Palestine’s greatest football moment in Maldives against all odds

On Friday, a second-half free-kick winner set the Palestinians celebrating. But nothing ever comes straight for them. The road to Australia has been a long and winding one.

The the achievement of their footballers in Maldives saw Palestinians erupt in joy at home in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Abbas Momani / AFP
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In Gaza the sky was lit up with fireworks and, in the West Bank, hundreds took to the streets in celebration.

With Palestine lodged in an interminable conflict with Israel there has been precious little to bring widespread joy to its people in recent times.

Until Friday night when Palestine's footballers, astonishingly, clinched a place in the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.

Cue the fireworks and street parties.

The 1-0 win over the Philippines brought Palestine its first trophy, the 2014 Asian Challenge Cup, and, with it, qualification to the continent's biggest international competition.

Led by the irrepressible Ashraf Al Fawaghra, the man fans call the “Palestinian Messi”, the team had won two and drawn the other of their three group matches, before defeating Afghanistan 2-0 in Tuesday’s semi-final.

On Friday, Al Fawaghra’s second-half free-kick winner set the Palestinians celebrating.

But nothing ever comes straight for Palestinians. The road to Australia has been a long and winding one.

It started in March of last year, in Kathmandu, Nepal. A 1-0 win over Bangladesh, a 9-0 thrashing of Northern Mariana Islands and a 0-0 draw with the host nation meant Palestine won Group D of Challenge Cup qualifying and progressed to the competition proper in the Maldives.

Palestine’s triumph in the Maldives is all the more remarkable when you consider it was achieved mostly by home-based players, who, along with their coaches and federation, face difficulties on a consistent basis.

It is at home that Palestine face their most difficult opponent.

The Palestinian Football Federation was established in 1928 but its modern incarnation was only admitted into Fifa 70 years later.

Even then, restrictions on the movement of players by Israel has often left the squad unable to train together or travel to matches.

When, in October 2007, Palestine could not fulfil a 2010 World Cup qualifier against Singapore because of an inability to gain exit visas, Fifa were less than understanding. Palestine forfeited the match and the three points were awarded to their opponents.

Palestine were also denied a shot at qualifying for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar when they were denied permission to travel to the 2008 Challenge Cup in India.

There are many other cases of individual players being refused travel or being detained without charge.

The most famous, Mahmoud Sarsak, was detained for three years under Israel’s administrative detention law and was only released after a three-month hunger strike left him close to death.

As recently as last month, coach Jamal Mahmoud was refused re-entry into the West Bank after a training camp in Qatar, while a member of the current squad, Sameh Mar’aba, was arrested but not charged for alleged links to the Hamas organisation, and missed the trip to the Maldives.

Such persistent challenges have largely been fought in the shadows, with little assistance from Fifa.

In fact, it is ironic that Palestine’s greatest football moment should came only days after Sepp Blatter again ruled out the possibility of Fifa sanctions against Israel for restricting the movement of Palestine’s players.

Now, things could change. Palestine’s qualification to Australia is one of the football stories of the year, exactly the type that Fifa prides itself on promoting.

The phrase “Cinderella Story” is overused in football; but in 2015 Palestine will be the only newcomers to the ball when they face reigning champions Japan, Jordan and Iraq in Group D in January

In the West Bank, Gaza and across the Palestinian diaspora, millions will be cheering Mahmoud, Al Fawaghra and the rest in Australia.

It is believed that between 7,000 and 10,000 people of Palestinian origin live in Australia, but, after a journey 86 years in the making, there is sure to be support from many neutrals for eight days next January.

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