Education City Stadium, Qatar – In the end, Palestine lost to Iran on the pitch but the team and the Palestinian people won over thousands of hearts in their opening match of the AFC Asian Cup at the Education City Stadium in Qatar.
The 4-1 scoreline in Iran’s favour fairly reflected the possession and dominance that the Asian powerhouse enjoyed in the Group C match on Sunday night, but it does not tell the story of a crowd that was united behind Palestine amid Israel’s devastating war on Gaza.
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From the moment the stadium’s gates opened to the public, Palestine had some form of representation in the crowd filing into the venue in Al Rayyan, on the outskirts of Qatar’s capital Doha.
Fans from dozens of different nationalities who call Qatar home came dressed in Palestine shirts or draped in its flag and keffiyehs.
They danced to “Dammi Falastini” as the popular unofficial Palestinian anthem was played outside the stadium and watched in awe as a Palestinian dabke group performed on a stage outside the turnstiles.
As fans soaked in the atmosphere, two Palestinian sisters whose family hails from Gaza admitted it was an emotional night for them.
“The show of support we have seen here makes us feel acknowledged,” they told Al Jazeera, requesting anonymity.
“We have never been able to travel to our native land [Gaza]. It’s unjust and upsetting because wherever we go, it never feels like home.”
Despite the importance of the match – in a group that also includes Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates – Iranian fans acknowledged the emotional importance of the night.
Ali Mir, from Iran, arrived with a unique flag: half Iranian and half Palestinian.
“These two countries are playing a very important match tonight and will be opponents, but in reality, they are brothers and are striving for peace in the world,” he said.
“So I am here to support both on this special night.”
Emotions were running high in the stands, too.
When national anthems of both countries were played ahead of kick-off, the Iranian anthem was received with a loud rendition by the team’s raucous supporters.
And when “Fidai Baladi” rang out, the Palestinians could not hold back their emotions as they sang along.
Iran’s fan groups backed Team Melli vociferously from the stands with drums and large flags.
They had barely begun warming up when Iran opened the scoring in the second minute.
Palestine found themselves chasing the game throughout the first half, but provided their fans with a moment of joy when they scored in the sixth minute of added time.
The crowd erupted in a loud cheer and chanted for the men in red.
The Palestinian team put on an improved display in the second half, but were unable to score and instead conceded a fourth goal.
‘Gaza is on our mind’
Laith Saleh, a Palestinian who grew up in Jordan after his family fled from Ramallah in the early 2000s, was disappointed with the result but said he understood it must not have been easy for Palestine’s players to focus on football as the war on their homeland rages on for the 100th day.
“It’s not just about tonight or this match – Gaza is on our mind every moment of every day,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I know how hard it is myself – I work as a chef and every time I cook a meal from my homeland, it makes me very emotional. And when I sit down to eat, I can’t help but think of my brothers and sisters who are starving in this war.”
Like most displaced Palestinians, he is not able to visit his family back home whenever he wants. He urged the world to do more to help bring an end to the war.
“It has been going on for 100 years, not days – and the whole world has not been able to stop it,” he said with a shrug.
After the full-time whistle, some dejected Palestinian players dropped on their haunches, but others walked up to their fans to acknowledge their support.
Iran find themselves on top of the group and with a good chance of progressing to the knockout stage.
Meanwhile, Palestine will have to somehow pick themselves up ahead of their second match against the UAE.