'We needed joy': Palestinian football fans in UAE celebrate team's historic Asian Cup win

Palestine's national team reached the knockouts after beating Hong Kong 3-0 on Tuesday

Palestinian players Mahmoud Wadi and Oday Kharoub greet supporters after making history in the Asian Cup in Qatar. AFP
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Palestinian football fans in the UAE say their national team's historic win in the Asian Cup has brought them happiness amid the Gaza war.

Palestine reached the knockout rounds of the tournament for the first time after beating Hong Kong 3-0 on Tuesday.

Oday Dabbagh netted two goals, while fellow attacker Zaid Qunbar scored a header at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium in Doha.

The historic sporting moment means that Palestine will go through to the knockouts as one of the best third-placed finishers, with four points in their group.

We have players with a warriors' spirit
Refat Safi, 60, Dubai

It comes as Israel's war against Hamas rages in Gaza, following the militant group's October 7 attacks.

The violence has caused widespread destruction and a humanitarian crisis, with more than Palestinians 25,000 killed.

“The players have spread happiness among the Palestinian people,” Refat Safi, a Palestinian football fan, told The National.

“It is a historic achievement that has spread joy among us amid the sadness we experience because of the conflict in Palestine.”

The 60-year-old, who has been living in the UAE since 1987, said he never misses a single Palestine match, but the recent game has made him proud.

“It was the best match we have ever played. We have players with a warriors' spirit. I wasn't expecting them to reach the knockouts but it's a dream come true,” he said.

Mr Safi said he initially had mixed feelings over the victory, given the devastation unfolding in Palestine.

“I'm sad with the news of conflict at my home in Gaza, but I watched the match to cheer for Palestine. Football has the magic to change your mood as well as draw smiles on people's faces,” he said.

Mr Safi said the team's performance had improved despite the lack of preparations ahead of the tournament held in Qatar.

“We don't have a regular league and players come from different areas. They needed time to compete with stronger teams, but the sky is the limit now,” he said.

“The most concerning thing is the players' fitness, but they can be the dark horse of the tournament now.”

Palestinian Janine Alamir, 26, who lives in Sharjah, said she rarely watches football but was thrilled when she heard the team's triumph.

“I was super happy as the team put my country in the headlines. It is a victory amid the difficult situation of the conflict,” she told The National.

“I think the conflict in Gaza was a big motivation for the players to perform well.”

Ms Alamir also said that she's pleased Palestine is being known for something positive, other than explosions and conflict.

She said she will support the team in the knockout stage with the hope of enjoying another victory.

“Palestinian people need joy after all the sad news in recent months. Football can make us happy,” she added.

UAE into Asian Cup knockouts

The UAE also made it to the knockout rounds after qualifying for the last 16 in the Asian Cup, despite a 2-1 defeat to Iran.

However, Emirati fans said they were still disappointed due to consistent poor performance throughout the tournament.

Nasir Hassan, 56, who lives in Dubai, said he was more shocked by the UAE's sub-par performance than its qualifying to the knockout rounds.

“We always go through the tournament and this year the group was easy, but our performance was poor,” he told The National.

“Congratulations to the team and the nation, but we expect more from the players.”

Coach Paulo Bento's side did just enough in their opening two matches to scrape through as Group C runners-up – on goal difference. But the fans say they want more of a structured team going forward.

“The coach is mismanaging the team. He keeps changing the formation and the players' positions,” Mr Hassan said.

“We played well in the pre-tournament friendly matches, but we have to learn from our mistakes.”

Dubai resident Hamad Khamis, 30, also blamed the coach for the team's poor performance.

“We played terribly and we were lucky to have qualified. Our best players are the subs. Players need to trust more in their ability,” he said.

“Having experienced players among our young ones are a must. They can guide the team in difficult times during the match.”

Despite the disappointment, Mr Hassan plans to travel to Doha to support the UAE in their match against Tajikistan on Sunday.

He said players must perform better if they want to win the game.

“Our path in the tournament is easier than the other teams.

“Players need to fight because they are carrying our flag on their chests.

“We still have confidence in them.”

Updated: January 24, 2024, 1:36 PM