With help from diaspora, Palestinians hope for Asian Cup surprise in UAE

Chileans Alexis Norambuena, Yashir Pinto and Jonathan Zorrilla Cantillana among those who answered the call to help Palestine football team

Players of Palestine's national football team take part in a training session in Sharjah, northeast of Dubai on January 4, 2019, on the eve of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. / AFP / KARIM SAHIB
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The Palestinian football team take part in only their second Asian Cup this month, and team members born in various parts of the world are hoping to spring a few surprises.

The team qualified four years ago for the first time but crashed out in ignominious fashion, losing all three games with an aggregate score of 11 goals conceded, one scored.

This year, with the help of several players from the Palestinian diaspora, they hope to do better.

Around five million Palestinians live in the blockaded Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank, but around another six million are estimated to live elsewhere.

Chilean defender Alexis Norambuena said the players speak in a mix of languages to understand each other.

"Football is a way to give some joy to the people and for us to represent them in this cup that is quite important for the country," he said.

"We aim to represent them and give them enough joy so the people can be entertained a bit."


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Back home in the West Bank, football lovers are also willing their players on to new heights.

At a recent second division league game, player Sameh Sheikha told AFP that the team's participation "represents a country at a time when we are still living under occupation."

"We hope the team achieves good results this time, because the team has become stronger than before," he said.

There are perhaps cautious reasons for optimism.

Despite being made up of mostly amateurs, the team beat Bhutan 10-0 on aggregate to qualify for the tournament.

This and other good results saw them rise to a record high 75th in the Fifa world rankings, though they have since slipped back to 99th.

Abdelatif Bahdari, right, and his Palestine side have qualified for the Asian Cup for the second tournament in a row. AFP

Palestinians say that Israeli restrictions on players' movements limit potential, whether that means checkpoints in the West Bank or the blockade on Gaza, where Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008.

Sport is also an area where Palestinians seek to advance their cause.

Their football federation has been a member of Fifa since 1998 and plays in the Asian Football Confederation.

The Palestinians were also granted the status of UN non-member observer state in 2012.

This year's Asian Cup side has a little more of an international feel.

They are led by an Algerian manager and among those donning the red jersey in the Emirates is Yashir Pinto, a Chilean who qualifies for the team due to his Palestinian ancestors.

Another Chilean with Palestinian roots on the team, Jonathan Zorrilla Cantillana, said "I think we are preparing in a very good way and we will try to create a surprise, to surprise them with the training we got here, and I think we will arrive well prepared at the cup."

Their group is a little daunting, with an opening game against Syria followed by matches against Asian champions Australia and Jordan.

Yet while few expect them to have any chance of coming home with the cup, in the Palestinian territories there is optimism.

"The national team is a source of pride, and it is competing at the Asian level. This confirms the progress of the level of our sport," said Mohamed Sulaiman, a football coach in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"Our team is strong and we hope we can achieve something."