Palestine are confident of a revival in their footballing fortunes after making history by defeating Kuwait for the first time.
Sameh Maraaba headed the only goal of Monday night’s friendly at Kuwait City’s Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium with 19 minutes remaining, and despite pressure from the 1980 Asian champions, the visitors saw the game out.
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This was a welcome and morale-boosting victory ahead of major 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers coming up against Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Singapore.
“It is a huge result for the confidence of the nation,” Palestine international Nazmi Albadawi told Arab News. “It shows the character of the team. We have a good side. I am 29 and one of the older ones. We are young and hungry.”
Desperate to bounce back after mixed results in qualification for the 2022 World Cup, Palestine’s road to Qatar started excellently with an impressive win over Uzbekistan.
In October 2019, the team held regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia to a 0-0 draw in front of a vocal home crowd.
“Saudi Arabia are one of the best teams in Asia and we dominated them,” Albadawi added. “We could have won and we left the field disappointed that we didn’t.”
That has not been the biggest disappointment. Despite the Saudi draw and the Uzbekistan victory, Palestine, ranked 102 in the world, were beaten by Yemen and Singapore.
“We should not have lost those games. The biggest thing for us is consistency. We play well against the big teams. We have drawn against Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and China and beaten Uzbekistan, but now it is about getting results we need against teams we are supposed to beat.”
Sort out the inconsistency and the future looks better. Finishing in the top two of Group D and progressing to the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup already looks to be out of reach, but a top three spot and a place in the final
qualification stages for the 2023 Asian Cup is a realistic objective.
“That is what we are aiming for now. We play both Yemen and Singapore at home and these are games we need to win,” added the midfielder.
Player and coach are very much on the same page. Noureddine Ould Ali was without some players for the trip to Kuwait that included a training camp as well as the game, but said that he was satisfied with the performance.
“It was important to get together and play for the first time in a long time,” the Algerian coach said. “We have to try to prepare for qualification for the Asian Cup and we kept to our game plan against a good team. We kept our shape well and managed to get the win.”
Ould Ali said that while the performance was more important than the result, to get a win at the home of a traditional Asian power was satisfying.
“We can take confidence from this win and build on it,” the 48 year-old said. “We have to take this forward to the next games and keep improving.”
It is easier said than done. Palestine face challenges that other teams do not. Local players are frequently delayed at the Israeli-controlled border checkpoints when leaving and returning to the country.
Being based in the US and playing for North Carolina, Albadawi can come and go much more easily.
“When flying in, I can go straight to Jordan and then travel in from there. There are Israeli soldiers who ask questions. It has not been too bad for me, but some of my team-mates can spend hours with the security measures, which makes it difficult. Inside the West Bank it is not too bad, but sometimes we have to go through checkpoints just to get to the stadiums.
“Leaving the country for away games, it is different. The local players leave 24 hours before us to make sure that they can get to where we are going on time. We can go straight to Jordan, but it is exhausting for them. It is so impressive how they don’t complain, it is inspiring to see them.”
The coronavirus pandemic does not make any of this easier. Palestine has been hit hard by the virus, with over 150,000 cases and almost 2,000 deaths recorded.
“Palestine is in the midst of a third wave,” said Football Palestine journalist Bassil Mikdadi. “There is big concern in Gaza because it is so densely populated. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that Israel has refused to make the vaccine available for Palestinians.”
Despite all that, the local league managed to finish the season in 2020 and is well on the way this season. In Palestine at the best of times, football can seem inconsequential, but now, more than ever, the national team can bring hope to the nation. More results like Monday’s win in Kuwait will go down very well.
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