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Palestinian national team hunt Latin players

© Reuters 2002

By Antonio de la Jara
SANTIAGO, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Far from the violence and tension in the Middle East, the fledgling Palestinian national soccer team are hunting for recruits in Latin America to boost their chances of qualifying for international competitions.

The team's coach Nicola Hadway, a Chilean with Palestinian parents, is scouring Latin American league sides for players of Palestinian descent who would be eligible to play for the national side. "We want to raise the level of competitiveness in Palestine and we are convinced we will find the necessary players in Latin America to strengthen the team," Hadway told Reuters.

Many Latin American countries have communities of Palestinian and other Arab descent. Some 300,000 people in Chile alone claim Palestinian ancestry and many maintain links with Palestinian relations, whom they trace to the area around the town of Bethlehem. However, few Palestinians in Chile speak Arabic or have visited the Middle East.

The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has hindered the development of Palestinian professional football. The Palestinians had been using stadiums in Syria, Jordan and Egypt for matches for security reasons, Hadway said.

Although there is no Palestinian state, FIFA recognised the Palestinian team in 1998. The team are badly in need of fresh blood. They are languishing in 151st place out of 203 countries in FIFA's world rankings. The Palestinian team failed to get past the first qualifying round of the Asian zone for this year's World Cup in Japan and South Korea, earning only seven points from six games.

FIFA has agreed that Palestinian soccer players could be sought overseas, given the political and social turmoil at home.

"Palestine's domestic situation has limited the country's football potential. This initiative is positive...but the players, once chosen, would not be able to represent other nations in official tournaments," said FIFA's representative in Chile, Alfredo Asfura. FIFA stipulates that once players of dual nationality have represented one country at international level, they cannot then play for another.

The Palestinian soccer federation contacted Hadway four years ago, when he was coach of a second division Chilean club, asking him to scout out possible players who would be eligible and willing to play for Palestine.

A list of candidates has already been drawn up, according to Hadway. They include brothers Roberto and Fabian Bishara and Roberto Kettlun, who all play for Chilean first division club Palestino, which was established in 1920 by Chileans of Palestinian background.

Other names include Pablo Abdala, an Argentine who plays for club Cobreloa, the leaders of the Chilean first division, and Luis Musrri of Chile's second most popular club Universidad de Chile.

"Sure I'm interested in the idea. It is an international side and it would be a nice idea to participate in it. We know that Palestinians live in a flashpoint area and need our help. It is a door that has opened," said midfielder Abdala.

But the search is not limited to Chile and Hadway has already identified players in Peru, Honduras and Mexico.

Although the most pressing challenge is to compete in an international competition between African and Arab nations in Kuwait in December, the medium-term objective is to qualify for the World Cup in Germany in 2006, says Hadway.

Only half-joking, he said the team had very high ambitions. "Our main goal is to reach the finals in Germany and become the world champions. There wouldn't be much point taking up this gauntlet without having ambitious objectives. Players from Latin America can help us, there's no doubt about that."
(C) Reuters Limited 2002

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