‘An oasis of hope’ – how football is a cause for optimism in Palestine

Of all the jobs in the world of football, there cannot be many more difficult than that of managing Palestine. Noureddine Ould Ali, whose second spell in charge ended in 2021, knows that better than most. “There are unique challenges,” Ould Ali says. “Imagine if Gareth Southgate had half his players in another city and they can’t come or there are checkpoints between Liverpool and Manchester and some players get turned back. This is the situation when you coach Palestine.”

The pandemic has made fulfilling international fixtures tricky but that has been par for the Palestinian course since their entry into Fifa in 1998 on the back of strong support from Sepp Blatter. Israel’s increasing control of Palestinian territory since 1948 is a major international issue with consequences in every field.

Football is no different and there have been a number of high-profile examples over the years. In 2007, 18 members of the national team were denied exit visas, not for the first or last time, for a crucial World Cup qualifier in Singapore, who were then awarded a 3-0 forfeit victory. In 2009, the footballers Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe were killed, while stadiums have been bombed. Away from the international headlines, however, there are day-to-day obstacles that make it more difficult for Palestine to compete on the international stage.

“People in Palestine are not free in their movement,” Ould Ali says. “If you want to leave then you must first go through a number of checkpoints and if you get through those then you still have to go through the border into Jordan.” In the coach’s experience, the worst-case scenario is that you don’t make it at all, the best is that it takes between five to eight hours. “Then you have a flight to go to another country and then play a game.”

Still Palestine, now ranked 94 in the world, qualified for the 2023 Asian Cup in June under the guidance of Makram Daboub, topping a group containing the Philippines, Yemen and Mongolia, winning all three games, scoring 10 and conceding none. That means a hat-trick of appearances at the continent’s biggest event and is, for Susan Shalabi, vice-president of the Palestinian Football Association, a stunning achievement. “It’s like glimpsing an oasis of hope while wandering without direction in a desert of disappointments,” she says. “Palestinians these days feel abandoned by their Arab brethren and betrayed by an international community.”

It is no surprise then that the team have become an important symbol of national identity. “To qualify under such dire circumstances renews Palestinians’ faith in our national resilience and will to survive and overcome.” This is, she says, why the national team is known as Al-Fida’i. “This means not only ‘freedom fighter’ but that type of freedom fighter who’s willing to sacrifice it all for the cause. Al-Fida’i is the icon every Palestinian child aspires to be, and to give the national team such a designation says much about what it means to the nation.”

Success internationally is a big deal but there are problems in the domestic game. Gaza and the West Bank have their own leagues as it is not simple to travel between the two. “Sometimes they block players from travelling from one part of Palestine to another,” Ould Ali says. “He [Daboub] hedged his bets when selecting squads. So when you have 23 players, for example, you have to manage the situation. You call up some from Gaza, some from the West Bank, some from Jerusalem, some Palestinian Arabs. There have also been efforts to call players from the diaspora in Europe and South America, especially Chile.”

Growing the game at grassroots level is also a challenge. “The occupation restricts the import of sport equipment, the building of pitches and training facilities,” Shalabi says. “Many footballers lost their lives at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Dozens were arrested, or injured in ways that made it impossible for them to play football any more.”

Inevitably there is talk of how much Palestine could achieve in football if the national team did not have such obstacles. “They would be better without occupation but the biggest change would be felt more in terms of organisation, management and finances,” Ould Ali says. It would not, however, necessarily mean that there would be a massive rise in standards and rankings. “Palestine would then be like other Arab countries like Jordan, Lebanon or Syria as they have a similar football culture,” he says.

Such teams have not been far away from World Cup qualification in recent years with Asia having four automatic berths. When that increases to eight from 2026, then there would even be a possibility of one day appearing on the biggest stage of all.

Those in charge will not discuss such things but the fans are the same in Gaza and the West Bank as they are anywhere else. “For the people, the national team is really important but fans are a problem,” Ould Ali says. “They don’t know the difference between a national team under occupation and one that is in a normal situation. Palestine fans compare their team with other teams but it is not the same. When Palestine play away, a simple trip can take 20 hours but the fans still just say ‘why didn’t you win?’” Right now, however, that question is being asked a little less often.