'I feel so much for Palestine': Wessam Abou Ali desperate to help adopted national team

Striker's incredible journey has taken him from Danish football to the brink of quitting and now to Egypt's Al Ahly and, potentially, international football

Wessam Abou Ali celebrates a goal for Danish club Sirius. Now at Al Ahly of Egypt, he hopes to help the Cairo club to CAF Champions League success and represent the Palestine national team. Reuters
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Shortly before midnight on Friday, messages will be exchanged across the length of the African continent and, if all goes according to form and reputation in the quarter-finals of the CAF Champions League, promises will be made for a reunion of two friends at next month’s final. Those in contact will be Wessam Abou Ali and Tashreeq Matthews, footballers whose lives have transformed in a few short weeks.

At the end of last year they were both starring in Sweden’s top division, partners in a strong end-of-season run by the middling club Sirius. Matthews, a South African, and Abou Ali, a Palestinian born and raised in Denmark, were both sold in January, in the Swedish close-season, with Sirius’s executives delighted that, even if the club were losing two talented individuals, their market value had risen substantially while there.

Matthews went back to his native South Africa, signed by serial champions and holders of the African League, Mamelodi Sundowns, who host Tanzania’s Young Africans in CAF’s more traditional super-elite competition.

Abou Ali, meanwhile, was offered the number nine jersey at the biggest club in Africa and the Middle East, Egypt’s Al Ahly, who on Friday take a 1-0 advantage into the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Tanzania’s Simba.

Although Abou Ali’s participation in Cairo may be restricted, the 25 year old having only just completed his recovery from a hamstring strain, he has already made an eye-catching start to his Al Ahly adventure. He scored within five minutes of his Egyptian league debut, the first of a brace in the 5-1 win over Baladiyat El Mahalla.

Frustratingly, the injury interrupted that momentum. It also postponed the beginning of his senior international career with Palestine, who had anticipated giving Abou Ali his debut in last month’s World Cup qualifiers.

It should be just a temporary delay and the opportunity for what has been, from the perspective of the Palestine Football Association, a long-awaited first cap for a potentially transformative player should come in June. Palestine, despite the huge obstacles imposed by conflict, are well positioned to make the next phase of qualification for the 2026 World Cup.

The process of integrating Abou Ali into their squad has been drawn out, partly because he needed to register with Fifa a switch of national associations, having represented Denmark – where his parents moved before his birth – at various youth levels internationally. But earlier this year, the required documents were lodged.

“It’s a gift to have this Palestine passport,” he told the ‘Are You Sirius?’ podcast. “I love Denmark, which has given so much to me and family, but I feel so much for Palestine, my family there means so much to me. It would be so nice to give them some happiness and success.”

It would also mark the peak of an unusual journey in the sport, not just because it criss-crosses Europe, the Middle East and Africa, but because Abou Ali’s professional career confronted the most frightening of setbacks in his early 20s.

In September 2021, he was a promising youth international, freshly signed from Silkeborg by Vendsyssel, where he had already made a strong impression on loan. And, very suddenly, he collapsed on the pitch during a match against Lyngby.

Teammates quickly gathered around him and some became gravely concerned when they could not detect a pulse on the unconscious player’s wrist. Abou Ali recalls only regaining consciousness in an ambulance on the way to hospital.

The incident made global headlines, partly because it followed, by only a few weeks, the collapse of Denmark’s Christian Eriksen during a European Championship match in Copenhagen – Eriksen made a full recovery and now plays for Manchester United – and, as Abou Ali acknowledges, it became, to the wider sporting public, the defining moment of his then short career.

To a young man making his way in the game, it was confusing and alarming. He moved back home, to Aalborg, to be surrounded by his immediate family. He was fitted with a heart monitor. His return to practice and to his profession would be gradual.

Although his physical recovery went relatively smoothly, it then hit another obstacle as soon as Abou Ali had the all-clear to compete again. During a Vendsyssel training camp in Turkey, he was chasing a long ball and collided with the opposition goalkeeper heavily. He broke six ribs and punctured a lung. He found himself back in hospital and, as he later acknowledged, he considered giving up football altogether.

When he looks back on that low period, he thanks the staff of Vendsyssel, of Denmark’s second tier, for their support, particularly his head coach there, Henrik Pedersen. “I thought I needed to stop, I was emotional. But it taught me how to appreciate every single moment of life, and changed me as a person.”

And as a player, judging on how Abou Ali has developed as a striker in the past two years. After his rehabilitation and return to league action with Vendsyssel, Abou Ali soared. He finished the regular 2022/23 season scoring at a rate of a goal every two games. It meant Sirius, a club with a strong reputation for their expert talent-spotting, upped an interest they had held in him for some time, and they offered top-flight football.

He joined them mid-season, the club precariously positioned in Sweden’s Allsvenskan table. His impact would be instant. As at Al Ahly, there would be a goal on his first outing in new colours. And a dedicated song in Abou Ali’s honour composed and belted out by fans of Sirius by the end of his debut.

He would hear it often. In 16 matches for Sirius, he scored 10 goals, guiding his new club to comfortable survival in their division and forming an effective partnership with Matthews, the South African on Sirius’s left-wing. Their time as teammates would turn out to be short, half a season, but the friendship looks a lasting one. “A special bond,” Abou Ali says of Matthews, now a rival for Africa’s biggest club prize.

When Sirius accepted Al Ahly’s offer for Abou Ali, they set a new club record for a single transfer fee received. The buyers were convinced his pace, his assured finishing, a growing effectiveness meeting high crosses and his industry off the ball will be long-term assets. And he will be flying the flag of Palestine at the best supported club across the Mena region.

Updated: April 05, 2024, 5:34 AM