Ever since the final whistle in Doha, the word on everyone’s mouth has been: Challenge Cup. The importance of the tournament cannot be understated, a first place finish means automatic qualification to the 2015 Asian Cup. Scheduled this March in Nepal, Palestine has never had such a big chance to earn an appearance on the continental stage – heres some background info.
The 24 hour news channels would have kept us entertained otherwise, but we had a lot to cover in 2011. It would be a disservice not to provide you with a recap of what was a roller-coaster year. So lets take a look back…
Challenge Cup Qualifiers
The National Team started off the year with preparations for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers. Myanmar hosted the qualifying group which also included Bangladesh and the Philippines. In the lead up, Palestine toured Tanzania and Pakistan before camping in Kuwait. An important realization Mousa Bezaz made in this period is that ignoring league top scorer Murad Alyan in favour of younger strikers who were in less form was not paying off, and the 33 year old was called up for the trip to Yangoon.
Bangladesh was the first opponent and were brushed aside with a 2-0 win – Alyan grabbing both goals with great support from Amour. After a goalless draw with the Philippines, Palestine was up against Myanmar to seal the deal. The hosts went ahead thanks to an early penalty but Al-Fursan kept their composure and netted three goals by way of Alyan and Harbi, ensuring Palestine’s qualification to the AFC Challenge Cup finals.
Ahmad Harbi scored to put Palestine ahead of Myanmar
These qualifiers saw Murad Alyan transfer his goal-scoring form from Hilal AlQuds to the international stage..causing many to wonder why he was overlooked all these years.
Topping the group, Palestine qualified to the Nepal 2012 AFC Challenge Cup
Olympic Team Surprises
While the Olympic team’s road to London 2012 ended with a thud back to earth, the campaign gave young players a chance to display their talents in two playoffs against Thailand and Bahrain.
First up on the itinerary for the team led by Tunisian Mukhtar Al-Talili was a trip to Bangkok where thanks to a good display by lanky goalkeeper Toufic Ali, they came back with a respectable 1-0 loss. On a rainy March evening, fans packed the Faisal Husseini Memorial stadium to full capacity to cheer the boys on. A strong first half performance was perfectly capped with a superb volley by Balata’s Abdulhamid AbuHabeeb. This put the two teams level on aggregate and after a tense 75 minutes, the match went to penalties. The night ended in heartbreak when Thailand converted one more penalty than Palestine [Highlights].
It would later emerge that Thailand’s Olympic team fielded an ineligible player and this disqualified them. Thus it was Palestine who would go on to face Bahrain, deservedly so if you were to ask the fans. Fast-forward to June and a Khaled Salem header gave Palestine a shock 1-0 win in Manama. In the return leg, Salem netted again, leaving the score 2-0 on aggregate at the end of the first half. The players went into the dressing room celebrating and this overconfidence turned out to be costly as Bahrain was able to turn the game around in the second half, scoring two goals which were enough to see them through to the next round of qualifiers [Highlights].
Khaled Salem scores at the Faisal Husseini – he also scored in Manama
Talili was an adept manager, employing players in the right positions and spreading his resources over multiple matches – however player revelations will have you believe that ‘The Dinosaur’ is not much of a people person, which is probably why he was afforded the nickname. Kidding aside, his reign saw names emerge that would later have an impact. Khaled Salem, Ali El-Khatib and Eyad Abu Gharqoud, among others, have played in the Senior side since.
World Cup Qualifiers
The 2014 World Cup Qualifying campaign was the short final chapter of the Mousa Bezaz era. As one of the lower ranked Asian sides, Palestine had to go through two preliminary knockout rounds before the group rounds which most countries play in. The draw could have been harsher as Al-Fursan were slotted against Afghanistan for the first round bout, the winner of which would go on to face Thailand.
Alyan and Amour scored in neutral Tajikistan to give Palestine a 2-0 win in the first leg against Afghanistan. The second leg back home was a less than impressive 1-1 draw that was enough to send Palestine through. We were however left with a wonderful goal by Husam Wadi.
Alyan puts Palestine ahead in Tursunzoda – he missed a penalty later in the game
Next up was Thailand, a win over the two legs would have seen Palestine compete alongside the likes of Australia and Japan for a World Cup berth. It looked like it was all over in Bangkok after Thailand was awarded a penalty in the final minutes. Thailand scored first in Bangkok and it looked like it was all over when they were awarded a penalty in the dying minutes. However Mohammed Eshbair pulled off a save that kept Palestine’s chances alive.
This meant that to go thorugh, Palestine had to win by two goals at home. It turned out to be a tense affair [Highlights]. Murad Alyan continued his fantastic form putting Palestine ahead early in the game only for Thailand to equalize ending the first half 1-1.
Palestine needed to win by two goals and went looking for them, Alyan finally putting the ball in the back of the net with minutes to play. Any chance Palestine had was erased when Thailand scored off a free kick from a counter attack.
[WATCH]: Football Palestine was there
While Mousa Bezaz was able to lead a successful Challenge Cup qualifying campaign, his failure to get past Thailand cost him his job.
Managerless, and then…
As Mousa Bezaz’s contract was not renewed, Abdelnasser Barakat & Mazen AlKhatib temporarily filled his role while the PFA searched for a new hire. This period saw the national team make trips to Indonesia and Iran for friendly matches. The results did not ease the mind as haphazard performances saw us lose 1-4 and 0-7. The PFA was silent about its search and there was much speculation, until finally in mid-November with the Pan Arab Games fast approaching, Jibril Rajoub announced that an ‘Arab National’ was set to be appointed. This was later revealed to be acting Hilal AlQuds manager, Jamal Mahmoud.
Jamal Mahmoud Takes Over
Mahmoud was immediately put to work leading the national team in two friendlies against South Africa’s Development squad. This was followed by a preparatory camp in Manama which was concluded with a friendly against Bahrain, who were also preparing to make the trip to Qatar. Ali El Khatib’s beautiful curving shot helped Palestine win 1-0. Mahmoud’s imprint on the squad’s play was immediately felt as a more confident, level-headed display was shown.
Pan Arab Games
Palestine was to face Jordan, Libya and Sudan in the group stage of the 2011 Doha Pan Arab Games football tournament. The first match against Jordan was a mess. Jordan scored off two corners and a questionable penalty. It ended 1-4, with red cards handed out to Ismail Amour and Husam Abu Saleh. Not an ideal way to start a tournament, but Mahmoud’s side had to keep cool heads, and work on vulnerabilities if they were to get past the group stage. While missing key players Amour and Abu Saleh, losing against Libya was no option.
Libya scored first and it looked like it was going to be all over until Imad Zatara fantastically equalized and kept Palestine’s hopes alive. All they had to do now was win Sudan by two goals in order to qualify ahead of them on goal difference. Sudan had won Libya and tied Jordan, with no goals being scored on them, but Mahmoud’s men were up to the task, coolly getting the job done with goals from El-Khatib and Amour.
Comeback-Heroes: Despite the shaky start, Palestine overcame Sudan and Libya to qualify to the semis
Palestine’s semi-final opponent was Bahrain who had similarly made an impressive comeback in their group. Besides being technically superior, Bahrain also had played one less game and had ample time to rest. They were the better team in a rather one-sided affair, winning 3-1.
Palestine at least still had a chance to repeat history (Amman, 1999) in the bronze medal match against Kuwait. In what must have been a boring game for the neutrals, the Kuwaitis ended it in extra time, shooting three past the inexperienced Toufic Ali.
While no medals were won, we were left with a positive impression of what the national team could look like under Mahmoud. Whatever he did, he transformed the disconnected lines we used to see into a flowing attacking/defending unit. Players-wise: Haitham Dheeb and Mohammed Al-Masri made a good case for WBPL defenders – while Zatara returned to the squad as a world-class player.