Fans gathered at Newcastle Stadium on Monday ahead of the Palestine's major tournament debut, a Group D clash against Japan at the Asian Cup.
Despite Kuwait need for a win to keep their hope to qualify to the next round, South Korea head coach Uli Stielike, think the Kuwaiti won't look to attack.
“Achievement is born from the womb of suffering.” It has become a well-known phrase in the Middle East. A phrase we are used to hearing whenever a hero labours to victory; a phrase that has been repeated by pundits, commentators, and passionate football fans.
Suffering is synonymous with a nation that has so often been robbed of their dreams. Suffering is associated with a national team that dreams of a day of getting together without the need of occupational permits. Suffering resonates with a sport that is suffocating under injustice and bullets, with a football league that is divided between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, divided by fire and blood. Palestine’s football league is one that could end after its first round of fixtures should the occupational forces be in the wrong mood; it is a league that needs intervention by the UN in order to take place.
The burden of suffering evaporates, however, when the achievements of the Palestinian national team are discussed. Booking a place at the Asian Cup finals was a truly momentous accomplishment; truly an achievement born from warfare and displacement.
‘The Guerilla’ (as fans like to call the team – ‘The Knights’ is their official nickname) qualified for the continental tournament after clinching the AFC Challenge Cup last April with a 1-0 victory over Philippines in Male and will make their debut in the continent’s No1 competition against Japan today.
The current generation of the national team cannot be judged the best in the history of Palestinian football as the gruelling conditions the people live through make it difficult to judge a national football team over a defined period of history. But the availability of some of the shining stars in Palestinian football certainly gives the impression ‘The Guerilla’ are more than just a novel addition to the competition.
Attacker Ashraf Nu’man is unquestionably the most celebrated star in Palestinian football, especially in the Arab world, due to the fact he had successful stints with Jordanian club Al Faisaly as well as his current side, Saudi Arabia’s Al Faisaly. The attacker’s predatory instinct was crucial as his side lifted the AFC Challenge Cup, where Nu’man was crowned top scorer of the tournament, bagging a match-winning brace versus Afghanistan in the semi-finals before scoring the decisive goal in the final.
But the talent does not stop there. Holding midfielder Murad Ismail (below) and defender Abdul Lateef Al Bahdary are also players of some skill, while the team also consists of some names who have impressed in Eastern Europe. Alexis Norambuena won the Polish second-tier title with Belchatow last season, Jaka Ihbeisheh has starred for Slovenian club Karka and 21-year-old attacker Mahmoud Eid has impressed with Swedish side Nykopings.
The mission is not easy, though. In fact, it looks dreadfully complicated as they face reigning champions Japan, in addition to prestigious Arab teams Iraq and Jordan. Sometimes the desire to accomplish something for a bleeding nation can be a major motivation for sportsmen to complete a miracle. That is exactly what the national team is depending on.
The end of 2014 saw the Palestinian people stunned when Australia voted against the nation’s proposed statehood at a meeting of the UN. But football has become a symbol of struggle and confirmation of the rights of the people, it is the game that challenged the arbitrary political decision with a national anthem that honours the suffering of sport in Palestine.
Now, on Australian soil of all places, they have the chance to have their brightest sporting day.
Having been appointed less than three months ago, Palestine coach Ahmed Al Hassan has had little time to prepare his team.
The security situation and travel restrictions in Palestine, coupled with the location of many of his players in Europe, means pre-tournament training sessions have been sporadic, while a scheduled friendly against Iran on December 28 was cancelled. Many suspect due to political sensitivities.
Like many of his players, Al Hassan, an Iraqi-born Palestinian, spent many years abroad before heading to his homeland in 1994.
“It’s a real honour for any coach to take over the reins of his own country’s national team at such an important competition like the Asian Cup,” Al Hassan said following his appointment last October.
“But at the same time, guiding the team towards giving good performances will be a huge challenge for me. But it’s my duty and obligation right now.”
Al Hassan’s appointment was met by surprise by Palestinians who viewed him as a relative unknown on both the regional and continental fronts.
But that’s not to say he has no credentials. He was technical manager in the Palestine FA for two years prior to him replacing former national team boss Jamal Mahmoud, and as the only Palestinian coach who holds an AFC ‘A’ Football Coaching Certificate, Al Hassan has been responsible for a stream of coaches in his previous job.
He was also the assistant manager of the national team in 2007 and guided the Palestine youth team in 2006 and 2012.
Ahead of today’s opener against heavyweights Japan, Al Hassan was forthcoming about the challenges his side have been facing.
“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,” he told The Guardian.
“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 added. “We are capable of making miracles.”
Talented midfielder, Abdelhamid Abuhabib, who hails from Gaza and plays in the West Bank Premier League, describes some of the routine obstacles a Palestinian footballer faces every day.
“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,” said the 25-year-old.
But that isn’t stopping Abuhabib from dreaming of a positive showing in Australia. “It’s true that we are facing huge teams, but we are capable of getting some good results. After all, who would ever have thought that we could win the Challenge Cup?” he says.
Nu’man is also keen on sending a message to the rest of the world through their performances in Australia. “This is a historic occasion for us,” Nu’man told FIFA.com.
“Our goal is to let the world know that the Palestinian national team are moving forward despite the difficulties facing us.
“We want to convey the message that the Palestinian players have the right to play and develop.
“Furthermore, we want to bring a smile back to the faces of our people and make our fans happy.”
Players to watch
The most feted of all Palestine’s squad and the one man who, if he plays well, the Knights should prosper. At 28, he is in his prime and is coming into the tournament on the back of one of the most prolific seasons of his career. A fine technical striker who loves to dribble at defenders, he will be their main source of goals.
A late starter, as he only made his international debut in his late 20s but Ismail is the man who holds it all together
for Palestine at the base of midfield. Calm and composed in possession he will need to be at his most disciplined defensively when he comes up against Japan’s impressive midfield creativity.
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The tall and commanding centre-back has been regularly linked for a move to one of the Gulf’s more established leagues – in particular Kuwait – but continues to ply his trade for Hajer in the West Bank Premier League. A consistent 7/10 performer who is also a threat at set-pieces with his aerial ability.
Born in Slovenia to Palestinian parents, the forward – who will likely operate in support of main striker Nu’man – only broke into the squad this year but has established himself in the team with his pace and ability to play wide as well as through the centre. The 28-year-old plays in the Slovenian topflight for Krka.
Every squad needs a young hope, and while Eid is unlikely to start many games, he will be a useful impact substitute if the situation allows it. The striker plays in the Swedish third division for Nykopings BIS and is developing into a fine penalty-box predator, with excellent awareness. Among the most technically-gifted of all the Palestinian squad.