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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Contrasting football fortunes as Palestine reach all-time high and Israel slump to new low

Secure passage to the 2019 Asian Cup earns Palestine a move up to 82nd in the world rankings, while Israel find themselves down at No 98.

Palestine's players celebrate during their 10-0 victory over Bhutan. The win earned Palestine a place at the 2019 Asian Cup. Hazem Bader / AFP
Palestine's players celebrate during their 10-0 victory over Bhutan. The win earned Palestine a place at the 2019 Asian Cup. Hazem Bader / AFP

As boos were ringing around the Sammy Ofer stadium in Haifa on the first weekend of September, the Palestine national team were heading off on one of the long journeys that have become their way of life.

It is not so much the distances - although this expedition, an 11,000-kilometre round trip to Bhutan was true long-haul - but the nervous nudging through passport controls, checkpoints and borders, that makes being a player for Palestine unusually testing.

Still, they voyage with optimism these days. Palestine’s victory over Bhutan that weekend took them to verge of qualification – since sealed – for the next Asian Cup, to be held in UAE early in 2019, and it coincided with a new low for the Israel with whom they inevitably share a fraught and surreal sporting rivalry.

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In Haifa, Israel captain Eran Zahavi threw his armband to the ground after a humiliating home defeat to Macedonia, the gesture that drew punishment from his Football Association bosses, scorn from politicians and an announcement from Zahavi that he had had enough of playing for Israel, being booed by home fans, and representing a country who have just slipped to their lowest run on the Fifa rankings since those rankings came into existence.

Most pointedly, the 98th best country in the world are, for the first time, obliged to look upwards on the ladder at the national team of a country whose sovereignty is, to say the least, an issue for Israel.

Palestine, recognised by Fifa for just 20 years, have just reached their all-time high on the rankings - up to 82 on the back of their smooth progress to what will be their second Asian Cup. “What are they doing right that we are getting so wrong?” asked one Israeli newspaper.

It is certainly a poignant development, even a victory of sorts in a contest which is extremely unlikely to take place any time soon on a football pitch.

Israel are, for political reasons, part of Uefa, the European Confederation; Palestine are in the Asian block, and have anything but a close relationship in the so-called "football family" that Fifa likes to call itself.

The Palestine Federation has for the past three years been driving a motion to have Israel suspended by the world game’s governing body because Israeli-affiliated clubs continue to operate in West Bank settlements in defiance of Fifa regulations. Fifa voted in favour of Israel on the issue in October.

As for the Palestine national team, the glee that greeted the moment their rising elevator in the Fifa rankings passed the descending lift of Israel’s status comes with a reminder that Palestine might have achieved a good deal more had the political and military conflict not directly affected the progress of the Palestinian team.

“They did everything to see us fail,” the president of the Palestinian Football Federation told the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

There was the case of striker Sameh Maraaba, arrested and detained by Israeli security forces alleging he was co-operating with Hamas after he met with a Palestinian with links to Hamas while on a training camp in Qatar.

Maraaba explained the meeting was to do with funds to support a Palestinian club. His detention prevented his going to the 2015 Asian Cup. Palestine, who lost all their group matches at the tournament, missed him. Maaraba is a figurehead for the team and scored four goals in their last outing, an 8-1 thrashing of the Maldives.

Travel restrictions imposed at the Israeli border have prevented players participating in Palestine games several times, and, as the Federation looks to the large Palestinian diaspora - and players from South America to Scandinavia with Palestinian heritage - to strengthen the squad, it has to patiently explain to young men unused to the hassles and dangers of daily life in the region that the circumstances they train and play in may be subject to last-minute change.

Saudi Arabia’s fixture away to Palestine in 2018 World Cup qualifying was switched to Jordan amid security concerns, at barely two days’ notice.

Palestine finished beneath Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their qualifying group, but their record since that campaign ended has been encouraging.

The manager, Abdel Nasser Barakat has overseen seven wins in seven games in 2017. The contrast with Israel - allbeit the Israel whose obstacles in World Cup qualifying included Spain and Italy - is telling: Israel’s last seven competitive games read as one win and five defeats, including at home to Macedonia and Albania.

Israeli clubs are not close to a competitive peak either. Come Thursday, the two in the Europa League will exit that competition, both already eliminated, prompting concerns the Israeli league will slip out of the top 20 of Uefa’s club-coefficient ladder.

That’s a ranking that, like Fifa’s, can define a football nation’s self-esteem.

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