Resilience and bravery on show as Palestine draw World Cup qualifier with Lebanon

Teams play out a 0-0 stalemate in difficult circumstances in Sharjah

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For 97 minutes, to be precise, Palestine's players appeared to put the increasingly desperate situation in Gaza out of their minds as they relentlessly tried to claim a win for their nation.

The Khalid bin Mohammed Stadium in Sharjah was the venue for a 2026 World Cup qualifying encounter between the Palestinians and Lebanon – notionally the home side – or rather two groups of players with a lot more on their minds than merely claiming three points.

As it transpired, the game ended in stalemate on Thursday night, neither side able to break the deadlock in a tense and largely even encounter. Mohammed Saleh and Odday Dabbagh had Palestine's best openings – both chances coming in a strong second-half showing from their team.

However, the outcome meant a point apiece as the two sides left Sharjah having got their respective AFC World Cup Qualifying Group I campaigns off the ground.

The game marked the start of the second phase of qualifiers for the first expanded 48-team World Cup, for which Asia will have eight guaranteed spots plus a possible ninth available through an intercontinental play-off.

Before the game, Palestine midfielder Mohammed Rashid had told the National of his and his teammates' struggles to train and perform for the national team in a time of such crisis. Rashid spoke of their fears for the safety of loved ones, but also of their determination to “play for the people who are suffering right now”.

That determination was evident throughout as they set about their task in an empty stadium. Indeed, what followed was an exceptional display of mental resilience from both sides.

The lack of fans was due to the host team, Lebanon, having to serve a one-match stadium ban imposed by FIFA’s disciplinary committee following scenes of unrest after a qualifier against Syria in Beirut last year.

A minute’s silence was observed for the thousands killed in Gaza before the start of the match, and perhaps the gravity of that moment lingered in an opening half that was full of immense effort but produced little in the way of clear chances.

After the break, Palestine pushed forwards in search of a breakthrough. They created half a dozen openings but couldn’t find that final touch to pierce the deadlock.

On the hour, a free-kick from Tamer Seyam was a bit high for Michelmilad Termanini to connect with as he arrived into the six-yard box.

Minutes later, a header from Saleh, also from just outside the six-yard box, sailed over the crossbar.

Dabbagh then worked his way into the box in the closing stages but his effort from close range was saved by the outstretched left leg of Lebanon goalkeeper Mostafa Matar.

Earlier in the day, Australia thrashed Bangladesh 7-0 to get their Group I campaign off to a flying start at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium. Harry Souttar, Brandon Borrello and a Mitchell Duke brace made it 4-0 at the interval before Jamie Maclaren's second-half hat-trick completed the scoring.

Palestine now travel to Kuwait for a designated home game against Australia on Tuesday – and another opportunity to just be footballers for 90 minutes.

Updated: November 17, 2023, 4:37 AM