Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez face off in World Cup qualifying; Brazil could field teenager Endrick

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez face off in World Cup qualifying; Brazil could field teenager Endrick
Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez face off in World Cup qualifying; Brazil could field teenager Endrick

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Palestine football coach looking to make people ‘proud’ in World Cup qualifiers

RIYADH: The prospect of Palestine appearing at the 2026 World Cup is the stuff of dreams and amid the nightmare of the death and destruction reigning down on Gaza, it is a dream that is more important than ever.

As head coach of the national team, Makram Daboub understands this better than most as qualification for the tournament starts against Lebanon in Sharjah on Thursday.

He told Arab News: “We will deal with each game in turn, but we are proud to represent the people of Palestine and we want to deliver the right results.”

Appointed in 2021, the Tunisian tactician knows that even when the situation in Palestine is relatively quiet, there are unique challenges the national team needs to overcome just to compete – let alone succeed – in Asia.

Hours, and sometimes more, are spent getting through checkpoints and trying to get out of Gaza or the West Bank to play international games.

Just moving between the different territories in Palestine can be a frustrating experience and far from ideal preparation for competitive games. However, the current situation is arguably the worst it has ever been as, for more than a month, Israeli bombs have been falling on Gaza, thousands of residents have been killed, and now tanks are on the streets.

But football continues as it almost always does, especially when it comes to the World Cup.

Palestine have been training in Jordan since Oct. 24 in preparation for Lebanon, and then Australia next Tuesday in Kuwait City. Bangladesh complete the group from which the top two teams will go through to the final round of qualification.

Normally, Palestine – as the second-highest ranked team in the group – would have a great chance of being one of the 18 teams that will fight it out for one of Asia’s eight automatic places at the 2026 tournament.

The team had been on the right track, results (a 2-1 win in Bahrain in March was especially good) and performances in 2023 (narrow away defeats against China and Oman) had been encouraging and they have qualified for a third successive Asian Cup which kicks off in January.

Now, it is hard to say. It is even harder to imagine what the players are going through as the Israel-Hamas war rages on.

Daboub said: “The training has been going well in the camp. This is despite the difficult psychological state of the players due to the war and unsafe conditions in Palestine and their concern for their families, friends, and relatives.

“The players are in the hotel or on the bus most of the time following the news on their phones and communicating with their families. They are in a constant state of anxiety with the continued aggression and war in Palestine,” he added.

There were three players, Ibrahim Abuimeir, Khaled Al-Nabris, and Ahmed Al-Kayed, who Daboub called up but could not get out of Gaza. One player from Gaza who is there is Mahmoud Wadi, who plays his club football in Egypt. He recently told Egyptian television about his constant concern for his family and friends back home.

The team – overseas-based players will join later – have been in Jordan not only to train but to ensure they are physically able to travel and fulfil their fixtures. Given concerns over the security situation in Lebanon, Thursday’s game has been moved to Sharjah in the UAE.

“Playing in the Emirates is considered a neutral stadium and considering that it is a home match for Lebanon, I think it is better for us than playing on Lebanese soil where there would be great support from the public,” Daboub said.

The match will not be easy though. Lebanon beat India in September and also lost narrowly to Thailand, the UAE, and Montenegro in games that have been studied by the Palestine coach.

“The Lebanese national team is a good team and has excellent, experienced players who performed well in the last two matches during the FIFA window in October,” he added.

Lebanon also reached the final round of qualification in two of the last three World Cups. With Australia expected to finish first and Bangladesh last in the group, Thursday’s game is huge.

Daboub said: “There is not much to choose between us, and this game is the key for both teams to qualify for the next round.”

Whether Palestine get there or not, just participating in qualification is significant for the national team and the millions of people it represents on the global stage.

“It is an honor for me to be a coach for Palestine and I consider myself lucky. This is a special team, and we will do our best to make the people of Palestine proud,” Daboub added.

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