World Cup qualifiers have their own magic feeling.
A World Cup qualifier that takes place in a place like Al-Ram, a small town right on the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, is a whole different story.
The 2022 World Cup qualifier between Palestine and Uzbekistan will definitely be written in the history book of Palestinian football. And for various reasons.
Kids from all over the West Bank arrived in groups and minibuses which parked right outside of the road. Sweets, falafel and corn were sold outside the ground. Although the stadium wasn’t full, the atmosphere was festive.
It was the first game since Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian FA President, was banned for 12 months after his comments on Lionel Messi and Argentina’s intentions to play in Israel.
The coach, Algerian Nourredine Ould Ali, was dealing the days before the game with the sickness of his daughter, and joined the team only two days ago.
If that’s not enough, Mahmoud Wadi, Al-Masry’ striker, did not get the permission to enter the West Bank up until a day before the match.
With all that in the background, Palestine faced a team which is obviously stronger and better than them - the Uzbeks.
Usually, when a major national team arrives in Faisal Husseini, throughout the years, Palestinian coaches play in the conservative and defensive mode. This time it was different.
The Fidai went on with probably their best lineup. In front, you could find Wadi, joined by Oday Dabbagh, Nazmi Al-Badawi and Tamer Seyam, in an attacking formation. In the midfield, it was Mohamed Darweesh who dictated the tempo, and as usual, Abdallah Jaber, Abdelatif Albahdary and goalkeeper Rami Hamadeh were the main men on the back.
On the other hand, Hector Cuper’s Uzbekistan also started with big names. Krasnodar’s Eldor Shomurodov and Shanghai SIPG’s Odil Ahmedov were the main threats in the first half, and their quality was well noticed. Yet, both teams haven’t got many chances, and after 45 minutes it was still 0-0.
The second half started exactly as the first one, and Ould Ali did right when he kept the same lineup precisely without making any changes.
The game was standing still, when suddenly, Palestine got into an intense pace in a rare counter-attack in the 59th minute.
Yaser Hamed Mayor kicked wide, Al-Badawy, who plays for North Carolina FC, took over it and sent it beautifully to Dabbagh. With three touches, Kuwaiti Salmiya’s forward nailed it in the far post with style. It was 1-0 to Fidai, and the whole stadium was in the air.
Since that moment, Palestine was in cruise control. Hamadeh saved time after time, Jaber sent the attackers for the hunt, until the 84th minute when they finally scored another one.
In another counter-attack, Tamer Seyam, Hassania Agadir’s player, lobbed in a perfect chip from right to left, where Islam Al-Batran, another professional who plays abroad, for Al-Jazeera in Jordan, headed home an unbelievable Palestinian win.
Until the final whistle, the Reds had a few more chances to score more, but nevertheless, this game was already one of the best games of the Palestinian national team.
“I’m not going to resign after one loss in the first game”, insisted Cúper when talking with BabaGol after the match. “This is football, it can happen, and all my respect to Palestine who did what a team that plays at home in such an atmosphere should do”. About whether this loss is unveiling the weaknesses of his players against a less active side, he said: “I don’t think this game will decide something in this group. It is just the beginning, so don’t jump to a conclusion”.
Cúper, who only 15 months ago was coaching Egypt in the World Cup, suddenly found himself in the loser’s seat in Al-Ram.
The Palestinians were celebrating with joy. It’s rare that they beat a better side like Uzbekistan. What a way to start their 2022 World Cup qualifiers campaign.