After battling huge odds to reach January’s tournament in Australia, the team and fans believe success on the field will help lead to recognition off it
2014 ended with a sour note for Palestinian national aspirations. On 30 December, a United Nations resolution calling for the end of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the establishment of an independent state by the end of 2017 narrowly failed to gain the necessary majority. But for Palestine and its supporters, the new year will bring with it at least one national triumph – the Palestinian football team will be taking part in a top-level tournament for the first time in its history.
It is ironic that Australia will play host to Palestine’s debut appearance in the 2015 Asian Cup. Australia was the only nation other than the United States to vote against the UN security council resolution. Five nations abstained, eight voted in favour, denying the resolution a necessary nine-vote majority.
There is no keeping politics and sports apart when it comes to Palestinian football, as the team’s head coach, Ahmed Al-Hassan, acknowledges straight off. “Through this team we hope to achieve a political goal, that we are worthy of a state and that we have built our institutions, despite the occupation, the separation between Gaza and the West Bank and the war against us,” he says. “We are capable of making miracles.”
Palestine has had a rocky ride to Australia 2015, failing to qualify for any of the Asian Cups since the team was formed as a member of Fifa in 1998 and only twice achieving limited success in the second-tier AFC Challenge Cup for “emerging” football nations. However, they surprised everyone – including themselves – in winning the 2014 Challenge Cup, securing a berth in Australia and their first top-level match. They will play it in Newcastle against the reigning Asian champions, Japan, on 12 January.
But their biggest problems as a team are not sports-related. The security situation and travel restrictions severely limit the team’s opportunities to train together. With squad members having to travel from the closed-off Gaza Strip, and some of them playing far afield in European and Asian leagues, full training sessions are few and far between.
“As a team we face many difficulties that other teams don’t,” says Al-Hassan, who took on the position only two months ago. “We are under occupation [meaning] travelling between cities in the West Bank is very difficult with delays at checkpoints. Sometimes we cancel training because players can’t come to training due to the harassment of the occupier.” Israel insists the travel restrictions and checkpoints are necessary for security reasons.
“The team is made up of Palestinians from every corner of historic Palestine and from representatives of the wider diaspora,” Bassil Mikdadi, who runs the Football Palestine blog, says. Nine players are from the West Bank, seven are from Gaza, four are Israeli citizens and three were born in Europe or South America.
“In essence, the national team is the perfect representation of who we are as a nation, because it draws from all these different communities,” he continued.
Abdul Al Hamid abu Habib, the team’s 25-year-old centre midfielder, originally from Gaza, began his football career playing in the streets of the Khan Younis refugee camp before joining the national team in 2011. “I left Gaza six years ago and I have been there only three times,” he says. “Every time I go I am afraid I will never be allowed to leave. This is our normal life. Coming to the West Bank from Gaza I had to leave through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, to Jordan, through the Allenby bridge to the West Bank. It would be easier going to Hawaii.”
Last month, Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association, called on Fifa to suspend Israel after a raid on the organisation’s West Bank headquarters. The Israeli army said that they had stopped a number of people for routine questioning and that their actions had not been aimed at the PFA.
There are other political sensitivities, too. Shortly before a friendly with Iran scheduled for 28 December, ahead of the AFC cup, the PFA cancelled, claiming that players needed an opportunity to recover from injuries. Some speculated that this was due to pressure from Gulf states; others that the PFA wanted to avoid the consequences of the four Israeli citizens on the team travelling to an enemy country.
For some, winning the Challenge Cup and making it to Australia 2015 is achievement enough.
200 fans came to cheer them on at a farewell event before the team travelled to their training camp in the United Arab Emirates. Many were wearing T-shirts with the team’s nickname AlFidai – the redeemers – “to send a message to the whole world that we are carrying on our struggle through sports,” explained university student Maha Turan, 21.
“We came all the way from Jenin to support our national team, who made us very proud,” he continued. “Our team won the Challenge Cup – who would ever have thought a young team like us would do something like that? It is a miracle.”
Other fans believe they can go further – in the space of a year Palestine has risen in the Fifa rankings from 165th to 85th.
At a small television repair shop on East Jerusalem’s Nablus Road, a group of friends gather to watch English Premiership matches. At the entrance to the shop are two life-size portraits of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I’m optimistic: we won the Challenge Cup, so maybe we have a chance to win this,” said Ibrahim Alyan, a student. “It still is important for us, even if it won’t change our situation. It shows that most of the world – those who live in Asia – recognises Palestine, but we all know that the decisions get made by America.”
“We mainly watch European football, I personally support Barcelona” says Fayyad Santuka, a satellite dish salesman. “Most of the Palestinian teams’ matches are not on television, but now that we are going to be in a big tournament, it will be a chance to see our team. It’s not the same quality of play as Barcelona against Real Madrid, but it’s our home team.”
“Most people don’t even recognise the players, the league is still small and some of them play abroad, but just to see the Palestinian flag is massive for us,” added Mussa Alinat, a truck driver. “But if one of the players scores, he will get a hero’s welcome back home.”
Facing champions Japan, with players on teams in some of the best leagues in Europe, winning the first match may seem a tall order. But the other nations in Group D, Jordan and Iraq, are currently suffering from a goal drought, neither having won since last March. Coming second in the group after Japan and securing a place in the quarter-finals is not beyond belief.
Midfielder Abu Habib also allows himself to hope. He acknowledges they face “very strong teams,” but is buoyed by the recent success. After all, he notes, “Who would ever have thought that we could win the Challenge Cup?” For many Palestinians though, just seeing their national flag flying at such a high-profile event will be victory enough.