Palestine’s Asian Cup battle odds

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Hani Al-Masdar broke into the first team of Gaza club Al-Maghazi in the late 90s, aged 16, and had an excellent career as a talented midfielder. After retiring in 2018, the genial father of four joined the Palestinian under-23 team, officially, at first, as a uniform administrator.

A natural in dealing with players with an instinct to read the game, he soon acquired Asia’s highest coaching licenses and became an assistant coach. The 42-year-old had a bright future, but on January 6, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) announced that he had been killed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City.

Related: “The Palestinian team brings hope”: football dreams remain alive in the midst of the conflict

“He was one of the great sporting talents of Palestinian football,” says Makram Daboub, coach of the Palestinian national team. “Its a big lost”.

As Palestine begins its Asian Cup campaign against Iran on Sunday, the news from home, where death and destruction has been raining down on Gaza for more than three months, is devastating. “Of course it is difficult for everyone,” says Daboub.

Striker Mahmoud Wadi and defender Mohammed Saleh play abroad, but they are natives of the narrow strip of land that suffers such fierce and relentless bombardment. Daboub says: “Those who are from Gaza are worried about the safety of their family and friends, but all the players are on their phones whenever possible. It makes it difficult for them, but there is still determination to give everything in the Asian Cup.”

This is the third consecutive appearance in the tournament, the continent’s biggest football event, for Palestine, which, after decades of struggle, became a full member of FIFA in 1998. Its opening match will attract as much international attention as any other. 23 teams in the Asian Cup, which Israel won in 1964 before being expelled in 1974 and reaching UEFA, have the same problems.

“Success in the tournament would mean a lot to us and our people. It is very important, especially considering the exceptional circumstances that Palestine is going through,” says Daboub. “We want to send a message to the world that in Palestine there are people who deserve a better life, love peace and deserve freedom.”

There has been no peace or freedom since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, sparking a retaliation that, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, has killed more than 23,000 people in Gaza, 1% of the territory’s population, and , according to the Associated Press last week destroyed a third of all buildings. The PFA has accused Israel of attacking both athletes and football facilities. Soccer is the most popular sport in Palestine, and Gaza and the West Bank have their own leagues, but there have been no matches since October. Even if it were safe to play, there is nowhere to do it.

Before the Hamas attack, Daboub knew all about the frustrations that come with being Palestine’s head coach. The Tunisian, appointed in 2021, says he was never given permission to enter Gaza to watch matches or meet with players, although he was allowed to enter the West Bank.

The difficulties also extend in the opposite direction. Players selected for international duty from both territories have complained for years about long delays at Israeli checkpoints as they try to report for duty.

For the World Cup qualifiers against Lebanon and Australia in November, which were played at neutral venues, those called up from Gaza couldn’t make it out at all. The national team has since remained outside Palestine, initially in Jordan before departing.

“The preparation has gone well despite the difficult circumstances,” says Daboub. “On December 12 we started with a first camp in Algeria and then there was a second camp in Saudi Arabia.”

The camps were funded by the host nations. “The main objective was to focus on the physical aspect of the players. On January 2 we traveled to Qatar, where nine other players joined us and that was the beginning of the actual preparation for the cup.

“We have played two training games. We lost 1-0 against Uzbekistan and drew 0-0 with Saudi Arabia. We involve all players to determine their technical and physical preparation. “We are ready now and look forward to the challenges ahead.”

Striker Oday Dabbagh, who has scored five goals for Belgian side Sporting Charleroi this season, is one of those who joined later. The Jerusalem-born striker will have the support of locals and Palestinians living in the region. There could be some emotional scenes, especially if the team achieves its first Asian Cup victory.

That is the main goal, even if the group that includes Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong is difficult. “We know what we have to do,” says Daboub. “The match against Iran is important against one of the best teams in Asia. It will be a very difficult game, but we will try to come out with a positive result.”

The final match against Hong Kong, the lowest-ranked team in the group, ranked 150th (51 places below Palestine), is expected to offer the best opportunity.

“The Hong Kong match is hugely important,” Daboub says of his opponents, who warmed up last week by beating China for the first time since their country was a British territory. “Many say that they are the weakest team and that it is the game we have to win, but all games are important. “I can say that no matter what happens, we will do whatever it takes to reach the round of 16.”

Reaching the round of 16 would really be cause for celebration. With the top two from each of the six groups of four and the four best-performing third-place finishers advancing, it is realistic and could be that the tragic circumstances at home will propel Palestine to make history.

“The atmosphere among the players is excellent and we in the national team work as a group and we all support them,” says Daboub. “Our goal is to show a face that pays tribute to Palestinian football and make our people smile. Despite the pain, we want to give them hope.”

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