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Every morning, when Mohammed Rashid wakes, the first thing he does is message his friends back in Gaza.
“This is what I always try,” Rashid, the experienced Palestine national team midfielder, tells The National moments before he, somehow, switches focus to prepare for Thursday’s 2026 World Cup qualification opener in Sharjah.
“As soon as I wake up, I'll send a message, ‘How are you doing today? How are you doing today?’ Every couple days, I get a text from them saying, ‘OK, I'm alive’, or, ‘I'm OK’.
“Just to know they're still alive is a blessing because apparently from what I understood from one of the guys, they just don't know what's going to happen. Everything's a surprise.
“But my family, my parents, my brother, my younger brothers, one of my older sisters, they're all good. They live in Ramallah; it’s a little far from what's happening in Gaza.”
Rashid, who since last summer plies his club trade for Bali United in Indonesia and therefore represents one of 10 players in the current squad playing outside of Palestine, may be far enough physically from the devastation in his homeland.
But, understandably, it is never not at the forefront of his mind.
“The first week, honestly, even my wife was telling me, ‘You need to let go a little bit on the phone because I wasn’t sleeping,” Rashid says. “It was really tough. Training was very rough for me the first week.
“Slowly you need to know how to work and manage what you're seeing, to be able to function in your normal life.
“Even then, it's still hard to function, because unintentionally the things still pop up on your phone. Even if you don't want to look at it, you’re going to end up looking at it, and it's horrific.
“Honestly, it's really horrific, what you see and when you hear mothers … it's unbelievable. It’s all about mentality and trying to cope with what's going on. That's the only way you can do it, just being mentally positive.”
Fixing focus this week then, to whatever degree, requires remarkable resolve. Palestine begin their quest to make a first World Cup on Thursday, when they kick off their second-round campaign against Lebanon in Sharjah.
Five days later, they face Australia, Group I’s clear favourites, at “home” in Kuwait (given the Israel-Gaza war rages on, matches cannot take place in Palestine).
Only the top two sides – Bangladesh make up the group – will progress to the third round with hopes intact of reaching the 2026 World Cup. More immediately, getting through these first two qualifiers will take a gargantuan effort.
“Mentally is very tough,” Rashid, 28, says. “Honestly, even not only in the national team, even in our own clubs, it's really hard to stay focused. But at the end of the day you have to try your best, because if you end up losing the job that you have, one of the clubs end up losing one of the ‘Palestinian’ names in this club that is representing Palestine outside of Palestine.
“This is what we need. We need to show that we have many players outside of Palestine, who are playing or representing the country. At end of the day, when I play, I don't play for Mohammed Rashid, I play for the country.
“When they say, ‘The Palestinian player Mohammed Rashid scores’, ‘Palestinian’ comes before my last name, so I’m really just representing my country in everything I do, whether it's a national team or in the club.
“Here, right now, it's going to be really tough. But, at the end of the day, like I said, we play for the country, we play for the people in the country.”
For that, Rashid said there was never any question Palestine would play on Thursday, once the majority of the squad was allowed to camp in Jordan to prepare for Lebanon.
Even if, he says, the atmosphere within the squad continues to be “a little bit stressful”.
“The whole world knows what's going on in Palestine,” Rashid says. “I think there's no choice for us to, for example, postpone the game; we have to play, so this is exactly why we're here now.
“The situation calls for us just to think about what's happening back home and play for the people who are suffering right now. Because this is the only way for us to fight. We fight through sports.
“This is the way we can get our name, the name of Palestine, to the whole world, to show everybody that we exist.
“Being in the World Cup qualifiers is a big achievement for us. Obviously, taking it to the next step will be even bigger, and that's where everybody will realise that, OK, Palestine is here, we exist.
“There's a lot of footballers playing abroad – Europe, Asia, Africa – so these are the things that we are fighting for right now. So these two games are very important for us.
“We want to show our best, and we want to show the whole world that we’re people, just like any other country, that we can exercise our rights to be free and play the beautiful game of football.”
Rashid, who having debuted in 2018 has 35 caps for his national team, recognises the still-stunning strength of character on display in Sharjah is nothing compared to those suffering at home.
The texts transported to friends in Gaza confirm that.
“As soon as I get the [reply], you get that relief, ‘Thank God, Alhamdulillah. He’s OK’.
“I'll send another message and maybe he'll reply after 12, 24 hours. For example, maybe three days ago, I sent a message in the morning. He replied very late at night saying that they were out for about 12 hours, looking for clean water to drink.
“Twelve hours is a long time, waiting behind people, thousands of people waiting … I don’t know.
“Yesterday, he sent me a video of them playing those little marbles. I’m like, ‘You guys are unbelievable, the strength you guys have’. You just try your best to say the best words because, honestly, other than this I don’t know what I can do.
“But to give him positive feedback, or positive words, or positive information just to get his hopes up a little bit. Because the situation is just that bad.”
Inside the national team, too, Rashid tries to raise spirits wherever possible. Two of the squad are from Gaza – Mohammed Saleh and Mahmoud Wadi – have families stuck there at the moment.
“They don't let go of their phone,” Rashid says. “Mahmoud Wadi is waiting for his mum to respond. There's no phone, there's no telecoms, there's nothing.”
Asked how the players can possibly help Wadi through his anguish, Rashid again displays astonishing stoicism.
“Jokes,” he responds. “We have a lot of jokes on the team. We try it as best as possible to laugh, just to get the mentality of what's happening outside, just to get him outside of that zone.
“Just laugh with him a little bit, joke around, make jokes about him, about things that he sometimes likes. Sometimes this helps.
“When you see his smile, you know something is good.”