European soccer may be the best in the world, but Asia and Africa seem to be taking the worst lessons from it. The European Championships were expanded to 24 teams in 2016, and the Asia Cup is following suit: Twenty-four teams will compete in the tournament, which kicked off on Saturday in the United Arab Emirates and is being billed as the first important soccer event of the year.
The rise from 15 to 24 means that more than half of the 45 countries in the Asia Football Cup are represented (as opposed to 55 countries in Europe), which, in turn, gives teams from smaller countries a chance to put their hat in the ring. The big winners from this change are the Philippines, Yemen and Kazakhstan, who will appear for the first time in the Asian Cup, and other countries such as Yemen and Turkmenistan, which are returning after an absence of many years.
One team that benefits from the new system is the Palestinian national team, although it did play in the 2015 Asian Cup. The governing body of soccer in Asia decided in 2015 that 15 teams from the preliminaries would qualify for the finals and that they would be joined by another team — from a country not normally considered a soccer powerhouse - and Palestine was chosen in a special tournament. At the 2015 Asian Cup, held in Australia, Palestine lost to Iraq, Jordan and Japan, but since then the team has grown stronger and has qualified for the current tournament on merit.
The improvement of the Palestinian team was evident last year when it overtook Israel in the world FIFA ranking, which garnered a great deal of interest in Israel. Palestine maintained this advantage for several months, although today it's ranked nine places below Israel. The important thing, however, is that soccer in the Palestinian Authority is moving ahead, as is the team.
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A good many of the players come from the East Jerusalem club (Hilal Al-Quds), Hebron (Ahli Al-Khalil, Shabab Al-Khalil) or the Ramallah area (Shabab Al-Bireh). But four of the players are from Israel, and were born in cities like Taibeh, Shfaram or Acre. Add to that a small number of Palestinian players playing their trade with overseas clubs and several from the diaspora, i.e., sons of Palestinians who left the country over the years. In Chile, for example, there is a large community (and a soccer team called Palestino) that sends representatives to the team. Just like Israel looks for talented Jews abroad, so do our neighbors.
One such acquisition is Jaka Ihbeisheh, born in Slovenia to a Slovenian mother and a Palestinian father who went back to Ramallah when Ihbeisheh was three years old. As an adult, Ihbeisheh renewed his ties to his father on Facebook and eventually, five years ago at the age of 32, he joined the team as a midfielder.
The latest to be invited to join the team is Nazmi Albadawi, 27, a North Carolina native who joined the Palestinian national team a few weeks ago and has already scored in the national colors. Albadawi plays for FC Cincinnati, which will begin playing in Major League Soccer next season. The efforts of Palestinian soccer chief Jibril Rajoub and his people reached out all the way to him. His family were refugees from Tarshiha in the 1948 war and as far as the Palestinian Authority is concerned, he is a Palestinian.
Israeli soccer player Dekel Keinan, who played alongside Albadawi last year, told Haaretz: “Nazmi is one of my best friends on the team. He’s a very talented player, technical and knows how to score goals. In my opinion he could easily play in the Israel Premier League. The Asian Cup will open a lot of doors for him in the Arab leagues, where the big money is.” Keinan also said that Albadawi always sends him good wishes on the Jewish holidays and Keinan sends them to Albadawi on the Muslim holidays.
The Palestinians, who are in the third tier for the tournament, were drawn into the same group as Jordan, Syria and the reigning champion Australia. The Palestinian team will face Syria on Sunday at 6 P.M. On paper, and after reasonable results in the preparation matches (including 1-1 draw against Iran), Palestine will be fighting for second place in the group, which would ensure qualification for the next stage.
Other than Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon will also take part in the Asian Cup. While the Syrians have chalked up huge achievements, Jordan is falling behind. Since reaching the playoffs for a place at the World Cup in Brazil, where it lost to Uruguay, the Jordanian team has replaced no fewer less than 11 coaches, including Egyptian Hossam Hassan, Ray Wilkins and Harry Redknapp. Three months ago, it appointed Vital Borkelmans — a former international defender who played at two World Cup tournaments for Belgium and was Mark Willmotts’ assistant coach for the Belgian team at the 2014 World Cup. Maybe that will help.
Lebanon, on the other hand, is getting better and better. It is currently going through the best period in its history. This is the thanks to the stability of its coaching — led by the Macedonian Miodrag Radulovic, who was appointed in 2015 — as well as the skill of its forward and its captain, Hasan Maatouk.