Skip to main content

Palestine: A national soccer team without a nation

By Manesh Shrestha, for CNN
updated 3:45 PM EST, Thu March 8, 2012
Palestine is one of 208 members of global football's governing body FIFA and is competing at the eight-team AFC Challenge Cup in Nepal. Palestine is one of 208 members of global football's governing body FIFA and is competing at the eight-team AFC Challenge Cup in Nepal.
HIDE CAPTION
'The national team without a nation'
Advancing to Australia
Challenge Cup celebrations
Presidential visit
<<
<
1
2
3
4
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Palestine national team wins opening game of AFC Challenge Cup in Kathmandu
  • Alla Attya and Fahed Attal score in 2-0 victory over host team Nepal on Thursday
  • Palestine playing in the biennial Asian tournament for the first time this year
  • Its squad is weakened by the absence of Palestine's Europe-based players

Nepal (CNN) -- When the 11 members of the Palestine football team walked out on the pitch of the Dashrath Stadium on Thursday to play host side Nepal, probably only a small fraction of the 17,000 spectators knew that their country was playing against another that does not even exist in the conventional sense.

They could be forgiven for that. After all the AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament of eight second-tier Asian countries, is a tournament of national teams.

"We are a national team without a nation," says the Palestine team's manager Abdallah Alfaraa.

But Palestine is one of world football body FIFA's 208 member associations, and among 46 in the Asian Football Confederation. It has a professional league, FIFA-approved stadiums and players who ply their trade in Europe, South America and Africa, plus Saudi Arabia. And its national coach comes from Jordan.

"For us it is very important to be in the Challenge Cup," Alfaraa says. "Football is a way of telling the world that we are human and we want to get our freedom."

We have waited 64 years for our freedom. We can't wait any longer. We can live with Israel
Palestine team manager Abdallah Alfaraa

To highlight the power of football, FIFA president Sepp Blatter launched the tournament jointly with Nepal's Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai by telling the crowd that the sport has no borders.

"Please give a welcome to the Palestine team," Blatter continued, drawing resounding applause from the Nepali spectators.

Palestine may not have felt that welcome at the end of the match, which Nepal lost 0-2 as Alla Attya scored the first goal in the fourth minute and Fahed Attal netted the second in the 65th.

The Palestinian territories' internal political problems -- with the West Bank on one side and Gaza on the other, separated by Israel in between -- are reflected in the way football is run.

The Palestinian professional league of 12 teams is limited to the West Bank. "Because of the political problems we face with Hamas (which controls Gaza) we don't have a league there," Alfaraa says.

In order to use football further as a tool for freedom and political messaging, the Palestine Football Association is organizing an international tournament in May this year to coincide with the anniversary of Nakba Day -- May 15, the day Palestinians call their "day of catastrophe."

That is the day Israel declared independence in 1948 amid a war with Arab armies.

The May tournament hopes to attract 11 other teams, Alfaraa said. The Italian Olympic team and national sides from Iraq, Vietnam, Tanzania, Mauritania, Bahrain, Jordan and Tunisia have already confirmed participation, while talks are under way with three countries, he said.

We are now playing football under occupation. We want peace
Palestine coach coach Jamal Mahmoud

It would be the third international tournament with Palestine participation. Its proudest football moment so far has been placing fourth at the 2011 Arab Games.

Although this is the first time it is participating in the biennial AFC Challenge Cup, being staged for the fourth time, Palestine has set high goals. "We are here to win," says coach Jamal Mahmoud. "Our team is very strong."

The winner of the tournament, which also includes North Korea -- a qualifier for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa -- will get an automatic place in the 2015 edition of the 16-nation Asian Cup.

"Our dream for the Palestinian people is to play in the Asian Cup in Australia in 2015," Alfaraa says.

With Thursday's win, they are a step closer. A win against Turkmenistan -- described by Mahmoud as a "very strong" team -- will seal Palestine's place in the semifinals.

But with the European leagues not releasing Palestine's players, and former winners like India and Tajikistan also competing, overall victory could be a tough task. The North Koreans, meanwhile, are considered favorites to defend their title.

And freedom? "We have waited 64 years for our freedom," Alfaraa says. "We hope to get it soon. We can't wait any longer. We can live with Israel."

Mahmoud adds: "We are now playing football under occupation. We want peace."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
CNN Football Club
Be part of CNN's coverage of European Champions League matches and join the social debate.
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
The 1989 Hillsborough stadium tragedy, which claimed 96 lives, brought the red and the blue halves of Liverpool together.
CNN's Don Riddell says the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy has caused irreparable damage to the families of the 96 victims and the survivors.
updated 8:44 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
The Champions league trophy stands on show during the draw for the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions league at the UEFA headquarters in Nyon on March 21, 2014. AFP PHOTO/FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Two European heavyweights will collide in the Champions League semifinals after Bayern Munich and Real Madrid were drawn together in Switzerland.
updated 8:48 AM EDT, Mon March 24, 2014
West Bromwich Albion's French striker Nicolas Anelka looks on during the English Premier League football match between West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United at The Hawthorns in West Bromwich, central England, on January 1, 2014.
England prides itself on being the home of football, but is the nation dysfunctional in dealing with racist abuse?
updated 9:39 AM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
In a city where football is a religion, Liverpool and England striker Daniel Sturridge is fast becoming a deity.
French former football player Zinedine Zidane reacts during the gala football 'Match Against Poverty' organized by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on March 4, 2014 in Bern.
Some of the biggest names in football lined up for a charity match, but CNN's Tom McGowan wonders if they can help beat poverty.
updated 10:55 AM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
"Everyone is scared about war -- they are very nervous," former Ukraine football star Oleg Luzhny says of the rising tensions with Russia.
updated 1:07 PM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
Bayern Munich's present success rests on one key decision, chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge tells CNN.
updated 4:22 AM EST, Tue February 18, 2014
Neymar
"More than a Club." It is an image Barcelona has carefully cultivated, but could the controversial deal to sign Neymar sour that view?
updated 1:25 PM EST, Sat February 1, 2014
Affectionately known as "the wise man of Hortaleza," Luis Aragones -- who died aged 75 -- left the legacy of helping Spain's ascension to the top.
updated 4:18 PM EST, Thu January 23, 2014
Real Madrid hasn't won the European Champions League in over a decade, but the Spanish club is invincible in one field -- making money.
The naming of the world's best footballer is not all that it seems, says CNN's James Masters.
ADVERTISEMENT