Palestine jumps big hurdles to reach FIFA Arab tourney in Qatar

The organisers of the FIFA Arab Cup which is to be held in Qatar from November 30 to December 18, are sparing no efforts to make the event a grand success. That is because it will be a trial run for the much bigger event, namely the FIFA World Cup, which is scheduled to be held at the same venue in 2022. The shining trophy was unveiled at a special ceremony recently and it will be prominently displayed. The trophy has a solid gold base and depicts a map of the Arab countries on it.

A total of 16 teams from different Arab nations will take part in the tournament. The venues for the Arab Cup matches include the Al Bayt Stadium, Al Janoub Stadium, Stadium 974, Al Thumama Stadium, Education City Stadium, Khalifa International Stadium and the Ahmed Bin Ali stadium. The largest of these is the Al Bayt stadium with a capacity of 60,000 spectators while the remaining can accommodate between 45,000 and 40,000 people.

One of the teams among the qualifiers is Palestine which defeated Comoros 5-1 in the qualifying stage.  The match which was played at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha saw an excellent performance from the Palestine team. The goal scorers were Layth Kharoub, Oday Dabbagh, Tamer Seyam (two goals) and Islam Batran. For Comoros the solitary scorer was Moussa.

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In the final phase, Palestine has been placed in Group C along with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco (A). What has been especially encouraging is the fact that the Palestine team nicknamed “Lions of Canaan” has overcome many hurdles along the way. Palestine has never qualified for the World Cup but the team has given a victorious performance in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. The team’s biggest drawback is that there are not enough grounds to play and practice on. The main venue is the Faisal Al-Husseini international stadium but on many occasions, the players have been compelled to play at neutral venues due to political reasons.

It has been an uphill struggle all the way for this beleaguered nation. First of all, FIFA was unwilling to grant it recognition when Palestine first applied in 1925. In the 1965 Pan Arab Games, Palestine finished fourth in football. That showed that the small nation had talent in plenty. In 1998 there was a breakthrough when FIFA at last granted membership to Palestine. With the help of FIFA, it built the Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium in 2008 and hosted its first match which was against Jordan. The occasion saw the presence of FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

Even after that, the going has not been smooth. In the past, several players have been imprisoned on false charges, harassed and hampered in every way. But the teams fought on bravely. On many occasions, the players were not given travel permission and could not take part in tournaments. Because of travel restrictions placed on the people of Gaza and the West Bank, the team has had to depend on Palestinian diaspora living elsewhere.

Earlier, many players faced persecution. Ziyad Al-Kord was prevented from travelling and his house was destroyed. Tariq Al Quto was killed by the Israel Defence Forces. In 2009 three footballers–Ayman Alkhurd, Shadi Sbhake and Wajeh Moshtahe–were among the casualties of conflict with Israel. Having overcome all these challenges, Palestine has now got the chance to showcase its merit in the Arab Cup. One hopes they will do well.

Some big personalities of international football will be in action at the Arab Cup. One such well-known person is Carlos Queiroz of Portugal who is the coach of Egypt. He served at Manchester United as assistant manager to Sir Alex Ferguson and he has coached Portugal, Iran and Real Madrid. His squad Egypt is among the top teams in the fray along with Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Iraq.

The host team of Qatar has been preparing very hard and has been playing in practice matches against strong teams in Europe. But the most formidable teams in the fray are Egypt, Algeria and Iraq which has won the Arab Cup four times and Morocco which will defend its title this time.

For the next few weeks, the eyes of the football fraternity from all over the world will be focussed on the progress of the teams in the FIFA Arab Cup. Many things depend upon the outcome and it is not just a question of which team will win. Also at stake is the ability of Qatar to organise a FIFA tournament on a large scale and do it with perfect precision.

Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.

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