Asian Cup shows how football can lift a people's spirits

The tournament in Qatar has been an outpouring of Arab and Palestinian pride in difficult times

The Palestine team enter the pitch for its last-16 match against tournament hosts Qatar in Al Khor on January 29. The team played with the knowledge that tens of thousands of people back home had lost their lives in a war that shows little sign of ending. EPA
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International football is often the stage for high drama, both on and off the pitch. The 2024 Asian Cup in Doha is no exception and has already been a tournament of standout moments. It is now heading for a nail-biting, all-Arab final between the host country and current champions Qatar, and a Jordanian team that has shrugged off their underdog tag to reach its first Asian Cup decider.

As with any drama, stellar performances have gone hand in hand with conflict behind the scenes. Palestinians around the world rejoiced when their team’s historic 3-0 win against Hong Kong took the country through to the last 16 for the first time, Jordanians celebrated when their unfancied side beat South Korea 2-0 to reach the final, and Qatari fans lived on their nerves during Wednesday night’s testy semi-final win over Iran. But others were less entertained.

Fans of Saudi Arabia’s Green Falcons were frustrated by a tournament that started and ended in controversy. Just days before the opening game against Oman, preparations were overshadowed when it was announced that goalkeeper Nawaf Al Aqidi had been sent home, joining captain Salman Al Faraj and right-back Sultan Al Ghannam. A last-16 loss to South Korea on penalties spelled the end for a campaign that had promised so much more.

But such a controversy is just a part of sport and its trials and tribulations. For another group of players, the stakes were much higher – the Palestinian team played with the knowledge that tens of thousands of people back home had lost their lives in a war that shows little sign of ending any time soon. Several of the team’s players lost friends and family members in the conflict.

For many Palestinians in Gaza – entering its fifth month of war – thoughts of football and entertainment will have been far from their minds as they struggle to survive amid bombardment and displacement. Nevertheless, the players’ spirited performance in Doha will be a source of pride for many Palestinians at home and in the diaspora, who otherwise often have precious little to cheer about.

The Jordanian side also carries the hopes of many Palestinians keen for a moment’s respite from the suffering that is afflicting their country. The familial and cultural bonds between the Jordanian and Palestinian peoples run deep, and the presence of the Jordanian national team in an international final will be something that can bring brief joy. Qatar too has been an advocate for Palestine. Arab fans will be cheering on both sides, in the hope the best team wins.

This Asian Cup has been one to remember. Qatar is building on its successful hosting of the Fifa World Cup last year, even as its team goes for more Asian Cup glory. Millions of fans from the Levant to the Far East will have been thrilled or heartbroken by their teams’ performance. It has been a feast of football to enjoy, and the game in the Gulf has never been stronger or commanded so much world attention.

But celebrating the achievements of different teams does not mean ignoring the ongoing tragedy in Palestine. It means embracing those moments that raise a people’s spirits. That should be an example of high drama to which we can all relate.

Published: February 09, 2024, 3:00 AM