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NEALE HARVEY is a freelance journalist and lives in England.

This was Palestine's first start in a FIFA World Cupô preliminary competition since 1938. They were unfortunately eliminated in Hong Kong and Qatar, but not before they had given a commendable display. But the footballers from West Bank and Gaza still have many problems to contend with.

Palestine's national team before a training session. A poster publicises their World Cup qualifying matches in Qatar. Photos: Neale Harvey
urn on the television news, or open a newspaper anywhere in the world and stories about violence-wracked Palestine are never far from the headlines. Dominated by images of stone-throwing youths, death and destruction, thousands have died during 53 years of land disputes within Israel. Successive peace initiatives appeared to have paved the way for a period of stability but a Palestinian uprising last September, fuelled by years of resentment over lands Israel captured in 1967, has thrown the region into renewed chaos. Palestine's economy is in shreds and travel is restricted after Israel imposed security measures and reasserted its control of Palestinian territories.

To such a daunting backdrop it appeared almost inconceivable that a Palestinian football team would be able to compete with credit in the World Cup preliminaries. Yet that is exactly what happened as a team made up mainly of amateur players emerged from West Bank and Gaza to finish second behind Qatar in the recent Asian Group 3 preliminaries held in Hong Kong and Doha. Palestine, who were granted FIFA membership in 1998, had last competed in the World Cup in 1938 whilst under British control. Following their return to the international arena they achieved a bronze medal position at the 1999 Pan-Arab Games in Jordan, drawing 1-1 with highly-rated Iran in the process, and went on to acquit themselves well during a bid to qualify for last year's Asian Cup.

Help from FIFA
Aided by the Egyptian government, along with the Thailand and Oman Football Associations, and with additional financial assistance from the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA, the Palestine team was able to embark on four months of training ahead of their first-ever World Cup participation as an autonomous state. But Brigadier Ahmed Afifi, President of the Palestine FA, explained how problematic their participation had been.

"We thank FIFA for its support"
Brigadier Ahmed Afifi, President of the Palestinian Association.
"We faced many problems to collect our team because of the uprising in our land," said Afifi, a former player who has trained the national team. "We had to collect the team step by step until we reached Egypt because if we all went at the same time the Israeli government would not have allowed some players to go outside. In fact we had to leave many players behind because they could not obtain new passports. Also, financially, we have little money and in this period we received many invitations. The Egyptian minister of youth allowed us to make camp there for two months, for which we paid very little. We thank them for that and also the Thailand and Oman FA's who invited us to make camps with them. FIFA helped with a donation of USD 100,000, for which we thank them too, and without this we could not play."

Play they did, however, and just two narrow 2-1 defeats by group favourites Qatar denied Palestine a place in the second round of Asian qualifying. But ably led by inspirational captain and libero Saeb Jendeya, wins over Malaysia and Hong Kong ensured they rocketed up to 159 in the FIFA rankings. "They are good players who have a very good spirit," said Palestine's Egyptian coach Mostafa Yakoub, whose contract runs out in August. "There are so many problems in our land. Every day there is bloodshed and people did not expect the Palestinian team to get any results. We have surprised them."

Palestinian football fans celebrate their country's first appearance in a World Cup qualifying campaign since 1938.
No domestic league
Having made such a positive re-entrance on to the international stage, the burning question is how can Palestinian football progress further?

The spirit Yakoub spoke of is encapsulated by Palestine's goalkeeping coach, Ali Abd Rabou. A policeman who normally earns a living patrolling the dangerous border crossing in Gaza City, Rabou works in a voluntary capacity for the national team. Although happy to be reunited with his family after four months away from home, Rabou and the Palestine team returned to a land where the 18-team domestic Premier League has been sus pended since October because of the up-rising.

Rabou fears the desperate political situation at home, allied to a lack of competitive action and a severe shortage of serviceable training facilities, will force the Palestinian national team into cold storage once more. "We were together for four months and all the players suffered. They have wives, children and parents and all of us worry," says Rabou. "We haven't the grass pitches, or facilities in our land, but still we are playing. We have a right to play like any nation in the world, but look at other teams. They have facilities and big bonuses for winning, but we're not looking for money or to make propaganda. We love Palestine and are passionate to see our team on the international map. But there is no continuation for our national team because after we finish this World Cup everyone goes home and there is no football, our league and cups are suspended. This is our situation and what can we do?"

Limited financial aid has been forthcoming for Palestinian football in the last year and USD 1.35 million has been earmarked for developing facilities within Gaza and West Bank. FIFA are providing USD 400,000 from its Development Programme Goal, the French government USD 600,000 and Saudi Arabia USD 350,000 towards building new administration offices in Gaza and installing grass training facilities in Gaza and Jerusalem.

Good enough for Europe
With an estimated 20,000 active players amongst a population of almost 3 million, however, it is clear there is more work to be done if facilities are to ever match the undoubted passion of the Palestinian people for football. Ahmed Afifi says the Palestine FA have plans to develop the game, but knows little can happen while the political climate remains so volatile.

"All my players have been a surprise"
Mostafa Yakoub, coach of the Palestinian national side.
"We would like there to be a team in every town and village in our land, but now our people are suffering and facing many clashes," says Afifi. "Eventually, though, we are going to make a new scheme for our sportsmen in Palestine. There is a FIFA conference soon and we are going to discuss the situation we are facing. We will ask them to ask the Israeli FA to co-operate with the Palestinian association to help the players, to enable them to train and go outside for matches."

For Ali Rabou, however, the greatest frustration comes from knowing that the national team possesses some technically gifted players who, given the chance, could hold their own in foreign leagues. Rabou summed up Palestine's situation perfectly, adding: "We have many talents and there are many players who are good enough to play in Europe. But there is no one looking at Palestine's players. We haven't a league or a trophy - all we have is clashes."

Two players, who were members of the national team one year ago, could not play the FIFA World Cup preliminaries in Hong Kong and Doha. Both were killed in Palestine. Two more innocent victims in a long and bloody conflict.

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