By Paul Nicholson and Samindra Kunti in Abu Dhabi
January 16 – Palestine’s football team is unavoidably and inextricably linked with their national struggle, frankly, the Israelis have made it so. With their border blockades of players, equipment and even visiting national teams, the Israelis have few friends in Asian football, and probably wouldn’t even be part of the football world if FIFA president Gianni Infantino hadn’t controversially saved them from a vote to exclude them last Congress.
What the Israelis can’t destroy is the hope, pride and joy of a nation expressed through their football – whether they let them play or not.
Last night the Palestinians made many new friends with their football – not always the best in the world but no fan could fault their commitment or team ethic, nowhere more evident than in their captain Abdallatif Albahdari.
The tall and imposing central defender is a bullying, cajoling, uncompromising captain on the pitch, pushing his teammates to do more. He is a polite, humble and welcoming man off it.
When Palestine coach Nourredine Ould Ali says he has “hope” that his team will progress to the knockout stages of the Asian Cup after having just two points from three group games, and still having failed to score a goal, he reflects what seems to be the eternal hope of Palestinians – that things will get better, that there is always hope.
It is the Palestinian condition. For most football fans, wherever they are in the world, it is a condition they can identify with. After all, we can’t all be Manchester United or Brazil fans, but we all hope our teams will beat them.
Palestinian players in their Abu Dhabi hotel last night after their 0-0 draw with Lebanon talked about the game with huge disappointment. As they wandered in groups and as individuals around the hotel (for them, no hiding from the world behind locked doors and security guards – itself an irony), they had the dazed look of players trying to come to terms with what they might or might not have achieved at this tournament. Are they still in this competition or not? Is it really all over or will they get to go again. The condition of a sportsperson.
The margins in football and their lives are ultimately very thin – they were just a missed bicycle kick away from four points and automatic qualification to the last 16. Their progression in this tournament is now on a knife edge, like life in their country where football so often reflects life, and life reflects football seemingly like nowhere else.
Ould Ali’s team proved to be adventurous in the second half against Jordan, but ultimately lacked both the firepower and precision in the final third and in front of the goalmouth to beat Jordan’s goalkeeper Amer Shafi, who kept a third clean sheet in a row at the Asian Cup.
“We hope that this point that we will enable us to qualify for the second round,” said Ould Ali. “Our group was very difficult. Jordan did very well. We had a team who played in the World Cup and we have two points. Syria has one point. I am satisfied with the performance of the players.”
Palestine became the first side to fail to score a single goal during the group stages of the Asian Cup since both United Arab Emirates and DPR Korea in 2011. They recorded their first shots on target of the tournament in this game against Jordan.
“The first and third performance were good. Even against Australia they were fine, even though we conceded some goals due to individuals mistakes. We need some international experienced players, this is our main problem. The Asian Cup is a small world Cup and the players need more experience. In general I am satisfied with the players, despite the difficulties we faced every time.” So many difficulties for this team and its individual players.
Palestine now face an anxious two-day wait to the end of the group stages to see if their two points will qualify them for the knockout stages as one of the best four third-placed teams. They live in hope.
Jordan and their coach Vital Borkelmans have no such worries. The draw meant they topped Group B ahead of the Australia and the Belgian manager was satisfied with his team’s outing, even if they failed to impress against Palestine.
“I am happy as a coach,” said Borkelmans. “Why? We have seven points. Three clean sheets. When at start the tournament I’d say this you’d say: ‘are you crazy?”
The Jordanians have progressed to the knockout stage of the Asian Cup for the third time, their first since 2011, but Borkelmans has few concerns about his team’s opponents in the last sixteen. “I hope we can do something in the next round and then the players will do well,” said Borkelmans. “For a coach it is important that we are working towards the next game.”
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