The Palestinian national soccer team has ended its campaign to reach the 2006 World Cup today with a 1-4 defeat against Iraq in Doha, Qatar. A tactical rearrangement on defense in the second half seems to have been the culprit.
It was disappointing end to a process that started with much promise, but that quickly came down to earth as the team started facing others with either more experience or more resources. And then, the cruel reality of the occupation also started playing, with its traveling restrictions, the inability to play home games at home, the huge expense of having to fly players from around the world and having to set up camps in other countries, and the decisive fact that Palestinians have not had a league in four years. Although neither team had a chance to advance to the Asian round, both Palestinians and Iraqis were playing for pride, with a great sense of responsibility to their people, and for the consolation of ending second in the group and becoming part of Asia's top 16. In end they finished as originally expected, with favorite Uzbekistan qualifying for the final Asian phase, Olympic surprise Iraq second and the Taiwanese dead last with zero points; Palestine ended third.
Though disappointing, it wasn't all bad. A new generation of Palestinian players gained great experience, and most importantly, a team condemned by its circumstances to live as spectator was on field, fighting for its chance just like the rest.
Yesterday's match was also an opportunity to witness the brighter future of Palestinian soccer. Their one goal came from the feet of 20-year-old Swedish-born Imad Satar, a promising striker with great skill and imagination. Majeed Abucedu, born in Kuwait, also showed he has what it takes, with speed and good passing on defense. Both players refused the opportunity to represent the countries where they were born for the love and the pride for the country they feel they are really from. From inside Palestine, midfielder Rami Rabi from Ramallah will certainly be part of national teams to come.
Defeat is never welcomed, and Palestinians will have to wait to see theirs among the great names of soccer. But they should not dismay. Other countries with longer tradition in the sport, stability and countless more resources have also had to the same. (Do Chile, Spain or Mexico ring any bells?). This fact, added to the Palestinian tested tradition of never giving up, should be good reason to hope.
Yesterday's game matched two opponents with much to worry about off the field. In both cases, players wanted to "put a smile" on the faces of those who have suffered so much. In a twisted way, if we look at it from the brighter side, at least the victor was Iraq. Palestine's best days are certainly ahead.
November 2004 - The Funeral of Yasser Arafat"
Dignitaries from all over the world were in Cairo today to bid farewell to one of the most widely recognizable persons of our time, Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian leader and president of the National Palestinian Authority had died in Paris a day earlier, according to those in charge of his care. Our crew was in Cairo with the national soccer team that is the subject of our work. The team departed for Qatar ahead of their last qualifying match against Iraq today.
Aware of the ceremonies, we obtained press accreditation for the event, thanks in part to the efforts of Chilean diplomats here. On the day of the event at 8:00 AM, we were in Heliopolis, one of Cairo's neighborhoods, inside a wing of the Almaza military complex, next to the mosque of Mohammed Ali, were a religious ceremony in Arafat's honor took place.
Hundreds of reporters were there to cover the event, struggling for position and the little information coming from Egyptian authorities. The security operation involved thousands of soldiers and police, weary of any incident that could threaten the ceremony, local President Hosni Mubarack, and the other high-ranking leaders present. In addition to the diplomats and guests, a contingent of the Egyptian Armed Forces paid respects in accordance to military honors given to heads of states. The delegations came from all over: the regions heads of states, the top brass of the European Union, England included, China and the United States.
We waited with other reporters lined up on one side of the street. The temperature was 30 degrees and the sun was hitting hard. At about 11 AM Arafat's casket was in view. The official delegations emerged from another door a few minutes later, and the band started playing. In front of them and millions watching it on television was Arafat's casket, draped in the Palestinian flag and mounted on a horse drawn military wagon.
To many, the Cairo farewell may have come too quickly, hampering better organization. The access given to the international press was limited and many of the diplomats present had no clue of what was going on and at one point were locked out from parts of the ceremony. However, the show of diplomatic support was a great vindication for Arafat, a man who lived a prisoner at his government headquarters for the last three years, blacklisted by Israel and the United States, and openly accused of terrorism by Israel, a claim the United States never discouraged.
But yesterday's ceremony was clear recognition of Arafat the fighter and the leader. After facing very powerful enemies for more than 40 years, he had been able to put the demands of his people on the table and had demanded to be heard: the Palestinians want a state where basic inherent rights are respected and defended, and nobody would derail that dream. The show of support in Ramallah, albeit chaotic, was clear sign of what the people Arafat had fought with and for really thought.
After the ceremony we went back to Cairo Airport to say goodbye to the team. The players were wearing t-shirts with Arafat's portrait. It was great to see the Chilean players wearing them and explaining to us why it was important. The Palestinians were clearer. They wanted to dedicate a last victory to their leader.
_________________________________________________November 2004 - Ismailia's Last Camp
The Palestinian national football team is at its training headquarters in Ismalia, Egypt. As in training camps here before their last two games, the players from Gaza have not joined the rest. Among them, striker Ziad Al Kourd and Captain Saeb Jundiya. This time the reasons, except in the case of Al Kourd, are different.
Before the last two games, Israel forbade the players from leaving Gaza. Israel's policy of banning men under 35 from leaving Gaza affects all of them. The issue became international news before a decisive match against Uzbekistan, and the Palestinian Football Association met with FIFA afterwards so that football's world body would intervene with Israel and ensure that players are able to play their matches. In the following game against Taiwan, the situation was the same. This time FIFA had to make an exception, agreed to delay the match a day and allow Gazans to join the rest after what turned out to be just a delayed departure.
This time Israel's prohibition remains specifically in place only against Al Kourd; the rest would have to challenge it at the border. After Al Kourd's house was demolished by Israel while away playing with the team, he became subject of more harassment. The striker is now trying to hire a lawyer to help him make his case in Israel and be able to travel abroad and represent his country.
Jundiya's absence has to do with the second yellow card he received in the last game, a situation that leaves him out of this the last match.
As for the rest of the players, they are being punished by the PFA due to indiscipline. After the game against Taiwan, the Association's instructions were to stay in Cairo in order to avoid Israel's say on whether they could again leave Gaza. They went back home anyway. The Association's response was strong, and perhaps too harsh. The players are receiving one to two year suspensions.
The players that went to Taiwan included only those from Gaza and the West Bank. At the current camp, only those from the West Bank are here from Palestine proper. The rest come Lebanon, Egypt, Sweden, Chile and the United States.
Coach Alfred Riedle was replaced after Uzbekistan eliminated Palestine. Ghassan Balawi, one of the assistant coaches, moved to the top spot for the game against Taiwan. After the game, he left the post. The person in charge of the team now is former second coach Tomas Vcko, who had resigned after his partner Riedle left the job. Vcko is back, now as the bottom line man.The upcoming game in Doha, Qatar, on the 16th of November will only be one game, but it could be a meaningful one. Should they beat Olympic surprise Iraq, Palestine would have ended second in the group against a much stronger and experienced team, departing as a team that did its very best and became, despite all odds, part of Asia's top 16. It may be a small consolation, but these days any good news is great news for Palestine.