Why Palestine's Asian Cup win means more than sport | Football News - Hindustan Times

Why Palestine's Asian Cup win means more than sport

Jan 28, 2024 10:21 AM IST

Against any other team but Qatar, it could have felt like a home game in the round of 16.

For Thomas Keneally, Don Bradman was much more than the sum of his runs and centuries. Talking about growing up in Sydney, the author of ‘Schindler’s Ark’, the book on which the film Schindler’s List is based, explained why. “While no Australian had written Paradise Lost, we knew Don Bradman had made 100 before lunch at Lord’s.”

Palestine's forward Mahmoud Wadi and midfielder Oday Kharoub greet supporters(AFP) PREMIUM
Palestine's forward Mahmoud Wadi and midfielder Oday Kharoub greet supporters(AFP)

Keneally’s comment can help us understand why Palestine’s players slumped on the pitch in joy after beating Hong Kong 3-0 in their last group match of the Asian Cup in Doha. Or why Palestine skipper Musab Al-Battat said after the victory that “our message is not only a sporting message.”

Sport may seem trivial in the time of a raging conflict. Focusing on chess was difficult, Ukranian Grandmaster Anna Ushenina had said at Tata Steel Chess in Kolkata last year. Many Russian players don’t understand what we are going through, she said. But it can also be a salve.

It had taken Palestine eight games spread over three editions to get their first win in the Asian Cup but when they did, it also took them to the last 16 as one of the four best third teams.

“This achievement will motivate and bring smiles, both inside and outside of Palestine,” said Al-Battat at a time when the war with Israel has killed over 25,000 people back home in Gaza and caused massive damage to infrastructure. Before the match against Iran, striker Mahmoud Wadi got the news that his cousin had been killed in Gaza.

Coach Makram Daboub said the team knew that the winner-takes-all match against Hong Kong was “decisive especially concerning the current circumstances that Palestine is going through.” After news of his cousin's death, Wadi said he hoped a Palestine win would bring some joy.

That is the power of sport. That is why, Hassanin Mubarak wrote in the Guardian, the mother of a young boy killed after a suicide bombing in Baghdad in 2007 had said on television that the wake would not be held till Iraq returned with the Asian Cup. Iraq did.

Seventeen years later, Iraq can repeat that. Iraq, who stunned Japan 2-1 with a mature defensive display, ended the group league with nine points, four more than what they had in 2007. Vietnam coach Philippe Troussier has said Iraq are among teams that can win this year.

Like Iraq, Palestine have naturalised players. At 14 in their squad of 26, Malaysia and Hong Kong had the most at the Asian Cup, as per The New Strait Times. Palestine have 11, Iraq seven.

Palestine, who can’t play or train at home, came to Doha after 0-1 defeats to Australia and Uzbekistan and had held Saudi Arabia 0-0. They are 99th in the Fifa rankings, three slots above India. After losing 1-4 to Iran in the opening game, Palestine came back to hold UAE, who played with 10 from the 37th minute, 1-1; the equaliser coming through an own goal. In the final group game, Palestine beat Hong Kong 3-0.

They will play Qatar for a berth in the quarter-final on Monday. Against any other country and Palestine would probably have felt like they were the home team. At the last World Cup, support for the Palestinian cause coursed through the competition, from the Souk in Doha to the stadiums.

“Free Palestine” signs were seen at games, a spectator eluded security and ran on to the pitch when France played Tunisia with the Palestine flag which was also raised by Morocco players after beating Spain. And Palestine were not among the 32 finalists.

So, it wasn’t surprising that at the Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium against Hong Kong, most in the attendance of 6568 were supporting Palestine.

The academic Edward Said has, in the foreword to Joe Sacco’s brilliant comic novel ‘Palestine’, described people of that region as history’s losers…. Except for their sheer indomitability, their unspoken will to go on.”

The odds are high but Al-Battat has said anything is possible. Maybe, Palestine will draw inspiration from Jorvan Vieira's words. Ahead of the 2007 Asian Cup final, Iraq’s Brazilian coach, Mubarak has written, told his players: “Here, tomorrow, is our match. I don’t think we’ll get to this point again.”

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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata and has been a sport journalist for over three decades. He writes mainly on football.

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