Saudi National Soccer Team to Play Palestinians in Historic West Bank Match Today

Saudi players enter through Israeli-controlled border crossing after years of refusing to do so, visit al-Aqsa compound

Saudi national soccer team players and coaches pose for a group picture at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Jerusalem, October 14, 2019.
AFP

History will be made on Tuesday when Palestine kicks off against Saudi Arabia in a soccer World Cup qualifier in the West Bank.

The two teams have met many times over the years. But Saudi Arabia had never previously visited the West Bank, as it would have required receiving a permit from Israel and passing through an Israeli-controlled border. This time, the Saudi team traveled through the Allenby crossing at the Jordanian border, with their entry stamps being issued on separate pieces of paper. 

After arriving in the West Bank on Sunday ahead of the qualifying game for the 2022 World Cup, the Saudis were officially welcomed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas said the game illustrated the deep bonds between the two peoples. “We are proud of this visit, and we feel it embodies the historical relationship between Saudi Arabia and Palestine,” he told reporters in Ramallah.

As part of their pregame routine, the Saudi players on Monday traveled to Jerusalem’s Old City to pray at the Temple Mount complex, which Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, the noble sanctuary. The compound houses the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

“This is the most beautiful day in my life,” said Yasser al-Mishal, the president of the Saudi Football Federation. “Really, it’s hard to express my feelings. I thank God that I could visit Al-Aqsa Mosque and pray inside,” he added.

Arab teams have historically refused to play in the West Bank as it would have required them to apply for Israeli entry permits, breaching their decades-long boycott of Israel.

However, in August 2018, the Iraqi national side played a friendly against the Palestinians in the West Bank. This came after years of calls from Palestinian leaders for Arab countries to send sporting and cultural delegations to help ease their isolation.

Now the Saudis have obliged, for a game it is the strong favorite to win as one of Asia’s highest-ranked teams.

The Palestinian team, by contrast, has only been a member of international soccer’s governing body, FIFA, since 1998 and often had to play its home games “away,” in such countries as Lebanon and Qatar.Although it has never previously qualified for the World Cup Finals, it has been climbing in the world rankings and could top Group D if it beats the Saudis. (The five-team group also includes Singapore, Uzbekistan and Yemen.)

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (C) poses with the players and coaches of the Saudi national soccer team, Ramallah, October 13, 2019
AFP

Many Palestinians welcomed the Saudi visit as an important show of support. But some criticized the move on social media, saying that it reflected the kingdom’s warming behind-the-scenes ties with Israel.

They started an online campaign, calling for Tuesday’s game at Faisal al-Husseini International Stadium in A-Ram, north of Jerusalem, to be canceled.

Under the hashtag “#Athletic Normalization” and the slogan “Palestine is not a playground for normalization,” the campaigners’ message was: “The Palestinian stadium is not a place to roll the ball of normalization and pass policies that liquidate the Palestinian cause.”

Last week, Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub said playing the game in the West Bank would not breach the Arab boycott that prevents normalization with Israel.

However, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel said that while the match was not technically a breach, it came “in the context of dangerous official normalization.”

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also said that it “rejected normalization through sport.”

In Riyadh last week, Saudi soccer fans expressed delighted about their national team’s historic match in the West Bank, dismissing suggestions that it marked a gradual normalization of ties between the kingdom and Israel.

Palestinians welcome the Saudi Arabia national team, Ramallah, October 13, 2019.
Majdi Mohammed,AP

“This is not a normalization. It is still occupied Palestine. For Saudi Arabia, there is no state called Israel,” said one soccer fan, Saad, his eyes locked on a screen playing the Saudis’ World Cup qualifier against Singapore, in a cafe along a restaurant-lined thoroughfare.

“It is a good thing to support sport in Palestine given the situation there,” the 27-year-old said. “The Palestinian cause remains a fundamental one for Saudi Arabia.”

According to the Saudi Sports Authority, the decision to play in the West Bank was “at the request of the brothers in the Palestinian federation,” and to ensure the Palestinian team is “not deprived the chance to play at home and among its fans.”

For another of the Saudi soccer fans watching the qualifier against Singapore last week, Tuesday’s historic match-up has nothing to do with politics.

“For the Saudis and the Palestinians, the goal of the match is to qualify for the World Cup,” said 30-year-old Hazzaa.

Abu Abdallah, a Saudi businessman, said he believed it was an honor for his country’s team to play the Palestinians among their people.

“This is something rare to happen, and the kingdom would not take any step unless it was in the interest of the Palestinian people or Saudi Arabia,” he said.

A player of Saudi Arabia's national soccer team gestures during a training session in Al-Ram in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, October 14, 2019.
\ MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Saudi Arabia was attempting a “balancing act” of quietly moving closer to Israel while also seeking to keep the Palestinians satisfied.

“The Saudis are yielding to Ramallah’s request of playing in the West Bank in order to offset a sense that they are normalizing with Israel while ignoring Palestinian needs,” he said, adding that official recognition of the Jewish state was unlikely.

Majed, dressed in traditional white thobe robes and an NBA cap at the cafe screening the Saudi versus Singapore match last week, said he absolutely rejected normalization of ties with Israel.

“The occupied Palestinian territories must be returned to its people,” Majed said.

“I do hope that sports will bring peace to the region,” he added, right before jumping up to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s first goal.

The Saudis defeated Singapore 3-0 last week, while Palestine lost its most recent qualifier 2-1, against the same opponent. It had won its first qualifier, 2-0 against Uzbekistan.

The 2022 World Cup will be held in Qatar — the first time that the world’s largest sports tournament will be staged in the Middle East.

AP and Reuters contributed to this report.