World, March 18, 2010 (Pal Telegraph,BBC)- For most people living in the Palestinian territory, everyday life revolves around the ongoing conflict with Israel. But Palestine’s football team is involved in a different sort of struggle – qualifying for the World Cup.
Palestine was granted nation status by Fifa in 1996, even though there is no Palestinian state.
They remain in a strong position to qualify for the 2006 tournament in Germany, having beaten Taiwan 8-0, drawn 1-1 with Iraq and lost 3-0 to Uzbekistan, who currently top the group.
For many of the players, being able to represent Palestine is a political statement.
“In my first game, when we sang the national anthem, I could feel my body shiver,” goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh told BBC World Service’s Playing for Palestine programme.
“I was trembling when I saw the Palestinian flag being raised. I felt I had done something great for my country that day.”
Although the players represent a people longing to be recognised as a fully-fledged nation state, the conflict means they play their “home” games in Doha, Qatar.
Many of the players learned to love football when they watched matches between Arabic teams, particularly Egyptian giants Al Ahly and Zamalek.
But they themselves were usually unable to play in any organised competition. There is currently no Palestinian league. At the height of the first Palestinian uprising, the intifada, many believed they would not play football again.
“When the first intifada began in 1987, everything stopped,” captain Saeb Jendeya said.
“I was 12, and there was no way I could join a football club, because of the obstacles posed by the Israeli occupation.
“After the first intifada I never completed my education. I would drop my books and go out and throw stones. We couldn’t sit still while our people were being killed.”
After the peace process in the 1990s brought relative stability, Palestine were admitted into Fifa. At that time, it was easier for players to travel between West Bank and Gaza to train together.
But then came the 2000 intifada which is still raging today, with large parts of the infrastructure in the Palestinian territory destroyed and with restrictions placed on the movement of people within the area.
It has become increasingly difficult to simply get the team together.
There are no training camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip any more, and the FA have instead set up a training camp in Ismailia, in Egypt.
In the most tragic episode affecting the team, talented midfielder Tarek al-Quto was killed in the violence.
However, six months ago a group of Palestinian businessmen from abroad, headed by Tayseer Barakat, approached the Palestine Football Association with an offer of help.
Mr Barakat said that the PFA informed him that they could not afford to travel, to train the team, or to get an international coach to help.
“We thought that by sponsoring the national team, we could help in paying for a good coach, assistant coach, and finding a camp outside Palestine,” he said.
“So that’s what we did… whatever the national team needs, the money is there.”
With money available, the next step for the PFA was to hire a professional coach. They selected Austrian Alfred Reidl, who at the time was in charge of Vietnam.
When Reidl signed his contract in Ismailia in January, it was the first time that his players from the West Bank had seen those from Gaza in three years.
Girls in the ruins of Jenin
“This was a big surprise for me,” he said.
“For me they are brave, they are good guys.”
A further boost for Reidl was finding that he could select players drawn from the occupied territories and refugee camps, but also a contingent of professional players from South America.
He has made a number of efforts to encourage players of Palestinian ancestry to sign up for the team, including taking out an advert in the German football magazine Kicker.
On such player is Ricardo Abdullah, from Santiago de Chile, who has played with Palestine for three years. He does not speak Arabic, but qualifies through his grandfather. As Palestine play in Qatar, he has never visited the territory he represents.
“I realised how difficult life was for them when in Chile, one of the players, Jamal, was watching TV and saw his home being demolished by an Israeli tank,” Abdullah told Playing for Palestine.
“But still, he trained with us normally, and gave 100% effort, while knowing that his house doesn’t exist anymore.
“That’s when I realised that these players are used to another reality. They are stronger than us because they can deal with these problems.”
Meanwhile team captain Saeb Jendeya said that his “worst moment” had been watching the television in a training camp in Cairo when Israeli troops went into the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin.
“That day, we couldn’t stand on our feet,” he recalled.
“We wondered what we doing there while all this was going happening at home.”
He added that he feared the team would be criticised for playing while crisis raged in the Palestinian territory.
“As captain I was trying to hide my emotions from the players, but I couldn’t,” he said.
“I went to the management, and told them that the players wanted to go home – they wanted to be with their families and people. But they talked us out of it. They told us that we also had a mission.
“So we stayed on, because we wanted to send a message to the whole world that we can still stand on our feet, and that we want peace.”
There have been triumphs, however.
Palestine are currently ranked 121 in the world
Few gave them much of a chance when they entered their first major tournament in 1999, the Arab Cup, a year before the intifada broke out.
“No-one cared about sports,” Jendeya said.
“We did well and came third. We got the bronze medal. We were competing against Arab teams that had far more ability than we did.
“The football association had no money for plane tickets, and we were expecting to go back by land. But on the day we were supposed to leave, Yasser Arafat sent us a special plane.”
When they returned home, 60,000 came to the airport.
“We were so touched that people were proud of us because we felt that we had achieved something with very little,” Jendeya added,
“That was one moment I’ll never forget.”