After securing its place at the 2019 Asian Cup, rising to an all-time high of 73 in the international rankings and, most important, leaving Israel far behind in 98th place, the Palestine national soccer team can be proud of its accomplishments over the past year.
The first two achievements brought great honor to the top project of Palestinian Football Federation Chairman Jibril Rajoub. Indeed, everything looked rosy for the team until December – when an image was posted online showing Rajoub sitting at a table, signing documents with the Bolivian soccer coach Julio César Baldivieso and Turki Al-Sheikh, president of the Sports Federation of Islamic Solidarity and the strongest figure in Arab soccer.
The photo rocked Palestinian soccer and set off one of the most turbulent stories to hit the Asian soccer world in the past year: It’s a story of money, power, politics and sports that encompassed South America and the Middle East, and from Saudi Arabia to the West Bank.
Abdel Nasser Barakat is responsible for much of the Palestinian national team’s success in recent years. All of its impressive accomplishments – from its performance in the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia to winning a place in next year’s finals in the United Arab Emirates, and its international ranking – revolve around Barakat, who has put together a tight squad of players while enjoying the fruits of Rajoub’s deep investment in the sport.
Barakat had been a respected midfielder for El Bireh in the West Bank before, aged 25, quitting his day job as a construction worker in order to devote himself to coaching soccer. He was considered at the vanguard of local Palestinian coaches.
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He coached every age division of the Palestine national team over the past 14 years, and nearly all the players who worked with him describe him as an excellent coach, tough and dedicated.
The devotion he commanded from Palestinian soccer fans was close to absolute. When he suspended superstars such as Ashraf Nu’man and Abdelatif Bahdari – among the greatest Palestinian players of all time – rather than getting mad at Barakat, the fans supported him. Barakat was clearly Rajoub’s man, but above all he knew his job.
But after the image of Rajoub with Sheikh and Baldivieso was published, the big picture soon came into focus: Barakat was out as coach, Baldivieso was in.
Baldivieso is a well-known figure in Bolivian soccer, with an impressive history as a player and interesting history as a coach. Before signing with Rajoub and Sheikh, Baldivieso mainly coached Bolivian clubs, and the Bolivian national team for one year. As a player, he played in Argentina, Japan, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and was on the Bolivian national team in the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
All that experience qualified him to coach the Palestinian national team, but by South American standards he is not considered a top coach by any means. In addition, he has been caught up in several corruption scandals. Baldivieso came to worldwide attention in 2009 when he picked a 12-year-old kid to play for Bolivia’s Club Aurora. Coincidentally or not, that boy just happened to be his son, Mauricio. Three years later, there was more drama as Baldivieso Sr. was filmed kicking his son as they returned to the locker room at halftime.
A tweet from Mauricio after his father became the Palestinian coach hinted at what was to come: “Happy for the new beginning in Saudi Arabia,” he wrote, underlining his father’s ignorance about what he was getting into. Things only got worse when Mauricio – now the grand age of 21 – began to take part in the team’s practice sessions as a coach, giving orders to the players. At that point, fans lost patience.
What Turki wants, Turki gets
So how could all this happen? The answer is simple: money, power and everything in between. Sheikh was behind the deal. Baldivieso, it’s been claimed both in Bolivia and the coach’s inner circle, has been close to Sheikh and his family since the Bolivian’s stint playing for the Saudi soccer team Al Nassr. Sheikh, 36, a member of the Saudi royal family who also heads up the kingdom’s General Sport Authority and the Arab Football Federation, loves sports and has his finger in many sports-related pies. He was behind the bizarre deal under which nine leading players on the Saudi national soccer team were loaned out to top Spanish teams, in exchange for $1 million for each of the participating Saudi teams. He also has a hand in everything that goes on at Saudi Arabia’s four biggest soccer clubs. On top of all this, he also helps out the Egyptian soccer team Al Ahly and became the club’s honorary president.
The bottom line is that Sheikh’s offer was one that Rajoub could not refuse – $1 million in direct aid to the Palestinian soccer league. But it goes beyond that: Rajoub can’t afford to turn down a Saudi offer. He needs their support on a variety of issues within the Asian Football Confederation and soccer’s world governing body FIFA, and possibly in the near future also vis-a-vis the Arab League or the United Nations. Rajoub had no choice but to swallow the increasing closeness between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which for obvious reasons he was unable to influence. In other words, Rajoub made the logical decision.
The problems began when Baldivieso asked for a 40-day, midseason training camp with the national team, disturbing the rhythm of the local league. During this training camp, the team played three matches: against Algeria U23s in Algiers; a friendly against Bahrain in Manama; and an Asian Cup match against Oman in Muscat. The Palestinians didn’t do very well, and the national team’s players soon split into two camps. The pro-Baldivieso side supported the new coach since, not knowing Arabic, he could not fully appreciate the mess he was in. “All he wanted was to bring new things, things we don’t have here,” one player said. “They’re not giving him a chance,” another player said. But a veteran teammate, when asked to weigh in on the coaching skills of Baldivieso and his staff, replied, “It’s better that I not say anything.”
Meanwhile, Palestine fans launched a campaign against Baldivieso and his crew with the hashtag #goawayJulio (in Arabic), which went viral.
No Palestinian fan wanted Julio Baldivieso to stay on. Rajoub knew his experiment was over and, according to sources on the team, he told the Bolivian coach he must beat Oman on March 27 if he wanted to keep his job. But the Palestinians lost, 1-0. The disappointment with the poor results was mixed with the expectation of getting into Pot 2 in the Asian Cup. That didn’t happen either, and the team was placed in Pot 3. Fans and sports reporters kept up the pressure, and on April 22 the Palestinian Football Association announced Baldivieso’s dismissal.
Slightly over six months before the Asian Cup – the most important event to date for the national side, where it will face group games against Syria, Australia and Jordan – the Palestinian national team has lost its coach and the way ahead is unclear.
Barakat, who would like his old job back, cannot return for now as he holds an administrative position in the Palestinian Football Association. Noureddine Ould Ali, an Algerian who was the assistant coach under Barakat, has been named acting coach. His first mission began Tuesday, when he secured a 0-0 draw in a friendly away to Iraq. The team faces Kuwait on Friday.
One way or another, the Palestine national team is on its third coach in just four months. The decision to fire Baldivieso was the right one; some will say it even came too late. There’s nothing wrong with doing a U-turn, saying “we were wrong” and wiping the slate clean before facing the big challenge in the UAE next January.
Uri Levy is the founder and editor of the BabaGol soccer blog.