The Palestinian national soccer team: A story of resilience

Graphic by Carleen Loney // @Shloneys

Palestine’s dream at the AFC Asian Cup ends in the round of 16.

On Tuesday, Jan. 23, the Palestinian national soccer team made history in Qatar just 1,800 km from Gaza, bringing some positive energy to a country ravaged by a war that has seen the death of over 25,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7.

Under the lights in Doha, Palestine scored three goals against Hong Kong to capture their first-ever victory in an AFC Asian Cup match. This win, coupled with a 1-1 draw obtained against the United Arab Emirates five days prior, meant that Palestine also qualified for the Asian Cup knockout stage for the first time in their history.

Sara, whose last name was withheld at her request, is originally from Gaza but now lives in Montreal with her immediate family. 

After witnessing the horrors happening in the Gaza Strip and knowing some of her family is there, she expressed some desolation toward the participation of Israeli athletes in international sports competitions. A ban on Israeli athletes would not have been an unprecedented measure. For example, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sporting federations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) banned Russia from participating in sporting events. Although these bans have been partly lifted since, neither the IOC nor FIFA have done the same for Israel.

When she was younger, Sara never expected to see her country represented at the big sporting events. In that sense, she believes the Palestinian national team’s achievements exemplify the Palestinian people’s resilience. “Whenever you see a Palestinian, know that they have worked 1,000 times harder to be where they are today,” she said. 

Some Palestinians are writers, some are journalists, some are poets, and some are soccer players, but they all fight to represent their country, she explained. If she’d had the opportunity to speak with the players and tell them one thing before their round of 16 match against Qatar, it would have been to play as if they were fighting for their lives. 

And fight they did. It was always going to be a hard task for Palestine, who had to face Qatar, the reigning Asian Cup champion and host of the tournament. Despite being the underdog, it was Palestine who would strike first in the 37th minute. After a clever interception by Zaid Qunbar, striker Oday Dabbagh scored his third goal of the tournament with a well-placed shot in the bottom right corner. However, two Qatari goals, one just before and after halftime, would ultimately deny Palestine of an even more historic run in the AFC Asian Cup.

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