Soccer / Good Neighbors / Flying down to Rio, over Israel
Once a pushover, Jordan is closing in on a spot for the 2014 World Cup.
Once upon a time, Jordan was such a weakling in soccer that it did not even bother to participate in World Cup qualifiers. Since joining the preliminary stage before the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Jordan has suffered its share of humiliation. The national team fared little better in Asian Cup qualifiers. The Bedouin and Palestinians of the Hashemite kingdom loved the game, but the level of play just wasn't there.
All that changed in the past decade, culminating with Tuesday's 2-1 home victory over Australia. Jordan qualified for two Asian Championships, reaching the quarterfinals both times. This year Jordan reached the group stage for the first time and has a reasonable chance to qualify after Tuesday's win. The team is second, behind Japan, and two points ahead of the other three teams in the group.
Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, the half-brother of King Abdullah II, is the force behind Jordan's soccer progress. A diehard soccer fan, he is vice president of FIFA for Asia and chairman of the country's soccer federation. It was the prince, who very much resembles his father, the late King Abdullah, who fought for FIFA's recent agreement to allow Muslim women to play while wearing a hijab. He also made sure the national team had a relatively substantial budget and good foreign coaches.
Serbian Branko Smiljanic was the first such coach, taking over in 2000 and leading Jordan to the semifinals of the Arab Championship. Mahmoud El-Gohary, the legendary Egyptian coach, raised the bar during his tenure, from 2002 to 2007, when Jordan reached its first Asian Championship. He remained an adviser to the team after he retired until his death on September 3.
Adnan Hamad of Iraq has coached the team since 2009. He took the Iraqi national team to the Athens 2004 Games.
Most of the national squad play in the local league as well as in Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. Europe, however, has recently discovered some of Jordan's players. Abdallah Khaled Deeb became the first Jordanian to play in Belgium when he joined Mechelen for the 2009-10 season. Striker Odai Al-Saify plays for Greek club Skoda Xanthi.
Jordanian soccer has made progress because it has become organized, says Mahmoud, a Palestinian journalist in East Jerusalem who did not want his last name published. "It used to be a big mess," he says. The improved coaching is another reason. "I don't know if the Jordanians will advance to the World Cup, but the fact they are in the fight until the end shows the enormous progress," he adds.
Midfielder Amer Deeb, the team's beloved captain who scored Jordan's second goal against Australia, says Tuesday's game was amazing for the team. "To collect three points and be in second place is something very dear," said Deeb, who has made a team-record 111 appearances, after the match. You can't express in words what the team feels today."