After a World Cup in which no team from the continent won a game, the Asian Cup brings a chance of restored pride and confidence for teams in a region that has almost infinite promise but stuttering progress on the football pitch.
Hosts Australia go into the tournament ranked 100th in the world – a rather astonishing fall for those who remember the energy and enterprise of the Socceroos that lost to eventual champions Italy in the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup.
But while the likes of South Korea, Saudi Arabia and defending champions Japan go into the tournament with damaged reputations to restore, one other squad will take to the pitch in what they hope will be a new day dawning over their country’s sporting landscape.
Palestine’s players have all dealt with more pressing problems than how to manoeuvre a ball into a goal but they believe their first appearance at Asia’s top table can bring some relief to everyday suffering at home – particularly since the Gaza conflict in July that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, 66 Israeli soldiers and seven Israeli civilians.
“This is an historic occasion for us,” forward Ashraf Nu’man Al-Fawaghra told football’s governing body FIFA’s website. “Our goal is to let the world know that the Palestinian national team are moving forward despite the difficulties facing us.
‘Right to play’
“We want to send the message that the Palestinian players have the right to play and develop. We want to bring a smile back to the faces of our people and make our fans happy.”
Their opening match against Japan on January 12, three days after the tournament kicks off with Australia against Kuwait, has been a hard-won fixture.
|Ashraf Nu’man’s goals were crucial in getting Palestine on the plane to Australia [AFP]|
Palestine travelled to the Challenge Cup – a development tournament for lesser teams that also acts as an Asian Cup qualifier – in the Maldives in May without six players due to travel restrictions outside Palestine.
It forced Nu’man, 28, to move from midfield to a striking position – but he ended top scorer with four goals, including the winner against the Philippines in the final.
Sporting achievement though was put into perspective when one of Palestine’s greatest former players, Ahed Zagout, was killed when a bomb hit his apartment in Gaza in July. The football association offices were also stormed by Israeli soldiers, and coach Jamal Mahmoud left to be replaced by Ahmed Al-Hassan.
A friendly against Iran on December 28 week was cancelled, leading to conspiracy theories among Iranian commentators that Arab teams want to deny Asia’s top-ranked side from being prepared for their kickoff against Bahrain on January 11.
It was the latest in a series of setbacks for Carlos Queiroz’s team, who ran Argentina close in Brazil last summer but haven’t won the Asian Cup for nearly 40 years.
Needs not met
Iran also travelled to South Africa in December for a near-two-week training camp where they were due to take on the hosts as well as Tanzania and Guatemala, but ended up playing two games against local domestic opposition.
“Our preparation was really not compatible with the team’s needs as we rank first in Asia but rank last in preparation,” said former Real Madrid coach Queiroz, according to Iran’s official news agency IRNA.
“We have suffered a big blow due to matches and training camps that were not co-ordinated.”
The Iranians are ranked 51 in FIFA’s standings but last won the Asian Cup in 1976. Hope came however in Sunday’s 1-0 win over 2007 champions Iraq in Wollongong.
Australia meanwhile believe their ranking doesn’t reflect the fact they have tested themselves against high-quality opposition.
“OK, our rankings have dropped, our football has improved,” World Cup goalscorer Tim Cahill said.