Palestine is set to face the Philippines today in the championship match of this year’s AFC Challenge Cup. Following a strong record of five wins and two draws, Palestine has made its way into the tournament’s final match for the first time.
This year marks the fifth and final edition of the biennial AFC Challenge Cup. The competition is organized by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and consists of teams representing what football governing bodies consider to be emerging nations and second-tier national teams. This year’s Challenge Cup winners — either Palestine or the Philippines, depending on this evening’s scoreline — will directly qualify for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, a prestigious tournament featuring the continent’s top teams.
Twenty teams participated in the qualification draw but only eight succeeded in passing through. Palestine, assigned to Group D, came away with a hard-fought 1-0 victory against Bangladesh, a 0-9 thrashing of the Northern Mariana Islands, and a scoreless tie with Nepal. The record was good enough to send Palestine to the top of its group and, subsequently, to the next round of qualifications.
This is not Palestine’s first appearance in the Challenge Cup. In 2006, Palestine managed to fight its way through to the knockout stage but failed to find the next in a 0-1 loss to Kyrgyzstan in the quarterfinals. In 2012, Palestine managed to finish fourth, losing in the third-place match to the Philippines.
In a way, the way the previous tournament played out makes this upcoming Final a very exciting match to watch. Palestine is eager to redeem itself with a win against the Philippines and to ultimately walk away with its first ever international trophy. The Philippines will certainly be looking to repeat its 2012 win over Palestine.
Neither team has qualified for the Asian Cup before. Whoever wins will secure the sixteenth and final spot for the tournament to be held in Australia in January 2015.
A team that faces challenges
The Palestinian national team, playing under the Palestinian Football Association, is one of the most interesting and underrated FIFA-recognized national teams. Despite their sub-100 FIFA ranking, the team has been widely commended for showing signs of progress despite never playing a traditional home match until October 2008. This was largely due to two reasons. First, the Palestinian territories lacked a stadium with the capacity and resources necessary to house a national team. Second, Israel’s military occupation made it difficult for other national teams to enter Palestinian territory and even more difficult for Palestinian players to collect and train for upcoming matches. Still to this day, players from the Gaza Strip are frequently denied entry into the West Bank and vice versa, thereby disrupting practice sessions and team meetings.
These travel restrictions have posed problems for the Palestinian side during away fixtures as well. As a result of these Israeli-imposed travel restrictions, the Palestinian national team has seen difficulty in fielding a consistent set of starters even for crucial international matches. In 2007, after Israel denied exit visas to Palestine national team members, FIFA and the AFC chose to cancel the match, giving opponent Singapore an automatic 3-0 win that effectively cut short Palestine’s run to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Individual players have also been singled out by the Israeli military and kept from traveling with the team or returning after an international match. This has taken a severe toll on the team’s ability to consistently field a solid and well-prepared starting eleven.
In addition, Palestine’s football infrastructure has been a tragic victim of Israeli military assaults. Palestine’s national stadium, located in the Gaza Strip, has been the target of at least two major Israeli bombing campaigns. Following the first in 2006, FIFA allocated resources and funds to assist in rebuilding the stadium. However, it was bombed again in November 2012, destroying the field, the stands, and much of the area surrounding the stadium. In the West Bank, Israeli checkpoints have kept Palestinians from reaching and enjoying football matches in stadiums and practice grounds throughout the territory. All things considered, this has made it difficult for the Palestinian Football Association to find and recruit players and for the public to strengthen its bond with a seemingly hidden national team.
Despite these challenges, FIFA awarded Palestine its first Development Award as a way of recognizing the team’s efforts in overcoming the odds and proving itself to be an emerging international contender. FIFA has announced a number of projects aimed at further developing the country’s football infrastructure, including the construction of almost a dozen turf futsal pitches and a training academy in the West Bank village of Al-Bireh.
Summary of Palestine’s campaign
Having qualified into the final group stage of the tournament, Palestine was placed into Group A along with tournament hosts Maldives, Kyrgyzstan, and Myanmar.
Palestine played its first match against Kyrgyzstan, winning 1-0 in the final minute (watch the full match here). Two days later, Palestine withstood a steady attack from Myanmar with a convincing two-goal win over the White Angels (watch the full match here). Palestine tied against host nation Maldives in a scoreless match (watch the full match here). Yet again, Palestine found itself at the top of its group which meant that the team passed through to the knockout stage of the tournament.
Now one of only four teams left standing, Palestine quickly dealt with Afghanistan’s national team after closing them out with a 2-0 victory and securing its spot in the championship match (watch the full match here). The Philippines beat Maldives in extra time later that day, setting the stage for each team’s maiden championship match, an expected nail-biter between two talented sides who have shown success in handling all kinds of the challenges thrown their way. Palestine has yet to give up a single goal in this tournament, but considering the Philippines’ scoring ability, Palestinian goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh will need to be on the top of his game in order to keep the pressure off of the Lions of Canaan.
With only one match left in the tournament, Palestine’s Ashraf Nu’man Alfawaghra is tied with Maldivian Ali Ashfaq as the Challenge Cup’s top goalscorers with three goals apiece. Alfawaghra has one final opportunity to set himself apart from the rest and to earn the right to call himself the competition’s most prolific scorer.
For extensive coverage and in-depth analysis of the Palestine national team, and to keep up with the national team’s latest developments, visit Football Palestine.