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Asian Cup: Emotion high for Palestine football team

January 17, 2024

Progression at the 2024 Asian Cup is up in the air for team Palestine, but this is a side playing for more than three points.

The Palestine squad line up before their Asian Cup opener
The Palestine squad lost their Asian Cup opener but were crowd favoritesImage: Aijaz Rahi/AP Photo/picture alliance

Palestine men's national football team coach Makram Daboub admitted it had been difficult to control his players' emotions for their opening game at the Asian Cup, a match that coincided with the 100th day of the Israel-Hamas war.

"In the previous game the focus at the start was not what we intended," Daboub said on Wednesday ahead of the country's second group-stage game vs. the United Arab Emirates.

"No coach would want the scenario we had against Iran, but the game against UAE is different because we have the same chances and it is important for us to get the three points."

In purely sporting terms, Tamer Seyam's strike in the 4-1 loss was a mere consolation, but Palestine's first goal of the Asian Cup was greeted with a huge roar from the stands.

Palestine started their Asian Cup with their domestic league suspended amid the war in Gaza and the support for them was clear from the off in Qatar.

Captain Musab Al-Battat took to the stage for the players' oath and Palestinian music at the beginning and end of the opening ceremony, while shouts of "free Palestine" were heard during the Iran match.

In addition, fans of a number of nationalities in Qatar came dressed in Palestine shirts or draped in its flag and keffiyehs.

Playing under a cloud

Palestine have never won an Asian Cup match, but the usual laser focus of professional athletes is impossible for players like Mohammed Saleh. The defender told news agency AFP that he had not heard from his family for days.

"They are living in a tent on open land... May God help them," he said after the match, explaining that his home in Gaza City had been destroyed and his family constantly had to relocate during over 100 days of fighting in the Palestinian territory.

Shortly before the tournament kicked off, the defender was told that his uncle, his aunt and their children had been killed in the conflict. "We play football for them... for Gaza... for our cause," he added.

Mohammed Saleh holds the ball in his hands during an Asian Cup match
Mohammed Saleh has had to deal with distressing news from homeImage: Aijaz Rahi/AP Photo/picture alliance

Fighting for a nation

With several third-placed teams qualifying for the knockout rounds, Palestine will likely still have hope in their final group game against Hong Kong, whatever happens against the UAE. They know that their sport may just be a distraction for many, but that doesn't strip it of real meaning.

"There are players whose families were martyred while they were in the camp, but we are fighters and this is the Palestinian spirit, loaded with patriotism," said Palestinian Football Association President, Djibril Rajoub.

"This team is the noblest symbol of our national identity, and this team is for all Palestinians."

Edited by: James Thorogood