فلسطين / Filasṭīn / Palestine
- Capital: Jerusalem / القُدس
- Official Languages: Arabic
- Nicknames: أسود كنعان (Lions of Canaan), الفدائيون (The Fedayeen), الفرسان (The Knights)
- Association: Palestinian Football Association (PFA) / الاتحاد الفلسطيني لكرة القدم
- FIFA Code: PLE
- Best World Cup Result (Men): Not Qualified
- Best World Cup Result (Women): Not Qualified
- Best Asian Cup Result (Men): Group Stage (2015, 2019)
- Best Asian Cup Result (Women): Not Qualified
- Best AFC Challenge Cup Result (Men): WINNERS (2014)
- Best WAFF Championship Result (Men): Group Stage (7 times)
- Best WAFF Championship Result (Women): Runners-Up (2014)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Men): 73rd (February-March 2018)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Women): 86th (December 2017)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Men): 191st (April-August 1999)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Women): 116th (September 2019)
- Most Capped Player: Abdelatif Bahdari – 71 caps [as of Feb 2021]
- Top Scorer: Fahed Attal – 16 goals
The West Asian country of the State of Palestine (as it’s officially known) is situated in the southwestern corner of the Levant, comprising of the larger eastern part of the West Bank and the smaller easten part of the Gaza Strip. Football has been played in Palestine as early as 1928 during the British Mandatory Palestine phase, however the current Palestinian FA was formed in 1962 and became a member of the Union of Arab Football Associations in 1974. It was take a lot longer for the country’s FA to become full members of both AFC and FIFA, becoming a provisional members in 1995 before finally becoming full members of both football organisations in 1998.
Palestine is going through a rather successful period in regards to their football results by firstly winning the AFC Challenge Cup in 2014, which enabled them qualification for their first ever Asian Cup in 2015. Alas comprising of a group with Japan, Iraq and Jordan, the Fedayeen came away with three losses, but obtained crucial experience which enabled them to qualify for the most recent Asian Cup in 2019. Even though they failed to progress to the knockout stage, they achieved draws against Syria and Jordan to earn their first points in their Asian Cup history. For the 2022 World Cup qualifying draw, Palestine were seeded as the 17th best team in Asia, and thus a ‘third seed’ side in the draw. Sadly they are currently struggling in their qualifying group. Palestine have only won one of their five group games so far and are currently situated bottom of their group with four points, albeit just five points adrift from top side Uzbekistan whom they beat 2-0 at the start of the campaign.
Talking about the side who have qualified for the past two Asian Cups in 2015 and 2019, we interviewed the excellent Football Palestine. Football Palestine provides coverage on the Palestinian national team, the West Bank Premier League (WBPL), Palestinian players playing abroad, as well as streaming live content via their Twitch account. To find their social media accounts, website, and Twitch account, follow the links below:
- Twitter: @FutbolPalestine
- Website: https://footballpalestine.com/
- Twitch: https://www.twitch.tv/futbolpalestine
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/futbolpalestine
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/futbolpalestine/
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/FootballPalestineBlogspot
Q. Who would you say is your country’s best player and coach/manager of all-time, and the reasonings behind the choices?
ّI don’t think there is consensus on a best-ever manager or a best-ever player, so forgive me for putting forth multiple candidates. Palestine would never have reached the heights they climbed without Azmi Nassar who took the reins of Palestine a year after they were admitted to FIFA in 1998. Nassar led the team to a third place finish at the 1999 Pan Arab Games, a run that included wins over Qatar and UAE, as well as draws against Libya and Syria. Nassar came back in 2005 to lead a new generation of players but sadly succumbed to cancer less than two years into his tenure at the age of 50. Nassar did not have the best winning percentage but his influence on football in Palestine is undeniable. When Nassar passed, the national team went into a tailspin, failing to record a win for four years; a wretched stretch that generated a meager six goals.
That said, things did pick up in late 2011 when Jamal Mahmoud arrived and rejuvenated the team working against a Football Association that was disinterested at best, and downright malicious at times. Weeks after taking the helm he put together a team that finished fourth at the 2011 Pan Arab Games and less than three years later qualified Palestine for the 2015 Asian Cup. This was despite the fact that the FA had refused to organize any international friendlies for six months leading up to the qualifying tournament. The atmosphere within the FA was downright toxic, in leaner times Palestine would still be able to afford training kits for the players, but during that time, the FA was refusing to spend any money on the team, and players would show up in their own kit and do their own laundry! In fact, just before the team was set to compete in the final phase of qualifying, the General Secretary Abdul Majid Hijjeh referred to the national team in a public setting as “the national team of seven socks” a colloquial Arabic expression to refer to disorganization and amateurishness. He was the first in line to congratulate the team upon their triumphant return and remains in charge to this day.
Unfortunately, success did not earn Jamal Mahmoud the respect of the FA and he resigned before he could lead out the team at the Asian Cup Finals at Australia 2015. Without qualifying for the Asian Cup our reality would be completely different and we would most likely not be on an upward trajectory.
As for players, there are a lot of players that did amazing things before Palestine finally got FIFA to recognize them in 1998. Before FIFA affiliation, Palestine competed in tournaments such as the Arab Nations Cup and the Pan Arab Games. A generation of players in the 1960s did quite well for themselves playing for two of the biggest teams in Egypt and on the African continent- Al-Ahly and Zamalek (Marwan Kanafani, Hosam Al-Samari, Faisal Bibi, Abdelkader Shaib, and Fouad Abu Ghaida, to name a few). A member of that generation, Ibrahim Mughrabi became the first foreign player to play in the Greek Top Division playing for AEK Athens between 1962 and 1963.
That said, I think only the most ardent (and oldest) of Palestinian Football fans will be able to recall the names of the team that finished fourth at the 1965 Pan Arab Games.
This might be a case of recency bias but I think the best player is Abdelatif Bahdari as he does own several national team records (most caps, most starts, 6th most goals scored, oldest player to ever play for the national team) and he was a key player at key moments. He was a critical factor in Palestine qualifying for the 2015 and 2019 Asian Cups. He helped keep two clean sheets at the 2019 Asian Cup Finals.
His success abroad also helped pave the road for his younger countrymen. Bahdari is perhaps the best foreign player ever to play in the Jordanian League and he parlayed that success into two seasons in the Saudi top tier, a season in the Iraqi top tier, and a season in the Egyptian Premier League.
Bahdari got this far on the strength of his own conviction and character, and one would think if his talent had been nurtured a little earlier in his career he could have gone onto play in a big European league. That might seem like a hyperbole but one just needs to look at the tape of a 35 year old Abdelatif Bahdari shutting down Omar Al-Somah at the Asian Cup or completely crushing Genoa’s Eldor Shomurodov in World Cup qualifying to get a sense of his quality.
Q. Who could be regarded as a ‘cult hero’ in terms of the national team both in the past and present?
So I think Palestine’s cult hero is Ashraf Nu’man. It might be a strange choice as many would consider him one of Palestine’s best players, and for a very short period of time he was. Nu’man’s first cap came in 2008, when he was 22, and he was… okay. The type of player Palestine produces in spades; super technical, great dribbler, but not the best finisher, nor the best decision-maker on the pitch. Then Jamal Mahmoud arrived and he instantly transformed into one of Asia’s best players. He scored crazy goals from outside the box, burned defenses, won fouls in key areas, and set up chances for his teammates. In fact, if we take into account three goals he scored in games that were struck from FIFA’s record (a 4-1 loss versus Jordan in the 2011 Pan Arab Games, a 2-0 friendly win over Azerbaijan, and a 2-0 friendly win over Malaysia) Ashraf Nu’man is the national team’s record goalscorer.
That said, it almost seemed as if his powers instantly diminished the moment Jamal Mahmoud left his post. He had 13 caps and no goals before Jamal Mahmoud arrived, then scored 14 goal (11 official) in 29 games (26 official) with Mahmoud, before scoring just once in ten games after that.
Ashraf Nu’man put this team on his back and qualified them for the 2015 Asian Cup, he had a hand in every goal the national team scored in the qualifying tournament, including a free kick goal versus Philippines that clinched qualification.
He was never the same player after 2014. At the Asian Cup finals, he missed a sitter against Iraq that would have leveled the score at 1-1. Nine months later in a 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia in a crucial World Cup qualifier he missed a nearly identical chance.
Despite his level plummeting dramatically and being seen as a wasted talent, there is not a single fan out there that doesn’t look back on Ashraf Nu’man’s career with fondness. THAT Goal versus Philippines will live on forever as well, as I mentioned earlier it changed Palestinian Football dramatically. Although, I think he could have played in bigger and better leagues (he was once regarded as the best player in Saudi Arabia not playing for one of the ‘Big 5’ – Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli) I do not look back in anger at anything Ashraf Nu’man did or didn’t do. He’s a legend.
Q. Of the current team, who would you say is the best player from Palestine currently?
There are a lot to choose from. The one player that is the most ready to play in Europe is Abdallah Jaber, who has quietly been one of the best left-backs in Asia. The addition of Nazmi Albadawi, who plays in the USL for North Carolina FC, has also made us a better attacking outfit as he can really thread a pass and creates a ton of chances for the forwards.
That said, there is one kid who I am certain will break all the records and is already a key player for the national team. Oday Dabbagh. He only just turned 22 and is already in his second season in the Kuwaiti League where he has been a very effective attacker. The Jerusalemite’s stats do not lie. He was the top scorer of the West Bank Premier League twice before, and scored 52 goals in Palestinian football before turning 21. Despite some injuries he still has managed to rack up 13 goals in Kuwaiti football. All in all, since turning professional, Dabbagh has scored 87 goals for his club and the national/olympic teams. He has more goals to his name than Jordan’s Musa Al-Tamari, who is 18 months older and already in Europe. He also is way ahead, in terms of development, than the Kuwaiti League’s most successful export, the Syrian striker Omar Al-Somah, who is now the all-time top scorer in the Saudi Pro League [with 192 goals].
Q. How would you describe the current state/performance of the national team?
On an upward trajectory but maddeningly inconsistent. The talent is there, the team spirit is always high, but this is a team that is fighting against a Football Association that is criminally negligent. As long as the team is fighting with the FA to get the basic support then we will be competing with other teams with one hand tied behind our backs.
If this team had the support system that Jordan has, then our current state would be a lot different. Jordan’s FA is able to do the basics right: Hire a manager of a certain pedigree, fire them if things aren’t going well, organize travel in an orderly fashion, arrange for friendlies and training camps. To do just the basics of what a Football Association is supposed to do.
Instead we have the Palestine Football Association. Run by Jibril Rajoub, a man who used to head Internal Security (and earned a particular reputation for crushing dissidents), he came to the post seeking a platform for his political ambitions. In his 13 year reign he has managed to hang pictures of some of the world’s most questionable leaders in the national stadium (the visages of Mohammed bin Salman, Vladimir Putin, Jacob Zuma, Ramazan Kadryov, Khalifa bin Zayed, Hamad bin Issa, and Silvio Berlusconi have all graced the stadiums of Palestine), get accused of throwing Palestine’s last match at the 2015 Asian Cup, pursue a Don Quixote like mission to get Israel kicked out of FIFA (a move that actually caused FIFA to take a hands-off approach not to enforce the Crimea precedent to Israeli clubs based in the West Bank), and get suspended by FIFA for a year for comments directed towards Lionel Messi and the Argentine national team.
In the midst of all this mess, he decided on Christmas Day 2017 to fire Abdel Nasser Barakat who had led Palestine on a 10-match unbeaten streak and qualified them for the 2019 Asian Cup in style. Why did he do this? Well, because the Saudi FA had offered him a manager and staff they would pay for (Julio Cesar Baldivieso, who had played in the Saudi Pro League) as well as $1 million for development of the game in Palestine. Rajoub took it, then upon feeling the rancor of the fans, gave the Bolivian staff an ultimatum in their first competitive match in charge, which was a dead rubber versus Oman – ‘Lose and you’re out’. Lo and behold, that’s what happened.
Instead of bringing Barakat back, Rajoub brought back the old coaching staff minus Barakat. Noureddine Ould Ali, who had been the team’s Physical Preparation coach, took the managerial post. Rajoub then flexed his internal security muscle and took over all the pages that had been criticizing his decision-making as PFA President. Upon seeing this absolute sh*tshow unfold, the Saudis pulled their investment.
Ould Ali remains in the post to this day despite more than one wobble. Palestine failed to score a goal en route to a 2-point haul at the 2019 Asian Cup. An amazing start to World Cup qualifying (2-0 win against Uzbekistan) was undone by an away loss to Singapore five days later, where the manager neglected to rotate an exhausted starting XI. A draw (which should have been, on the balance of play, a win) against Saudi Arabia put matters back on track but a disastrous loss to Yemen, where Palestine spent the first half just booting the ball to Mahmoud Wadi, has Palestine’s World Cup chances on life support.
Why don’t they make a change? Probably because there’s no manager out there with a FIFA Pro License willing to accept a $2000/month and put up with all the histrionics and crazy demands of Jibril Rajoub.
I truly feel if the PFA cared enough we could have a team capable of getting into the final round of World Cup qualifying and one capable of contending for a place at the finals. Jordan was on the cusp in 2014 and Syria nearly did it in 2018.
So why not us? Well because of the people who run football in Palestine, that’s why.
Q. Are there any Palestinian players who you think we should be focusing on for the future – who would you say is the most exciting up & coming talent from the country?
Picking the next Palestinian player to hit big has been something of a forte of mine. In recent years I hit on Abdallah Jaber (the youngest player to hit 50 caps), Mahmoud Wadi (the first Palestinian player to command a transfer fee over $1 million USD), and the aforementioned Dabbagh. Therefore, I am fairly confident the next big player to come out of Palestine will be Reebal Dahamshe.
Dahamshe is only 18 but he has already made his full senior debut following a really impressive performance with the U-19 team in 2019. Over the January transfer window, he signed his first professional contract with Hilal Al-Quds and promptly scored twice in his first two games.
He has everything you want in a striker: He’s big, fast, powerful, good in the air, but also technical, and adept at holding up play. It is hard to believe he is only 18 years old. He is far more polished at 18 than Mahmoud Wadi was. If he can end the season on 5-6 goals, then I think he could make big strides next year, in what would be his first full pro season with Hilal Al-Quds.
Q. Looking at Palestine’s international history, what would you say has been the best game, result or performance for the national team in your opinion?
I think it has to be the 2-0 win over Uzbekistan to open up the 2022 World Cup qualifying. Uzbekistan is the 5th or 6th best team in Asia and beating them was a sign of true progress. It showed that we could beat a team of pedigree and beat them with style and ease.
Some will see it as a false dawn because we have stumbled on the path against weaker opponents but I think we sent a message to the rest of Asia on that day. I hope we can win out (even if it is in vain) when World Cup qualifying restarts.
Q. Likewise, is there a performance or result which is regarded as the team’s lowest point?
Rock bottom was hit in October 2011. A 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Iran was the largest ever defeat we had ever experienced, and although it was a friendly, it really seemed to signal that we were headed nowhere fast. Three months earlier we had been knocked out of World Cup qualifying by Thailand in the preliminary rounds and we were left with no coach, no plan, and seemingly no hope.
Luckily for us, the PFA’s current administration made one of their better decisions in recent times and hired Jamal Mahmoud weeks after that disaster in Tehran and things turned around quickly.
Q. What are the best and worst things about being a fan of the Palestinian national team?
To lose is a normal part of competition. There will always be an opponent that might outplay you. It is another thing altogether to lose because of self sabotage on the part of the organizing body for the sport.
That said, there is no shortage of euphoria when the team does well. I look forward to every game, even friendlies. The vitriol that is directed to the international break by some fans of the game is something I will never understand.
Q. Have the fans adopted some kind of unofficial anthem to sing along to before/during/after matches?
The most common song that’s sung by the fans is: “Bil tool, bil ‘ard, Fida’i yahiz al ard” which translates to “Longways, Sideways, The Fida’i (The Fighters or Commandos, the national team’s nickname) are going to make the ground quake”
Q. Do you have a favourite or iconic shirt from the whole time of the national team?
The shirt color is a matter of some controversy as the national team has always worn green home shirts. This changed in 2008 because Jibril Rajoub did not like the national team wearing green as it also happens to be the color of his political rivals in Hamas. So we switched to red, which besides being inauthentic, is completely unoriginal. All our neighbors wear red home jerseys: Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
I think the most iconic look however is the flag kit, which debuted in late 2002 and was worn during the 2002 Arab Cup when Palestine’s swashbuckling style made them top scorers in their section and introduced the region to a slew of new names from Palestine’s Chilean community: Roberto Bishara, Roberto Kettlun, Edgardo Abdala, Francisco Alam, and Pablo Abdala.
Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the Palestinian national team?
I hope that, in the near future, we can be rid of the clowns that are currently running football in the country. Competent leadership would do so much to lift the national team to the next level. In 2021, I am not sure it’s realistic to hope that Saudi Arabia AND Uzbekistan falter in the same manner we did, so it’s probably safe to assume that we won’t advance in World Cup qualification.
The consolation this year would be a good showing at the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup (quarter-finals or better), which will be the warm-up event in-lieu of the cancelled Confederations Cup.
In the long term, Asia’s allocation of World Cup teams will increase, starting from 2026 when the tournament becomes a 48 team affair. So I hope that we can compete to become one of the 8 or 9 Asian teams who qualify for that tournament.
A massive شكرا جزيلا to Football Palestine for answering our questions on the Lions of Canaan. Remember you can find their excellent account, and website in the links at the top of the blogpage.
If you have any comments, suggestions, reactions, or even your own answers to the above questions, please write them in the comments box below. Likewise, you can either email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message at @The94thMin on Twitter.