By Samindra Kunti
January 23 – A historic night saw Palestine breeze past Hong Kong 3-0 to progress to the last 16 of the tournament, an extraordinary achievement for a team playing amid the backdrop of war in Gaza.
Makram Daboub’s team provided Gazans and Palestinians around the world with a moment of joy and hope, winning their first-ever match at the Asian Cup in thumping style with a brace by Oday Dabbagh and Zaid Qunbar’s first international goal to book a first time ticket to the last 16 of the tournament.
Ahead of the match, Daboub boasted that Palestine had what it takes to see off Hong Kong and prolong their stay in Qatar and the Tunisian manager was not wrong. In a one-sided match, his side dominated Joern Andersen’s team, who ran out of steam following their disciplined display against Iran.
This final-group fixture was a must-win match for both sides and Palestine got off to a dream start, taking the lead in the 12th minute following a header from Dabbagh. Captain Mus’ab Al-Batat whipped a cross in from the right and the Charleroi striker lost his markers to get in between the defence and head home from eight yards out.
It was redemption for Dabbagh, who had squandered a handful of opportunities against the United Arab Emirates, and the start Daboub had hoped for. He wanted an early goal and his striker delivered.
The Palestinians were in the driving seat and kept seeking out Dabbagh as Hong Kong were often left chasing the ball. In the 22nd minute, the forward burst down the left and swung a left-footed drive across the face of the goal in a new warning of his versatility to Hong Kong.
The Palestinians were enjoying a 70-30 split of possession, but at the half-hour mark overconfidence almost cost the Lions of Canaan when they cheaply ceded the ball near their box, but unmarked playmaker Chan Siu Kwan blasted over from inside the box. Everton Camargo, whom Daboub had singled out as Hong Kong’s main danger, then claimed a penalty after going down all too easily.
Palestine were breaking dangerously on the counter and in the 41st minute, Tamer Seyam surged forward on the right to find Dabbagh who turned the ball goal-ward, but goalkeeper Ka Wing blocked the attempt.
In the second half, Palestine were rampant against a Hong Team team tired by the unforgiving demands of tournament football and overwhelmed by opponents of greater qualify. If they had shown resilience against both the UAE and Iran, Hong Kong were now unravelling.
Al-Batat provided his second assist from the flank in the 48th minute as Palestine’s youngest player Qunbar scored his first international goal with a glancing header. Defender Mohammed Saleh, who has family in Gaza, celebrated fighting against his emotions, reminding everyone once again that this Palestinian team was excelling against all the odds.
On the hour, Dabbagh scored his second, bundling the ball across the line after Seyam’s shot deflected off the crossbar. With the United Arab Emirates conceding a second goal against Iran, the Palestinians were advancing to the second round as runners-up rather than as one of the best third-placed teams.
It was one-way traffic from now on and all of Seyam, Mahmoud Wadi and Alaa Hassan were left to rue missing major chances as the UAE pulled a goal back against Iran, reclaiming second spot.
Al-Batat then became the anti-hero, conceding a stoppage-time penalty, which Everton smashed against the bar. It was a grandstand, nerve-racking finale, but Palestine were through.
Saleh kneeled, prayed and burst into tears. Emotion overtook him on a night that Palestinians will remember for a long time.
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