FILE - Palestinian football players warm-up during a training session at the Asian Games athletes’ village in Incheon, South Korea.
FILE - Palestinian football players warm-up during a training session at the Asian Games athletes’ village in Incheon, South Korea.

SYDNEY - Soccer's Asian Cup has kicked off in Australia.  For the first time, a team representing Palestinians is taking part in one of the world’s biggest sporting events. The Palestinian team says the tournament that brings together the 16 best teams in Asia is as much about politics as it is about sports.

This is this first time that a Palestinian team has qualified for the Asian Cup, and the sweat and concentration on the faces of the players training in Sydney show they mean business as they prepare for their toughest-ever assignment.

The Palestinian population of about ten million people is divided between historic Palestine and a large diaspora, mainly in neighboring Arab countries.

The players, too, are spread far and wide.

Amro Hannoun, the team’s media manager said preparing for the Asian Cup has been a challenge.

“We have players from West Bank, we have players from Gaza, we have players from overseas. They play in Europe. We have the Palestinian who lives in Israel. It is hard to make a training camp in Palestine for them all, so we [are] trying to make camps in Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Qatar to preparing (sic) for this historical championship for us,” said Hannoun.

Defender Tamer Salah said the team’s ambition is to make the Palestinian people proud.

For him, it is historic to be at the Asian Cup. For all Palestinians, to be in Australia is like a dream. For them, he said, it is like a World Cup, not just Asian Cup.  They will try to do their best to make Palestinians very happy.

The team’s appearance comes as Palestinian officials are trying to make headway in gaining recognition as an independent state - most recently by filing paperwork to join the International Criminal Court. The United States and Israel have opposed those efforts, arguing Palestinians have not yet established a state and efforts to do so are counterproductive to the peace process.

In Australia, these are exciting times for the local Palestinian community.  Many have turned out to watch their team’s training sessions.

Fan Walid said the excitement began when the Palestinian team qualified for the Asian Cup finals by winning the 2014 AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Challenge Cup in the Maldives last May.

“I remember that night very well. It was about 2 am. I was watching on the Internet and when Palestine just scored I just could not handle myself. I was just screaming, jumping on my bed in my room. That was [a] really historical day,” said Walid.

Another supporter, Hannan, brought her young children to watch the team train.

“I think it is very important that my kids know that our background is Palestinian, and it is wonderful that our Palestinian team has been able to come all this way out. We like to support them,” said Hannan.

Dan Goldberg, a documentary maker who has been charting the Palestinians’ adventure since they qualified for the tournament, said the Asian Cup is as much about politics as it is sport for the Palestinian team.

“I think the players themselves, and certainly Jibril Rajou, their president, openly and unashamedly admit that they are here as much as a political statement as they are as a sporting team. It is hugely important for them as a putative nation, who has not yet been officially recognized, to be seen on the world stage, but the very mere fact that they are here, and will be seen globally, is, for them, a victory,” said Goldberg.  

Awaiting the Palestinians in Group D at the Asian Cup are not only defending champions Japan, but former winners Iraq and Middle East rival, Jordan. 

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