Wed, Jan 07, 2015 - Page 18 News List

Palestine ready for moment in Asian Cup spotlight

Reuters

Since the jubilation of qualifying for a maiden Asian Cup campaign, Palestine have lost their coach, seen friendly matches canceled, had players blocked from travel and been involved a bloody conflict, but still they refuse to be downhearted.

Few expect their stay in Australia to last longer than the group stage, where they face holders Japan, former winners Iraq and Jordan, but that does not matter to the side ranked 113th in the world.

Their greatest victory has already been achieved — earning the opportunity to show the world they have a team capable of competing against the top sides in Asia despite the issues they face.

“This is a historic occasion for us,” forward Ashraf Numan told FIFA.com.

“Our goal is to let the world know that the Palestinian national team are moving forward despite the difficulties facing us,” he said.

“We want to convey the message that the Palestinian players have the right to play and develop,” he said. “Furthermore, we want to bring a smile back to the faces of our people and make our fans happy.

“The opener against Japan [on Monday] will be a hard match for us, as they are considered as one of Asia’s best teams. The Japanese players are better than us,” he said.

Numan’s attitude is a big part of the reason Palestine are competing at the Asian Cup for the first time.

They traveled to the Maldives for the Challenge Cup in May last year shorn of six players because of the restrictions to movement they face outside of Palestine.

With most of those being strikers, Numan was pressed further forward from his usual midfield role and flourished in the honeymoon islands, finishing as top scorer with four goals.

As the emerging teams battled sea sickness from the never-ending boat trips to matches, training sessions and hotels, Numan proved he had the stomach for the fight — scoring the only goal in the final as they beat the Philippines to book the final spot in Australia.

That golden ticket was a brief moment of joy to hold on to in the dark times that would follow.

Former international Ahed Zaqout, one of Palestine’s best-ever players, was killed by an Israeli bomb that hit his apartment in Gaza in July during the conflict that claimed the lives of more than 2,100 Palestinians and more than 70 Israelis.

Coach Jamal Mahmoud quit for “personal reasons” late last year, with his deputy Ahmed al-Hassan stepping up, shortly before the Palestine Football Association offices were stormed by Israeli forces in November.

A friendly against Iran last week was canceled at the last minute for unspecified reasons, while al-Hassan works with a committed squad he knows is not his best because of availability restrictions.

Undeterred, Palestinians are cherishing the global window of the Asian Cup.

“Its a big thing, because you know, Palestine the life is very difficult and all of the sports have many problems,” Mahmoud said. “To send a message around the world that we can do very good if we have space, if equipment is allowed for us to play [with], [if we are allowed] to go outside and we send message — we want peace.”

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