Palestinian Soccer Team Is Seeking A Historic Win — While Losing Loved Ones At Home

In the days leading up to the Asian Cup, a major international soccer tournament, Mohammed Saleh of the Palestinian national soccer team learned that his uncle, his aunt and their children had all been killed during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

“Today my family is subjected to a war of extermination,” Saleh — not to be confused with Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Salah — told Agence France-Presse this week in Qatar.

Moreover, when the defender took the field Sunday for his team’s opening match against Iran, he hadn’t heard from his surviving family members in Gaza for days.

“They are living in a tent on open land… May God help them,” he said in an interview with the French news agency, explaining that his home in Gaza City had been destroyed.

“We play football for them… for Gaza… for our cause,” Saleh said.

Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub told AFP that Saleh was not the only player “whose families were martyred” in Gaza during the run-up to the tournament, with the deaths giving extra significance to the competition for players.

“This team is the noblest symbol of our national identity, and this team is for all Palestinians,” Rajoub said.

The Palestinian team lost its opening match to Iran, a tournament favorite, 4-1. Still, the nearly 28,000 fans inside the Qatar stadium — a number roughly equivalent to the 25,000 Palestinians killed so far in Gaza during Israel’s 100-day siege of the territory — demonstrated an outpouring of support for the team, with Iranian fans even waving Palestinian flags in solidarity.

Palestinian soccer player Tamer Seyam holds the ball after scoring his team's first goal during an Asian Cup match with Iran in Al Rayyan, Qatar, on Sunday, Jan. 14.
Palestinian soccer player Tamer Seyam holds the ball after scoring his team’s first goal during an Asian Cup match with Iran in Al Rayyan, Qatar, on Sunday, Jan. 14.

Aijaz Rahi via Associated Press

On Thursday, in its second competition of the tournament, the Palestinian team tied the United Arab Emirates thanks to a 49th-minute own goal by an Emirati defender. Chants of “Free, free Palestine” echoed throughout the stadium.

“These players have been through a lot, all Palestinians have been through a lot, so this was a very special moment,” a Palestinian student named Yassine Abdullah told Al Jazeera shortly after the goal.

The tie sets up a must-win match against Hong Kong next week as the Palestinian team looks to advance out of the group stage for the first time in its history.

The players hope to dedicate the potential milestone to the 2.2 million people in Gaza — up to 85% of whom have been displaced from their homes, and many of whom are on the verge of starving amid Israel’s war on the 25-mile strip of land. (During a hearing at the United Nations’ top court last week, South Africa formally accused Israel of committing a genocide for its retaliation in Gaza, which was launched after an Oct. 7 attack by the militant group Hamas killed about 1,200 people in Israel.)

“For us, the message we are here to deliver through football is to qualify for the second round because Palestine and its people want to live,” Oday Kharoub, a midfielder for the Palestinian team, told Reuters ahead of the tournament.

“Our hearts are with them and we can only pray for them,” Kharoub said. “Inshallah, we can make them happy, even if it’s just a little bit, by qualifying for the next round. This is our ambition.”

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