A war-torn nation united by diaspora at the Asian Cup

The difficult conditions in Palestine have forced the federation to acquiring players from across the globe with Palestinian ancestry. The team at the Asian Cup comprises of five Chileans, an American, a Slovenian, a Swede and is headed by an Algerian coach.

Palestine supporters cheering for their team at the AFC Asian Cup in Dubai.   -  AFP

Palestine appears to be synonymous with conflict, but the football team is seeking to erase that notion. The Arab nation erupted into war in the late 1940s, forcing over 800,000 people to leave the region. They fled far and wide, some retreated all the way to Europe, while others found greener pastures in other parts of Asia.

Eight decades later, members of the diaspora have now united for a common quest: to achieve glory on the football pitch. Nations around the globe still refuse to recognise Palestine as a sovereign state, but the national team consists of one of the most diverse squads in the world. The team competing in the AFC Asian Cup 2019 comprises five Chileans, an American, a Slovenian, a Swede and is headed by an Algerian coach.

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The difficult conditions at home have left the federation struggling to develop effective grassroots programmes and it resorted to acquiring players from across the globe with Palestinian ancestry.

The side's newest recruit is 27-year-old Nazmi Albadawi, who hails from the USA. He was born and brought up in North Carolina's capital city of Raleigh, which is home to a huge Palestinian community. It's fascinating to note that he had never visited Palestine until November last year.

“The coach reached out to me after seeing me play in the USA and I joined the team in November. It was my first time ever in Palestine and it was awesome to see my homeland,” he tells Sportstar.

Among the senior members of the team is Jaka Ihbeisheh, who joined the team in 2015. Ihbeisheh's story is none like any other, he joined Palestine after getting in touch with his father on Facebook.

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“My parents got divorced when I was seven and I didn't have any contact with my father for a long time. I was 25 years old when I looked him up on the internet to see if he was doing alright and we got in touch through on Facebook. We began to talk and I soon went to Palestine to visit him,” he recalls. He later received an invitation to play for the national team and he grabbed the chance with both hands and has gone on to make 13 appearances for the team thus far.

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The Palestine football team poses for a photo before the Asian Cup match against Australia.   -  AFP

 

The team also has a strong South American flavour with as many as five Chileans in the squad. Yasher Islame is one of the notable names who emerged from the revered Colo Colo youth academy in Chile. Though his parents were born in Chile, his maternal grandfather's roots in Palestine allowed him to join the national team in 2015.

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”It's an honour for me to play for the country. It's more than football for me. Everybody knows what happened in Palestine and this a chance for us to show our character,” he says. Curiously, he joined the team after he received a message from the Palestine association asking him to join them.

“People think there are only bombs and stuff in Palestine but it's actually not dangerous,” says Ihbeisheh. He acknowledges that things aren't rosy either, but the people find solace in the sport. “It's true that people are struggling there but it's good to give them something to be happy through football.”

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