Palestine, a place which hasn't seen peace since 1948. The conflict between Israel and Palestine will be seen as a black spot in the history of the 20th and 21st Centuries. In the west this part of the world is more known more for Israeli air strikes, rocket fire and suicide bombings than any sporting achievements. There are few things to look forward to for the innocent people of Palestinian who live their lives constantly under siege. One of the few bright lights that continues to shine for the Palestinians is football.
Just like much of the Arab world football is the number one sport in Palestine and because of this I decided to speak to respected blogger on Palestinian Football (www.footballpalestine.blogspot.com) and sometimes political issues, Bassil, to gain an insight of the issues the beautiful game faces in the country and also to learn a little bit about the domestic players and league.
Khanage: What is the top football club in Palestine and how do they compare to their counterparts in Europe? And also when compared to other Asian teams?
Bassil: This is a difficult question to answer. Traditionally speaking, the hotbed of footballing talent is Gaza but they have hadn't had a consistent, uninterrupted league for nearly a decade. Furthermore, the league in Gaza is essentially an amateur league. As far as the West Bank League is concerned, this is their first year as a professional league. There is a lot of parity, but before professionalization Shabab Al-Khaleel [Hebron] were the best team. At the current moment Hilal Al-Quds [Jerusalem] is the best team along with Al-Am'ary. I don't think there is any comparison, there is some raw talent there, but teams are devoid of resources. There are only 8 pitches in the entire West Bank!
Khanage: Who would you say are the top 3 Palestinian players playing in the Palestinian leagues? And why? (please state their positions also)
1- Ismail Amour (Jabal Al-Mokaber [Mount Scopus], RW, 26): Amour has a wealth of experience with the national team having been an ever-present for the better part of five years. The Gaza native is extremely quick and perhaps one of the most technical players in the history of Palestinian Football (since its rebirth in 1998, at least). In most national team games you can count on Ismail to penetrate into opposition territory and win a series of corners or send in crosses that lead to goal scoring opportunities.
2- Abdullah Saidawi (Hilal Al-Quds [Jerusalem], GK, 31)- A very capable goalkeeper with an imposing frame. He hasn't had a lot of opportunities to prove himself behind Ramzi Saleh who is the same age and has been the unquestioned starter since 2000. At the halfway point of the season, he is let in 5 goals in 11 games this season with a whopping 8 clean sheets. His form has attracted interest from Egyptian clubs Zamalek (he was there on trial in January) and Alexandria United but Hilal Al-Quds decided not to sell him.
3- Murad Alyan (Hilal Al-Quds [Jerusalem], FW, 33)- A very, very late bloomer... No one had heard of him before this season but then just started scoring goals. He has 12 in 11 games with Hilal Al-Quds, he's been so prolific that he forced National Team Manager Mousa Bezaz to call him up despite previously stating that the player was too old. He is a Palestinian citizen of Israel (what is commonly referred to as an Israeli-Arab) and has played football in the Israeli League for Beit Safafa and Hapoel Jerusalem.
Khanage: Which foreign players would you say have had the biggest influence on Palestinian domestic football?
Bassil: I can't really answer this question because there are almost no foreigners in the Palestinian League. Due to the Israeli occupation, foreigners can't remain in the West Bank for more than 3 months at a time. The Palestinian Authority really has no authority when it comes to issuing work permits and residency visas.
Khanage: Which foreign coach has had the biggest impact on domestic football in Palestine?
Bassil: Well, none have really had an effect on the league setup. The league was relaunched in 2008, before that the last time a full season was completed was in 1997. Since then, league football in the West Bank has continued uninterrupted and has become a professional league, with the league and cup winners being allowed to compete in AFC continental competitions (the third tier competition known as the President's Cup). This was made possible because the international community (with the blessing of the US) decided to flood the West Bank with aid money to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party.
To answer your question, I think two managers have had a profound effect on our national team. The first is Nicola Shahwan, A Chilean of Palestinian ancestry who brought in many South Americans of Palestinian ancestry into the fold such as: Pablo Abdala, Roberto Kettlun, Roberto Bishara, Edgardo Abdala, and Francisco Alam. He started the trend of looking beyond our borders and the Arab states for Palestinian footballing talent. He also got the team to play free flowing football which was a departure from our bunker-ball tactics of the past. The other manager that deserves credit is his successor, Alfred Riedl, who coached Vietnam at the 2007 Asian Cup and is currently in charge of the Indonesian National Team. Riedl built on a lot of Shahwan's work but he got the team to a point where they started to expect to win games and not just hope for it.
Khanage: Which foreign team has had the biggest impact on domestic football in Palestine?
Bassil: Like many other places in the world Palestine is divided into Barcelona supporters and Real Madrid supporters. The other big teams in England and Italy also have a decent following. You'll have no problem catching a Champions League game if you're ever in Palestine.
Khanage: Do you see Palestine playing in the Asia Cup anytime soon?
Bassil: With Palestine, you have to take into account our inability to host home games. I think we're every bit as good as Jordan, but if Jordan didn't collect 7 points from three games at home (their total point haul was 8) they wouldn't have qualified. I think this rings true for most teams in the region. Until that changes I can't see Palestine qualifying via the qualification tournament. I do think they have a very good chance of qualifying through the Challenge Cup, the route India and Korea DPR (somebody ask Bin Hammam how they're classified as a developing association) took to punch their tickets to Qatar 2011.
Khanage: Which is your most memorable match the Palestinian national team has played in?
Bassil: 2006 World Cup qualifier versus Iraq, in March of 2004, the match ended in a 1-1 draw and allowed us to go top of our qualification group (we had won our first game against Chinese Taipei 8-0). I remember sneaking out of class as a High School Senior going to the library and firing up a grainy stream to follow the proceedings. The team showed so much resolve against a much more talented side, every single one of those players gave 110% and Roberto Kettlun's second half free kick to equalize was a thing of beauty.
Khanage: Who is the most successful Palestinian footballer of all time?
Bassil: I would have to say our current captain and goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh is the greatest footballer we ever produced. He has been the undisputed starter since he was 19. His amazing saves kept us in so many games and although you don't hear his name mentioned he is undoubtedly one of the best goalkeepers in Asia. Ramzi was on trial with Sheffield United in 2005/06 but the deal fell through due to work permit issues. Three years later, he went from his tiny Gazan club- Shabab Jabaliya- to the biggest one in Africa and the Arab World. In his first season with the club, he didn't start a match until March but his commanding performances allowed a transitional Al-Ahly to win the league.
Khanage: Who are the top 3 Palestinians playing in foreign leagues?
Bassil: 1- Ramzi Saleh (GK)- He's currently unattached after deals with Zamalek and Harras El-Hodood of Egypt fell through. Both clubs raised concerns about an ACL injury Ramzi has played with since he was a teenager. In order to squash any concerns he will undergo surgery in Germany by the same team that operated on the ACL of Ahmad Hassan (Egypt's national team captain). He helped Al-Merreikh (Sudan) to the Sudanese Cup before demanding a release from his contract.
2- Roberto Bishara (CB/LB)- Bishara plays in the Chilean Primera for Palestino a club founded by Palestinian immigrants. He has appeared for the club over 300 times in the league and is a vice-captain. Will give his heart and soul for the team.
3- Abdelatif Bahdari (CB)- There are some that may disagree and choose to include one of our players that plays in Europe or South America. Bahdari plays in Jordan for Wehdat, when he arrived last year, he actually had to try out for the team. After 1 month with the club they were scrambling to tie him up for the long term. He is without a doubt a big reason why Wehdat are poised to win all four trophies in Jordan this year and make a serious assault on the AFC Cup. He's 6'1, comfortable on the ball, great in the air, and has a knack for scoring on set pieces. Zamalek of Egypt are reportedly interested in the player.
Khanage: How badly has the political situation in Palestine affected the football in the country?
Bassil: It is a struggle to even get a team to a location to play a match. We can't play official matches in Palestine, we play most of our matches in Qatar or Jordan. So we have to get our players from Europe and South America there (which is the easy part) and then hope Israel will let our players travel. There have been times where Israel has not allowed our players to leave. This logistical nightmare cost us dearly in our attempts to qualify for South Africa 2010. We fielded so many players that had literally just stepped off a plane hours ago and lost to Singapore in Doha 4-0 (this a team we beat 1-0 a year ago in an Asian Cup Qualifier). For the return leg, none of our players living inside of Palestine could travel, so we had to forfeit. There are many more examples: we only played 5 games instead of 6 in our Asian Cup qualifying group because of the same reason (the last match was a dead rubber against, Singapore so it was called off), we faced Uzbekistan in a game for first place in our 2006 WCQ group with a 14 man squad.
Israel also does more than just disrupt our travel. They have demolished some of our players homes, they also have killed four footballers (three died during the 2009 War on Gaza). There is no telling what we might have accomplished if we did not have to overcome these hurdles.
Khanage: Where do you see Palestinian football in ten years time?
Bassil: I can't answer that question because I simply don't know where we will be in 10 years as a people. I will continue to hope for the best, if there is one thing you can say about Palestinian football and its players it is that they are incredibly resilient. Most footballers today are more interested in money, fast cars, and their WAGs than the pride involved in representing their country. Palestine has no such problem, if there is a team on the pitch with a Palestine crest they will play with heart and passion for 90 minutes.
Following that discussion it does make you realise that there is a wider world out there and that there are bigger things than football. One of the striking things from that conversation with Bassil that has stuck with me is the suffering the people go through and continue to try their best to normalise their lives.
"They have demolished some of our players homes, they also have killed four footballers (three died during the 2009 War on Gaza). There is no telling what we might have accomplished if we did not have to overcome these hurdles."
The quote above puts things into perspective. The Palestinian players continue to play the sport they love despite the risks it entails. It's hard to imagine John Terry, Steven Gerrard or Joe Hart taking these risks even for the millions they earn every season. This clearly shows the strength and determination of the Palestinian people and hopefully one day this endurance will mean they are able to experience the peace and freedom we take for granted.