Tuesday’s draw was the source of excitement for many Asian nations looking forward to kicking off their 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup qualifying campaigns. For many smaller nations, the revised format represents the first time in a decade since they were guaranteed a proper qualifying campaign.
For the 2010 and 2014 World Cups many nations were cruelly limited to two or fewer home games as the AFC decided to whittle down the field of over 40 countries to just 20 with a series of home-and-away elimination playoffs.
To make matters worse, half the continent was shut out of the qualifying process for the 2011 and 2015 Asian Cup, meaning nothing less than winning the now-defunct AFC Challenge Cup would suffice for a chance to play on Asia’s biggest stage.
Palestine were one of those teams, and despite the political and logistical problems in their way they managed to navigate a path to Australia 2015.
To accomplish this, Palestine had to play on neutral and foreign grounds in far flung places such as Nepal and Myanmar. Marquee dates against established Asian sides were not a common occurrence and home matches for the national team were even rarer. Since opening their new home stadium in Al-Ram in October 2008, Palestine have only ever hosted three matches. The inaugural 1-1 draw vs. Jordan, and a pair of 2014 World Cup qualifiers- a 1-1 draw vs. Afghanistan and a 2-2 draw vs. Thailand.
The guarantee of four home matches (and another three to five depending how far the team progresses) over the next two years is a godsend for fans who rarely get to see the team in person.
World Cup qualifying is special because of the fans and the sheer diversity in locales. Upsets and intrigue are created with these ingredients and without them the entire affair is quite bland. There is nothing more depressing than watching a football match played in an empty stadium.
Which is what makes the actions of the Saudi Arabian FA this week all the more disappointing. With the dust still settling in Kuala Lumpur, there were already efforts to see Palestine’s games played on a neutral ground. At the time of writing, no one is quite sure what reasoning the Saudis may have used but it’s worth noting that Taraji Wadi Al-Nes hosted Al-Shorta of Iraq in the AFC Cup, in a match that ended 1-0 in favor of the hosts.
Is the situation perfect? No, but that isn’t enough to bar Palestine from hosting games. Teams and officials from opposing teams are routinely denied entry by Israeli authorities and Al-Shorta and Iraq national team goalkeeper Mohammed Qassid’s absence for that very reason was a major talking point of the game.
That said, Palestine have done everything in their power to ensure that their guests are treated well. They have been given the best facilities, hotels, and even had a tour of the Dome of the Rock, a landmark many Palestinians will not be able to visit in their lifetime due to travel restrictions.
Instead of punishing Palestine for their situation, the members of the AFC should come together to help solve the impasse. Should individual members refuse to legitimize Israel’s occupation by dealing with Israeli border control, then the PFA should invite them to play in Gaza, where the Palestine Stadium has been refurbished for a third time following Israeli attacks.
Football fans in Palestine want to see Al-Fida’i take on the best in Asia. An administrative three points would be a hollow victory for a nation with a rich tradition and long history with the sport.
Let’s hope that all four opponents can make the trip to the Land of Milk and Honey, where the footballing action is sure to be as equally sweet.