“We’re very determined and hungry for success,” said Abdullah Jaber, the star left back of the Palestinian national soccer team, describing his teammates’ mindset before the 0:0 draw against Syria Sunday in the Palestinians' first game in the Asian Cup.
“Almost 90 percent of the guys on the team in the previous tournament have been replaced,” he told Haaretz at the club’s training camp in Qatar; the game took place in the United Arab Emirates.
“The standard of our players has changed. We have a talented generation of strong players who got experience in soccer at a young age. I think this is the best generation in the history of Palestinian soccer.”
The 25-year-old Jaber, who plays for the team Ahli al-Khali in Hebron, was there from almost the beginning, when the Palestine soccer team would play against fly-by-night squads. He’s an Israeli citizen, a native of Taibeh, and at the same time a Palestinian hero.
Millions of Palestinians, both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, expect him to lead the team. “It’s a great responsibility, but I’m ready for it. I have to prove to myself each time that I’m No. 1 in my job on the team, that I deserve the international level. The support I receive from the fans is tremendous; that’s the fuel.”
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Jaber, who in his youth career played in Israel for Hapoel Kfar Sava and Ironi Ramat Hasharon, is one of four players on the Palestinian team who are Israeli citizens. He is joined by Shadi Shaban, Mohammed Darwish and Rami Hamada; the first two have played for a number of Israeli teams.
A dash of Chile and Slovenia
While the Israeli national team has seen a record number of players from the Arab community, the Palestinians – both in the league and on the national team – have seen an increase in the number of players who grew up in Israeli soccer.
“We simply didn’t get opportunities to play and succeed in Israeli soccer, so we decided to take responsibility for our own career,” Jaber says. “There’s no comparison between the two soccer worlds – in terms of conditions, media coverage, marketing, everything. But the truth is, the salaries here are good.”
Most of the team’s players hail from the West Bank, but there are also four Chilean-Palestinians, a Slovenian-Palestinian and an American-Palestinian – Nazmi Albadawi, who played with Israeli Dekel Keinan last season in Cincinnati.
“In the dressing room they speak three languages: Arabic, Spanish and English,” Jaber says, noting that he has already learned Spanish. “People come to the team from all over the world, but almost all are of Palestinian extraction, and that’s what unites us. We manage with that very well, and that’s what makes us more closely bonded than any other team. We’re different, but we have a very strong common denominator.”
Giving expression to Palestinian identity via soccer was one of the changes introduced by Jibril Rajoub. The entry of a senior Palestinian politician attracted sponsors and led to the construction and renovation of stadiums and the establishment of the Palestinians’ first professional league. Until less than a decade ago, Palestinian soccer was almost completely amateur, with inferior stadiums, minuscule budgets and poor organization.
Rajoub understood the power of soccer as a political tool. He aimed for a Palestinian team that would chalk up achievements on the international level, which is what happened. In 2014 Palestine won the Challenge Cup of the Asian Football Confederation after a victory over the Philippines, and for the first time made it to the Asian Cup. Last year, Palestine even overtook Israel in the FIFA ranking and remained above the blue and white for several months.
Jaber doesn’t want to bring politics into the conversation, but the fact that he has become a national symbol fills him and the other players with a sense of mission. Incidentally, about two years ago it was reported that his brother Mahmoud, who plays youth soccer for Maccabi Haifa, refused an invitation from the Israeli national youth team.
“Clearly there’s a feeling that we’re part of something big, and that’s a tremendous thing, but for me, politics doesn’t interest me in any way. Only soccer,” Jaber says.
Unwanted in Egypt
This separation isn't always possible. Although the salaries in Palestinian soccer are handsome, the horizon for advancement is limited.
Jaber, a Palestinian star who has won many titles, has attracted a great deal of attention from Egyptian teams. Both El Mokawloon El Arab and Al Ittihad Alexandria tried to sign him, but the deals fell through because of fears of how the public would take his Israeli passport.
“Of course it’s frustrating, but I’m a great believer,” he says. “It will come yet, with God’s help, in a better place.”
Meanwhile, despite three very successful years under Abdel Nasser Barakat, the Bolivian Julio Cesar Baldivieso was chosen to take over as coach.
It was a bad move. The team faltered, the players were divided, and the fans soured on the team.
“We players realized that everything depended on us,” Jaber says. “With all the talk, you have to do something simple – to get on the field and give everything you have. The decision-makers will do their job, and we’ll give our maximum.”
The connection with the Bolivian lasted barely three games; the Palestine Football Association then tapped as new coach Barkat’s former assistant, Noureddine Ould Ali, an Algerian who has been working with the association for years in various positions.
“It would no longer have made any difference which coach would come,” Jaber says. “It was clear that the team was on our shoulders, those of the players.”
If during the previous championship there was the excitement of a first-time experience, and just getting there was considered an achievement, this time the Palestinians are aiming higher. That means they want wins against Australia and Syria following their draw with Syria. In a tournament with 24 teams, even four of the six teams that finish third in their group will go on to the next stage.
“This group is very tough,” Jaber says. “Australia is the champion, Syria is one of the rising teams in the Arab world, and Jordan is very strong .... But don’t get me wrong, anything is possible. We believe in ourselves, and the goal is to score as many points as possible and go on to the next stage. Plain and simple.”
Uri Levy is the founder of website BabaGol and an expert on Middle Eastern soccer.