Palestine get past Afghanistan and advance to AFC Challenge Cup final
Male, Maldives // With Pope Francis and Sepp Blatter parading through Palestine in recent days, the national team need something special to stay in the headlines.
Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat of Afghanistan in the AFC Challenge Cup semi-finals put them 90 minutes away from doing that, with Ashraf Alfawaghra scoring twice in the early kickoff at National Stadium in Male.
Palestine will face the Philippines or the Maldives in Friday’s final, the winner of which will secure a place at the 2015 Asian Cup.
Abdallah Alfara, the Palestine team manager, said the players were aware of the opportunity before them.
“It’s very important for the Palestinian Football Association and the sport in Palestine to have a good and strong team. We have a message for all the world that we are a nation and we are looking for peace also,” he said.
“We have trouble and problems in our country because like everybody knows we are under occupation. We have many players from Gaza who cannot move to the West Bank, and from the West Bank to Gaza, so we have many troubles.”
Palestine took the lead in slightly contentious fashion, with Alfawaghra taking a tumble in the Afghan penalty area in the 43rd minute after a challenge by Faisal Sakhizada. There appeared to be little contact as Sakhizada won the ball, but referee Ko Hyung-jin still pointed to the spot. Alfawaghra then converted the penalty to give Palestine the lead.
Alfawaghra doubled his side’s advantage less than a minute after the restart, slipping behind the Afghanistan defence and beating goalkeeper Mansur Faqiryar at his near post.
Interim Afghanistan coach Erich Rutemoller bemoaned the lapses in concentration that led to Palestine’s goals.
“I always say, in the box, don’t touch the opposing player. If he falls, he gets a penalty. It’s dangerous. It’s a matter of good or bad defending, or as I like to say, not intelligent defending. It’s a key situation for sure,” he said.
“The second goal was much worse. The second goal gave more confidence to the other team. They know they’re 2-0 up and it’s almost over. It’s easier to defend than one goal.”
Tuesday’s loss capped a difficult few days for Afghanistan. Several players were injured on the way back to their hotel from the 0-0 draw with Laos on Saturday, a result that left the Afghans second in Group B. A motorcyclist crashed into their convoy near Addu City, causing an accident that left Mustafa Azadzoy, Hassan Amin and Ahmad Hatifi unavailable against Palestine.
In addition, coach Mohammad Kargar missed the semi-finals after learning that the three-match ban with which he entered the tournament was four matches. Rutemoller was scheduled to leave the Maldives on Tuesday morning but was called back for the semi-final. Kargar will resume control of the team in Thursday’s third-place match.
“I was very concerned these past few days. I didn’t know how the team would react to all the things they had to suffer,” Rutemoller said. “In the first day, it was bad. The second day, it got better. Yesterday at the practice session, the mood in the team, I was confident.
“I was pretty sure that they tried to shake off all these things and concentrate on the match. My compliments to the team that they tried to do it and we don’t have any excuses from what happened before.”
Palestine enter the final in good form, unbeaten and not scored against in their past five matches. The run began on December 28, 2013, with a 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia in the West Asian Football Federation championship group stage, followed by Challenge Cup defeats of Kyrgyzstan (1-0) and Myanmar (2-0).
Their strong spine will be formidable for any opponent, with goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh, centre-backs Omar Jaaron and Abdallatif Albahdari and central midfielder Murad Said a base of strength for the team.
Alfara, interpreting for Palestine coach Jamal Mahmoud, also praised his squad’s strength of spirit.
“Before the tournament, we didn’t prepare very well. We had many troubles with international friendly games because of our situation in Palestine and the economic problems for our country,” he said.
“But the players are too strong. They are very strong and would like to do something for this country. The strong point of our team is the soul. They want to fight in the field, to play and win, and to see all the people from Palestine happy and smiling for the victory of Palestine.”
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Updated: May 27, 2014 04:00 AM