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Amid Gaza's destruction, Palestinian national team keeps dreaming of the World Cup
As Gaza faces genocide, the Palestinian national team's dream of reaching a first World Cup lives on.
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On Oct. 12—five days after Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on Israel, killing at least 1400 people and taking more than 240 hostages—Khalil Jadallah, a Palestinian football commentator and analyst, put together a starting XI of Palestinian football players who have been killed by Israeli forces.
“Palestinians today make up a whole football team of martyrs,” Jadallah said on social media.
The 33-year-old commentator went on to list some of the names: Rashid Dabour, the 28-year-old who played defence for Al-Ahli Beit Hanoon until he was killed in an air strike on Oct. 10, and Shadi Sabah, who died with his entire family when his building was bombed.
Other athletes among the confirmed dead include 21-year-old Ahmad Awed, who represented Palestine’s national football team for dwarfism, and Nazir al-Nashash, a young aspiring Palestinian footballer, was killed along with his father and uncle after an Israeli missile struck their home.
Meanwhile, Mohammed Maree Sawafta, a 19-year-old midfielder who played for Markaz Balata in the West Bank, was killed by Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces during a protest in his hometown of Tubas, near Nablus, on Oct. 27.
Other athletes narrowly escaped death. Shab Rafah footballer Mohammed El Rekhawi was pulled from the rubble of his home after it was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Photographs showed the 38-year-old emerge bloodied and in a pair of Shab Rafah shorts.
Israel’s attacks on Gaza have continued to intensify since then. On Monday, the Ministry of Health in Gaza reported more than 10,000 people killed — most of them women and children — in the besieged territory. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres referred to Gaza as a “graveyard for children,” emphasizing his demand for a ceasefire.
"Ground operations by the Israel Defense Forces and continued bombardment are hitting civilians, hospitals, refugee camps, mosques, churches and U.N. facilities – including shelters. No one is safe," Guterres told reporters Monday.
Yet as the spectre of genocide looms over Gaza, the Palestinian national team’s dreams of qualifying for the 2026 World Cup live on.
Qualification for the upcoming World Cup is set to begin this month against Lebanon (Nov. 16) and Australia (Nov 21). Given the current wartime circumstances, the Lebanon match will take place in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, while the Australia qualifier will take place in Kuwait.
The entire 20-man Palestinian squad has been able to leave the country after receiving assistance from Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, the president of the Jordan Football Association, who helped open the border between the West Bank and Jordan to all the team safe passage.
The team is now training in Jordan with the hopes of being able to secure one of the eight spots reserved for Asian teams in the expanded 2026 World Cup. If they are successful in the lengthy qualifying campaign, it would mark Palestine’s first ever appearance at a World Cup.
Palestine’s football history dates back almost 100 years. The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) was established in 1928. However, over time, it underwent a transformation into an exclusively Jewish organization and subsequently changed its name to the Israel Football Association in 1948, coinciding with the establishment of the State of Israel.
Although Palestine's national teams existed in the following decades, it wasn't until 1998—exactly 50 years following the Nakba, the violent mass displacement and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war—that Palestine achieved full FIFA membership.
Over the course of its 25-year history, Palestinian football has withstood the challenges posed by Israel’s deepening occupation, as well as four consecutive wars with Gaza. This was especially evident in 2014, when the Palestinian team won its first major trophy when it claimed the AFC Challenge Cup. Two months later, Gaza was once again at war with Israel.
Much of the Palestine team’s success occurred in spite of the significant restrictions imposed by Israel. For example, Gaza has been under a blockade by Israel and Egypt since 2007, making it exceptionally difficult for players from Gaza to travel. The team has also faced travel restrictions and difficulties with crossing borders to take part in qualifying competitions. In some cases, they have had to cancel or forfeit matches.
Most recently, the team has had to pull out from the Merdeka Tournament in Malaysia due to the ongoing war.
Nevertheless, the Palestinian team appears to be improving despite the odds. In June 2022, the team qualified for their third consecutive AFC Asian Cup after beating Mongolia, Yemen and Philippines without conceding a goal. The team defeated Bahrain in a friendly earlier this year but has since lost its three most recent friendlies to China, Oman, and Vietnam.
Football was once a symbol of pride and hope for the Palestinian people. Yet as Palestine's national team takes to the field in an attempt to secure the dream of participating in a World Cup, they do so while bearing the weight of a mounting death toll and the loss of fellow footballers on their shoulders.
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