Palestine seeking glory at Asian Cup

Palestine seeking glory at Asian Cup
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Published January 7th, 2015 - 15:54 GMT via SyndiGate.info

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Palestine team
Palestine team

Palestine's football team defied all challenges and odds when it won the 2014 Challenge Cup to qualify for their biggest ever event, the Asian Cup in Australia. Their first game is Monday against defending champions Japan.

Palestine exceeded all football expectations by winning last year's Challenge Cup and are now facing their highest-level international test yet at the Asian Cup.

Palestine beat the Philippines 1-0 in the final of the tournament for emerging countries.

Both cups are Asian Football Confederation (AFC) events, and first place in May in the Maldives automatically qualified al-Fidaee - Arabic for "commando fighter" as the Palestinian national team are known - for the confederation's showcase tournament.

Despite the daily challenges they face over the conflict with Israel, for the first time in their history, the Palestinians experienced the sweet taste of victory when their poorly-equipped and scattered national team won their first ever international football title.

Will they beat the odds again in Australia, this time at their first ever top international competition?

Sport, like everything in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is hampered by restrictions, which Israel says are necessary to foil attacks against it by Palestinian militants.

Players depend on Israeli permits to move from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank via Israeli territory, or through Israeli-controlled border crossings.

Equipment flown or shipped in from abroad can be held up, sometimes for months, or banned at Israel's discretion.

Israeli soldiers, while questioning Palestinians and checking identity cards, six weeks ago entered the headquarters of the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) just outside East Jerusalem, prompting a condemnation by FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who said he was "very sad."

And the sport suffered losses during the July-August Gaza war, the biggest perhaps Palestinian football legend Ahed Zaqout, 49, a former national team midfielder, killed in an airstrike on a Gaza City tower.

Two stadiums were damaged by Israeli airstrikes. Palestinian militants launched rockets from one of them. A FIFA delegation this week visited Gaza - the first such visit by the world football governing body to the strip in 12 years - donating money to build 20 football fields with artificial turf.

"To be honest, no one expected our team to come this far," said Ahmad Bukhari, the editor of the Palestinian sports website, Palsports.com, of the Challenge Cup.

Having players train enough together as one team, for one, is no simple matter.

"We are forced to hold training camps in other Arab countries such as Jordan, Qatar or Bahrain," which for the large part fund Palestinian football, said Bukhari.

The team is composed of Palestinian footballers from all over the globe.

Ashraf al-Fawaghra, who Palestinians call by his middle name Nu'man, is perhaps the one to look out for most.

The 28-year-old is the national team's top scorer alongside Fahed Attal with 14 goals each.

Nu'man became a national hero after scoring four goals in the Challenge Cup, including the winner in the final.

From Wadi al-Nis, a village of 800 people near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, he started playing as a school boy and almost single-handedly led his local team to twice win the Palestinian Premier League, getting him selected into al-Fidaee.

Ramzi Saleh, 34, from the northern Gaza Strip refugee camp of Jabaliya and born in Cairo, is the team's captain and goalkeeper. He has played for Egyptian football teams.

As if not inexperienced enough, the Asian Cup newcomer's coach, Ahmed al-Hassan, took the job in October, giving him only little time to ppare the team for the Asian Cup. Al-Hassan was an assistant to the national team in 2007 and has also coached local clubs in Iraq and in the West Bank.

Palestine face one of Asia's best teams, defending champions Japan, in their Group D opener on Monday. Their other opponents are 2007 winners Iraq and Jordan.

But for the four million Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip and the millions more living in the Diaspora, playing on the big stage will be a moment of national pride.

"In response to Australia voting against a Security Council resolution calling for an end to the occupation, Australia is now going to play the Palestinian national anthem. Thank you al-Fidaee," worte Abdul Majeed Dasseh, on the national team's official Facebook page.

Palestinians, in the not far away past, dared dream only of qualifying for small championships, said Iadore You.

"But today, with the efforts of al-Fidaee, we have reached the Asian Cup. You, our team, are our hope, who will put a smile on the face of our people."

© 2014 dpa GmbH

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