Anguished joy; ‘nothing impossible -’Palestinian national soccer team on Asian Cup adventure

Eoin McSweeney, CNN | 1/29/2024, 8:27 a.m.
As the echoes of the final whistle rang out around the Abdullah bin Khalifa stadium in Doha, Qatar, Palestinian players …
Mohammed Rashid of the Palestinian soccer team and Mohammad Mohebbi of Iran compete for the ball during the AFC Asian Cup Group C match between Iran and Palestine at Education City Stadium on January 14 in Al Rayyan, Qatar. Mandatory Credit: Masashi Hara/Getty Images

As the echoes of the final whistle rang out around the Abdullah bin Khalifa stadium in Doha, Qatar, Palestinian players celebrated with anguished joy last week.

Midfielder Oday Kharoub, draped in a Palestinian flag, pointed to the number 110 scrawled in red on his forearm, a reference to the number of days since Israel began its assault on Gaza after Hamas’ attacks on October 7. Goalkeeper Rami Hamada waved to fans to thank them for showing support in such a dark time for Palestinians.

Defender Mohamed Saleh, who hails from Gaza and has lost family members during the conflict, fell to his knees and pointed to the sky in defiant gratitude. He was soon seen sobbing and kneeling on the ground, his face buried in the grass.

The players’ reactions were more than understandable given the Palestinian national soccer team had just reached the knockout stages of the AFC Asian Cup for the first time after beating Hong Kong 3-0 on January 23 in their Group C match.

The historic sporting moment for Palestinians comes as Israel’s war against Hamas rages in Gaza, causing widespread destruction and initiating a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

“It’s a very honorable accomplishment for all of us. Not only all of us as players, all of us as a country, as people, as Palestinian people,” midfielder Mohammed Rashid told CNN’s Eleni Giokos last week. “I think we needed this joy; we needed this happiness for everyone.”

The victory against Hong Kong, the Palestinian team’s first ever at the Asian Cup, confirmed its spot in the round of 16 as one of the four best third-placed teams, where the squad will face host Qatar.

The team’s reception in Doha has been warm, with many in the stands waving Palestinian flags or holding up keffiyeh scarves to show their support.

In the team’s first game against Iran, a moment of silence was observed, while a chorus of, “Free Palestine!” was heard during the game.

“We’re not only playing for Palestinians in Palestine, we play for Palestinians all over the world and we play for everyone who supports us as Palestinians,” said Rashid.

Playing under the shadow of war

In southern Gaza, the Israeli military campaign is intensifying, with more than 26,000 Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian Ministry of Health. The Palestinian Football Association says that, as of December 6, 55 football players are amongst the dead, including amateur and youth members.

Some Palestinian national team footballers, like Saleh, have reportedly lost family members or have relatives and friends trapped in Gaza.

Rashid told CNN about the difficulties of playing while not knowing what’s happening at home.

“It’s hard for them to know the situation of their families in Gaza; it’s hard to contact them,” said Rashid.

“One of our players, the center back Mohammed Saleh, has been having a hard time trying to get to his family in Gaza because there’s no telecoms, there’s nothing … This is why Mohamed Saleh after the game burst out in tears – because he goes out on a pitch to play for his family’s name specifically.”

Rashid was born and raised in Ramallah in the West Bank, where there’s been an uptick of violence from Israeli settlers in recent years, while at the same time, Israel increases constraints on the movements of Palestinians.

“I tried to go back after my last game. I was thinking about it. Actually, my wife and my family told me it’s better not to [go] because they’re putting a lot of restrictions on the people to go out,” said Rashid.

“They’ve been going into my neighborhood, and, you know, in the middle of the night shooting around, taking in prisoners.”

You have to treat everybody equal’

In the aftermath of Russia’s war in Ukraine, world governing body FIFA and its European equivalent UEFA moved quickly to suspend all Russian international and club teams from competitions.

While FIFA President Gianni Infantino offered his condolences over the “horrendous violence” in a letter to the Palestinian Football Association in the wake of Hamas’ October 7 attacks, Rashid questioned why the sport’s governing body has taken no concrete steps to sanction Israel since it began its relentless bombardment of Gaza.

While playing for his club team, Indonesian side Persib Bandung, Rashid declined to take a photograph with a FIFA anti-war banner in refence to the war in Ukraine, according to Arab News.

He believes it’s hypocritical of FIFA to strongly oppose one war while another is ongoing in his home country.

“It’s very clear that you have to treat everybody equal. And you cannot treat Ukraine differently than Palestine when the war happened between them and Russia,” Rashid told CNN. “At the end of the day, we’re all human beings, we’re all born with two legs, two arms.”

He called for FIFA to act on what’s happening in Gaza because the organization was “very fast to respond to Russia.”

“How many more lives have to be lost for them to take action … and push [for] a ceasefire?” he asked.

CNN has offered FIFA the opportunity to comment on Rashid’s remarks.

Israel has consistently said its war is not against the Palestinian people but against Hamas, which launched a bloody attack on Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostages. More than 130 October 7 hostages remain in Gaza, Israeli authorities believe.

For Rashid, Saleh and the rest of the Palestinian team, Monday’s last-16 knockout match against Qatar has become more than a game because, off the pitch, their fellow Palestinians are surrounded by war; caught in the middle of Israel’s overwhelming military force.

Looking back on the pitch, Rashid is confident the team can beat Qatar and progress further in the tournament, delivering some welcome respite to those at home.

“It’s clear that in football, nothing is impossible,” he concluded. “At the end of the day, you just have to play with … integrity, everything that you can be on the field. That’s my message to the world.”