Palestinian players confident of success at Asiad
Sep. 19, 2014
INCHEON, South Korea (AP) — Most football teams competing at the Asian Games get the benefit of national training camps and logistical backup to ensure all the players need to concentrate on is the games.
Not so for the Palestinian team — some of the players have had to avoiding air strikes, plan their routes to practice sessions to avoid danger and all the while hope they will be able to travel abroad to play.
But the Palestinian players here in Incheon refuse to be weighed down by their off-field distractions. Instead, they hope these Asian Games will be a breakthrough competition that will raise their profile in the international arena.
"We want to play the final," Ahmed Maher said as he went through stretching drills in a quiet corner of the athletes' village. "We've practiced as hard as we could and we are here to show everyone what we can do."
Maher's optimism stems largely from the senior team's recent success at this year's AFC Challenge Cup in the Maldives, where the team beat the Philippines 1-0 in the final to qualify for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.
At the Asian Games, though, only three players aged over 23 are allowed in each squad, so the national squad has a new look to it.
"Maldives ... very good win. It made people happy during difficult times," the 23-year-old midfielder said of the campaign that boosted the Palestinian team an all-time high position of 94th in FIFA rankings.
The victory triggered wild celebrations back home in May as striker Ashraf Al Fawaghra's free kick completed an impressive tournament win. The Gaza sky lit up with fireworks.
It was an emphatic victory as the team did not concede a goal in five matches and drew only one match in the tournament.
Islam Patran, a defender on the Palestinian team, explained that the squad managed to get together for friendlies despite the lack of a national training camp this year.
"We trained and played practice matches in Qatar, Oman and Bahrain over one month," Patran said. "We also had a championship in Palestine three months ago but we could not hold a national camp this year."
The Palestinian team over the past year has included some expatriates. But for the majority of the players, Israel's refusal to give exit visas has been a major hindrance.
Israel has cited concerns about possible attacks by Palestinian militants as the main reason for sweeping restrictions on movement that affect most Palestinians, including athletes. Israel prevents virtually all travel between the West Bank and Gaza, two territories that lie on opposite sides of Israel and are sought by the Palestinians as part of a future state.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter intervened to try and mediate earlier this year, but the problems persist with the team struggling with travel restrictions.
It's also a dangerous place to be a footballer. Promising 19-year-old Mohammad al-Qatar and former player Ahed Zaqout were killed in Gaza during the conflict with Israel, so it is difficult for some players to maintain focus.
"As it is, it's very hard to play continuously in Palestine and then we also keep getting bad news concerning players," Maher said. "It is very difficult to hold camps and prepare for tournaments."
The Palestinian team is grouped in Pool C at the Asian Games along with Oman, Singapore and Tijikistan.
The team started competing regularly in international competitions after being admitted by FIFA in 1998 following the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority.
But it has a long history in the game as the Palestinian Football Federation was established in 1928. This generation of players is determined to leave its mark, starting in Incheon and continuing in the Asian Cup next year.