‘Sport is part of our resistance’: Palestine football chief Jibril Rajoub

Rajoub talks to Al Jazeera about the Palestinian football team’s preparation amid the war, their plans for the future and why sport plays a crucial role in Palestine.

Palestinian players celebrate
Palestinian players celebrate after Oday Dabbagh scores the team's first goal against Hong Kong [File: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters]

Doha, Qatar – Palestine’s football team made history by recording their first win in the AFC Asian Cup and qualifying for the knockout stage of the 2023 edition of the tournament in Qatar.

Emotions ran high for the players on the pitch, their supporters in the stadium and Palestinians back home when the full-time whistle was blown in their 3-0 win over Hong Kong at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium on January 23.

While the result may have brought joy and momentary distraction from the ongoing war in Gaza, fear and anxiety continue to grip the team as they prepare to take on hosts and defending champions Qatar in their round-of-16 match on Monday.

In an exclusive interview after last week’s win, Palestine Football Association President Jibril Rajoub told Al Jazeera how the team is determined to carry on despite the war back home, how football’s governing body FIFA can “do more” to help the Palestinians and what the future holds for Palestinian athletes.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Al Jazeera: What does the success of the Palestinian team mean to the people in Gaza?

Jibril Rajoub: We, the Palestinian football family, believe that the sport can be a good tool to expose the suffering of the Palestinian people and to highlight their determination and commitment to achieving their goals.

The team’s success amid such a terrible situation – while people are being buried in their thousands amid the destruction, the atrocities, the genocide – is motivating our players to achieve something for their people.

The qualification in Asian Cup knockouts is a great achievement. It’s a good message to our people – it gives them hope.

Al Jazeera: How difficult has it been for the team to assemble and train for the Asian Cup?

Rajoub: It’s not easy. We have many players in Gaza who could not join the national football team and other teams.

But we should not and we will not give up.

In the West Bank, they are trying to suffocate everybody. They want everybody to leave, but we are there and we will remain there.

Despite the political and geographical split in Palestine [between Gaza and Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory], we are united.

The football team is the only one that is functioning at the moment, so we are trying to keep all the players outside Palestine in order to continue our 2026 World Cup qualification and participation in other events such as this tournament.

We have some friendly games lined up. We will travel to South Africa to meet the disciples of [Nelson] Mandela – their national team – on the anniversary of Mandela’s release on February 11.

We have no choice except not giving up.

We will not leave our country. We will not leave our homes.

Rajoub holds a red card as he speaks during the 65th FIFA Congress in 2015 [File: Michael Buholzer/AFP]

Al Jazeera: Do you think FIFA can do more to help Palestinian footballers?

Rajoub: [There’s a] a double-standard policy. FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should follow one standard and one policy.

The Israeli Football Association is organising official league games in the occupied territories of the State of Palestine, which is a clear violation of the statutes of FIFA and the Olympic Charter.

Secondly, I never hear any sport organisation in Israel criticising their government’s attacks, destruction and killing of [Palestinian] players.

We will keep pushing the IOC and FIFA to follow their principles.

I hope the international community, whether it’s sport or civil societies, will understand that it’s the time to raise a red card [for Israel].

The Israelis have no right to deny others the same rights that they enjoy.

Al Jazeera: Has the war in Gaza affected the concentration and focus of the players?

Rajoub: Definitely. It is a preoccupation for them. Imagine a player, his relatives, his family, his neighbours, his colleagues [in Gaza]. It’s a tragedy. But surrendering is not and should not be part of our plan.

We should not give up. We are all affected [by the war] psychologically and physically, but we have to continue our struggle.

Al Jazeera: What does the future hold for the Palestinian team and players who will have to return home amid the war?

Rajoub: We are the Palestinian people. We have been facing the same fate, the same destiny, the same situation.

We go home, we meet our families, and we again try to go somewhere to play because sport is part of our resistance. Sport is part of our national duty to our people.

Al Jazeera: Palestine play Qatar, the hosts and defending champions, in the round of 16. Are you worried about the game?

Rajoub: We are the strongest team in the world. Our determination and patience empower and motivate our players.

Source: Al Jazeera