Football finds a way, even in fractured Palestine

Midfielder Nazmi Albadawi (right), born in the United States, is one of the Palestinian players based overseas.
Midfielder Nazmi Albadawi (right), born in the United States, is one of the Palestinian players based overseas.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Decades of war, occupation, and political unrest have plagued Palestine but against all the odds, football has somehow found a way to thrive.

Even having the national team turn up in Singapore for their World Cup qualifying match at the Jalan Besar Stadium tonight is already considered a feat. The two sides' Asian Cup qualifier in 2007 was cancelled after the Palestinians faced travel difficulties.

Despite the setbacks, Palestine have qualified for the last two editions of the Asian Cup in 2015 and January this year. Their Under-23 squad also reached the quarter-finals of last year's AFC U-23 championship.

Head coach Noureddine Ould Ali, an Algerian who first worked with the Palestinian Football Association in 2010 before taking the reins of the senior team last year, said their recent rise is down to a "big effort" by the association's president, retired general Jibril Rajoub. The emergence of overseas-born players has also helped the team.

However, there are still challenges when it comes to travel as the team has to cross five borders to leave and return via Jordan, resulting in a 20-hour journey to Singapore. And because of Israel's occupation of Gaza, there are two major football leagues in Palestine: the professional West Bank Premier League and the semi-pro Gaza Strip Premier League.

Ali said: "We can't have only one league because we have problems moving between these two areas. Palestine is a very complicated situation. And football in Palestine is also very complicated."

The team has also been boosted by overseas players with Palestinian roots as about 20 of them are in Spain, Chile, the United States, and other nations, although only three are in the squad here, said Ali.

United States-born midfielder Nazmi Albadawi is one of them. The 27-year-old, born in North Carolina and has featured in Major League Soccer for FC Cincinnati, made his international debut last November in a friendly match against Pakistan in Ramallah, scoring the winner in their 2-1 victory.

He said he received an invitation to join the Palestinian team a few years earlier but the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict made his family uneasy. Nazmi's debut was the first time he set foot in Palestine and he said that travelling for away games is "more complicated" for players with Palestinian passports who have to "go through more checkpoints".

He added: "That's one of the main things I noticed... how much different, and more difficult at times it is for those players. It's a little bit sad, but all we can do is focus on our playing."

Palestine have already claimed one scalp in their World Cup qualifying campaign as they defeated an Uzbekistan side (2-0) ranked 18 places above them in Ramallah last Thursday. The result, coupled with the 60 places separating them and 162nd-ranked Singapore, arguably make them favourites tonight.

Nazmi added: "They're warriors - we all are - and we're going to fight for each other and hopefully get good results together."

Sazali Abdul Aziz

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2019, with the headline 'Football finds a way, even in fractured Palestine'. Print Edition | Subscribe