same time (from a football perspective).
Fifa acknowledged Palestine in 1998. Since then, it had participated in several friendly and competitive matches with teams mainly from around the Levant region (Syria, Jordan & Lebanon) or Far East nations. Their first game on home soil was played in 2008 against Jordan. A decade later since it was acknowledged with the reason being the unpredictable security concerns that existed and still exists in the country.
The most successful Palestinian national team coach was an Arab Israeli by the name of Azmi Nasser who twice took the responsibility of managing the team, once during 1999 – 2000 and then 2005 – 2007 (year he passed away). During his tenure of 21 games in those 5 years, he had managed to pull out 8 victories.
The disappointing and an important feature among a lot, is the background of how most of their matches were operated on. As the team is made up of players from both Gaza and the West Bank area, the restrictions infused by Israel on people traveling between the two regions, does not make it possible for these players to train together. They have to meet up in any neighboring countries to train together.
Secondly, there have been cases of where individuals from both regions are not granted permission to exit, which then puts the causes problems in the preparations. One such incident that I can distinctly remember is during the qualifying stages of the 2006 WC, the first team goal keeper who would travel to the Egypt – Palestine border on a daily basis to try to cross over in order to join up with the team. And when he was able to get through, he was physically and mentally tired to perform. This entire process eventually lead to bringing in players of Palestinian ancestry causing communication issues between the expats and the local Palestinian players.
They do deserve a lot of praise on pursuing their passion for the sport, even if they have to go through certain difficulties. The team had recently qualified for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup hosted by Nepal, where the winner qualifies into the 2015 AFC Cup.
As Jibril Rajoub, president of the Palestinian football federation, said after the first game on home soil:
“Palestinian blood, Palestinian flesh, the Palestinian national anthem on Palestinian territory. It’s good. It makes me feel proud.”
I am pretty sure I can say for all of us that we the football fans all across the world are proud of what you have achieved and are looking forward to the success to come.
PS: I would recommend all of you to watch Goal of Dreams, which is a documentary of the Palestinian national team’s struggle as they aimed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. A must watch.
Look forward to my follow up post on why I expect the Palestinian national team to be noticed in the future in the regional and global stage.
ء رحلته نحو التأهّل إلى كأس العالم عام