Palestine players donate their services and travel long distances for their team [Al Jazeera]
“It’s not the winning but the taking part that counts” may be one of the oldest clichés in sport but for Palestine’s footballers it could not be more appropriate.
Palestine is one of 43 teams from Asia beginning the long road to the football World Cup in South Africa in three years time.
Unlike most countries, the Palestinian football team have a number of hurdles to overcome before they can even begin their campaign to qualify for the tournament.
Security and travel issues made it impossible for this month’s first round match to be held in Gaza so Doha’s Al Rayyan Stadium in Qatar became the “home” venue for their match against Singapore.
There was an air of expectation as players, officials, and supporters close to the squad milled around the Palestine dressing room before the match.
But there was also confusion as Fifa officials checked each of the Palestine players’ passports for any irregularities.
The 18-man squad for the match was made up of players from Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Chile and the USA, all of whom were born in Palestine or have Palestinian heritage.
Even after scouring their diaspora for the highest quality players available, Palestine were still without some key members due to issues in Gaza, as Majid Balawi, a scout and recruiter for the national team, explains.
“Three of our players from Gaza didn’t show up with the team,” Balawi, a Palestinian who lives in the USA, says.
“Israel wouldn’t allow them to go, and actually they were given no reason why.
“The situation is made worse because we have lost a very important part of the team, our captain Saeb Jendeya, who is an important central defender.
“It’s all about what’s going on in Palestine. It’s the players who are suffering, the players who are paying the price, nobody else.”
With close to half of all Palestinians displaced in countries across the globe, Balawi spends a lot of his time tracking down talented footballers who are eligible to play for the national team.
“We’ve been working hard for the past six months,” Balawi told Al Jazeera.
“We have players who speak Spanish, Arabic and English, but we have to put a team together and it’s hard right now with the situation in Palestine.
“The players have confidence and the love of their country. They are doing it for free, they don’t get any money. They want to put a smile on Palestinian faces, and win for the kids at least.”
|Palestine’s Mohamad Al Chiri tries
to find a way out [Al Jazeera]
When asked about how the team had prepared for the first of a possible 18 matches on their World Cup qualifying campaign, Balawi explains it had been difficult to get the squad assembled.
“We had two players who just arrived late last night after a long flight from Chile to Frankfurt, and then on to Doha,” he says.
“They went straight to sleep and they’re going to play the game today and then leave early in the morning.”
Not ideal preparation, but the team are proud that they are having a go, and that in doing so they are further promoting Palestine in one of the few areas it is granted full recognition.
Lack of preparation
Qualification for South Africa would promote that recognition massively but even the players realise that is an almost impossible dream.
Ranked 157th in the world, they begin sharply enough against a team ranked 19 places higher, spurred on by adrenaline and the pride of pulling on the green jersey.
But the well-drilled and better prepared Singaporeans soon found their rhythm and after leading 1-0 at half time, the Lions went on to record an easy 4-0 victory.
Nelson Dekmak, Palestine’s Chilean manager, highlighted his team’s lack of preparation as the reason for the first-leg failure.
The issue of communication problems in the Palestinian team was further emphasised when the South American’s words were translated from Spanish to Arabic, and then in to English.
“This result we weren’t really expecting at all. We started well, our biggest problem was the physical fitness. We did not have enough time to get fit for the game,” Dekmak said.
Dekmak, who was born and raised in Chile but is of Palestinian decent, is donating his time to coach the Palestine national team.
“He coached the Chilean national under-21 side and he took the time and volunteered to coach the Palestine team for these two games for free because the Palestine Football Association couldn’t afford to pay for a coach,” Balawi says.
‘In the blood’
Omar Jarun, a relatively new face in the team, was playing football for the Atlanta Silverbacks in the US when he was approached by Balawi with a view to play for Palestine.
“My dad is Palestinian, and Majid contacted me and asked me if I would like to play for the national team,” he says.
“As soon as it came up it was no option, it’s in my blood. I thought it would definitely be a good choice to come to the team, and I’m glad I got the opportunity.”
The powerful central defender, who began his career as a forward, tried his best to marshal the Palestine players from the back, but there was much to overcome.
“Fitness was a problem, not creating anything going forward was a problem, lack of communication was another problem. There are a lot of things we need to work on,” Jarun said.
“I was speaking in English, and they weren’t understanding what I was saying. The others need to be speaking in their language and lifting each other up.”
But the 24-year-old, who hopes to move a new club, possibly in the Gulf region, was impressive in his first outing for Palestine and could be a regular fixture in a squad that struggles for continuity.
With less than a month to prepare, and with a long trip to Singapore at the end of October, Jarun and his team have a tough task ahead of them, not only in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, but in building their country’s football future.