Arts, Culture & Media

Team Palestine Takes on Afghanistan in World Cup Qualifier

The 2014 World Cup football tournament — to be hosted by Brazil — is a long way off yet, but fans of the Palestinian national soccer team already have something to celebrate.

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Team Palestine played its first World Cup qualification match at home on Sunday.

The 1-1 draw against Afghanistan was mildly disappointing to some of the fans. It was still enough for Palestine to advance to the next stage of the World Cup.

The Palestinian national soccer team has been competing internationally for more than a decade. Past games though have been played outside of the Palestinian territories.

This time, the Palestinian national anthem played, national flags waved and the crowd chanted throughout, "Fah-lah-steen!"

To many people in attendance, it was much more than just a soccer game.

Jabril Rajoub, a veteran Palestinian official and the head of the Palestinian Football Federation, was standing on the sidelines before the opening kickoff.

"Through sport, through football, we are making our state for the future of our kids, our sons and our grandsons," Rajoub said.

Admission to the game was free. About 7,000 home team fans at Faisal Al Husseini stadium in Al Ram, a Palestinian town just north of Jerusalem. A tall concrete wall divides the town from Israel, which is just a couple of hundred yards from the stadium.

Back in 1934, under the British mandate, a previous incarnation of Palestine's national team competed for World Cup glory. Jews and Arabs played together on that Palestine team. It's a very different time now, said Atallah Najjar, editor-in-chief of a magazine called Palestinian Sport.

"The Palestinian people are struggling for a country of their own," Najjar said. "The national soccer team is a symbol of that struggle."

Palestine scored the first goal on Sunday. But Afghanistan never went away. The visiting team answered with a goal of their own in the second half and the Palestinian fans clapped politely.

The game ended in a 1-1 tie.

The Afghan coach — Yusef Kargar — said he wasn't aware of any Afghan supporters in the crowd.

Speaking through a translator after the game, Kargar said there's a real advantage when playing in front of your own fans. Afghanistan hosted Palestine in neighboring Tajikistan because of the security situation in Kabul.

But Kargar went on to thank his Palestinian hosts.

"It's a lovely country," he said. When the Afghan team gets home, Kargar said, "we will tell the people how lovely the country is and how beautiful."

"There is no fight and there is peace and love."

For one of the Palestinian players, Sunday's game in the West Bank was also an opportunity to visit Palestinian territory for the very first time.

Omar Jarun is a Palestinian-American who grew up in Peachtree, Georgia. He plays professional soccer in Tampa, Florida.

Jarun said to "play in front of this crowd was unbelievable, they're cheering the whole time. It's just like European football."

Palestinians, he said, "have so much pride and it's just awesome to see [it] in their face[s]."

"It means a lot to me to play in front of Palestinians."

Palestine is ranked 167th out of 203 World Cup contenders. By advancing past Afghanistan, the Palestinian national team faces Thailand next.

None of the fans I spoke with are talking about a miracle in 2014. Not yet, at least.

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    Palestinian players warming up before their home game against Afghanistan. (photo: Matthew Bell)

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    Palestinian players warming up before their home game against Afghanistan.