This tribute to a great man was in the works for a while but upon noting that Palestines qualifier vs Nepal on Thursday coincides with his death anniversary, I decided it would only be appropriate to publish it.
Azmi Nassar hailed from Nazareth and would be considered an “Israeli Arab”. As a player he played professionally for a series of top division Israeli clubs including Hapoel Haifa and he went on to coach various Arab football clubs that play in various divisions of Israeli football.
Azmi took on coaching the Palestinian national team soon after its reaffiliation with FIFA in 1998 leading it to its only title to date, the bronze medal in the 1999 Arab Games in Amman, Jordan.
He returned to coach the national team in 2005 with the specific goal of getting Palestine to qualify for the 2007 Asian Cup. During his tenure, Azmi Nassar brought new talent into the squad which he was able to scout by traveling between the West Bank and Gaza. Perhaps most significantly, he could be credited with calling up a young Fahed Attal from Islami Qalqilya.
Azmi was diagnosed with a muscular disorder and in 2006 as his health started to deteriorate he handed over the coaching duties to Thomas Viczko. In early 2006, Palestine had two Asian Cup qualifier matches vs Singapore and China. Azmi did not travel with the team to China and no one assumed he would attend the Singapore match which was going to be played in Amman. But he surprised everyone and announced he would make the trip in a show of support for the players. This proved a real morale booster as Palestine outplayed the South East Asian Champions with none other than Azmi’s pick Fahed Attal coming in late in the game to score the winner.
I was lucky to see Azmi Nassar once. In August 2006 I happened to be in Jordan and attended Palestines Asian Cup qualifier match against Iraq in the Amman suburb of Kweismeh. At half time the crowd chanted ‘Azmi Nassar’ repeatedly. Looking down towards the bench I saw a frail looking Azmi get up and wave to the crowd. As I recall he was wearing a wool hat and a jacket even though it was a summer night.
His health got only worse and on March 26 2007, we were hit hard by the news that Azmi Nassar had a stroke and passed away in Nazareth. A massive procession marked his funeral in his hometown.
The annual Azmi Nassar Award is given to the best ‘Professional’ Palestinian player by the kooora-Palestine fan forum. But I am hoping for a bigger recognition on the official level such as the PFA naming a stadium after him or marking his contribution to Palestinian football in some other way befitting him.
In the meantime, let us dedicate Thursday’s match to the late Azmi Nassar and his family.