Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 November 2019

Gazan football fans optimistic as Palestine wins historic first point in Asian cup

Sunday's scoreless draw against Syria is an encouraging sign, Palestinian fans believe

Palestinian football fans in Gaza watch Palestine play Syria in the Asian Cup on Sunday January 6 2018. Mustafa Majed for The National
Palestinian football fans in Gaza watch Palestine play Syria in the Asian Cup on Sunday January 6 2018. Mustafa Majed for The National

Saeb Jendia knows the Palestinian football team’s odds at the 2019 Asian Cup better than most.

The 44-year-old is a former Palestinian national player and coach, and were he born in another country, he says he would have been right there in the stands of Al Sharjah Stadium to cheer on his beloved team taking on Syria in their first game of the tournament.

The sell-out game was the hottest ticket in the first round of the tournament, with huge expatriate communities of Syrians and Palestinians expected to fill all 11,073 seats in Sharjah’s stands.

But as Alfeda'I – as the Palestinian team is known to its fans – warmed up before the game on Sunday evening, Mr Jendia was over 2,100 kilometres away, watching the action on a big screen in the heart of Gaza City. The political and economic conditions in the besieged enclave make it all but impossible for any of Gaza’s 1.8 million to travel abroad, even with their national team hoping to make history.

“I have been waiting for Alfeda'I to play their first game in this cup for a long time," said Mr Jendia.

In the event many of the seats in Sharjah were empty as the teams ran onto the pitch, but in the indoor sports arena in Gaza that had been converted into an impromptu fan headquarters, the atmosphere was electric. Near to Mr Jendia, 33-year-old father Atef Abu Hassera waved a Palestinian flag aloft as his five-year-old son cheered.

"We came here to raise the Palestinian flag and cheer the Palestinian team in this cup, it’s very important to us," said Mr AbuHassera.

As the referee blew the starting whistle, the hundreds of Alfeda'I fans in the Gazan hall sang their team chants to the beat of a deep bass drum.

Palestinian supporters cheer their team on during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Group B football match taking place in Sharjah between Syria and Palestine in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 6, 2019. / AFP / ABBAS MOMANI
Palestinian supporters cheer their team on during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Group B football match taking place in Sharjah between Syria and Palestine in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 6, 2019. / AFP / ABBAS MOMANI

This 2019 tournament is just the second year Palestine has been among the 24 qualifying teams, but going into the match Syria was strongly favoured to win. Palestine first qualified for the Asian Cup in 2015, but went home pointless after scoring only one goal and conceding 11.

This year, Group B will be another tough pool, Mr Jendia predicted. “But to win is not impossible.”

After playing Syria, Alfeda'I will face Australia, and finally Jordan, who last time sent them packing in a crushing 5-1 defeat. But for the past month, the team has been training together in Qatar, with their numbers boosted by a number of high-profile expatriate players, including Chileans Alexis Norambuena, Yashir Pinto and Jonathan Zorrilla Cantillana.

“The players have gained enough experience to qualify them to play in such a tournament,” Mr Jendia said of their pre-tournament preparations.

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Once play was under way though, Syria maintained possession for long periods of the game, and when Palestine’s Mohamed Saleh received a red card, Alfeda'I were a man short and feeling the pressure.

Palestine though remained steadfast, holding Syria to a scoreless draw. Both teams took home a point apiece, Palestine’s first ever in the tournament, which left the fans in the Gazan sports arena cheering long after the final whistle.

As the celebrations died down, Mr Jendia assessed the team’s performance as satisfactory. “This result will be encouraging to the team in their next match,” he said.

Updated: January 7, 2019 05:54 PM

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