|Should Zatara be called back?
For two consecutive games last month, national team manager Abdel-Nasser Barakat made a conscious choice to play a group of players who had been together in training for a month.
Ostensibly, it makes sense, if a group of players have spent an untold amount of time playing together, a certain fluidity and understanding should be formed. For the most part, Barakat’s instincts are correct and during his two years in the job he has managed to sort out disorganized and sloppy play that caused Palestine to ship 24 goals in the eleven games following the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup triumph.
That said, Barakat has fallen into a habit of seemingly guaranteeing the presence of certain players in the squad regardless of their current form. In goal, Toufic Ali started the first 12 games of the Barakat administration and did not cede a single minute to an understudy in those games. This was despite shaky performances at club level and a disastrous start to his Shabab Al-Khaleel career.
Alexis Norambuena and Pablo Tamburrini who had great campaigns during World Cup qualifying were allowed to rest on their laurels. An indefensible decision was made to inexplicably include them in the squad to face Maldives despite the fact that neither had played in close to three months following their release from the disastrous Shabab Al-Khaleel project.
To an outside observer it sometimes seems that players plying their trade in the West Bank Pro League have a better chance of representing the nation internationally. This is simply unfathomable, especially when there are several players playing and succeeding in stronger leagues from Scandinavia to South America.
The effects of a policy are clear to see; just review the first fifty minutes of Maldives-Palestine. Palestine were in control without actually presenting a clear threat to a resilient but limited island nation.
|MoTM: Wridat was the difference maker v. Maldives
The catalyst for change came off the bench in the shape of Ahmad Maher Wridat. Not many outlets have dedicated editorial lines to the diminutive attacker from Al-Dhahrieh but his reaction to being dropped from the national team has been nothing short of commendable.
His last for the national team appearance came as a sub in a blowout 6-0 win over Malaysia in June 2015. It seemed for a while that he was going to suffer the same fate as Ahmad Mahajneh- good enough to survive the post-Asian Cup cull of players but soon replaced by younger, more promising players.
Credit to Wridat, he didn’t quit. His response to being dropped was overwhelmingly positive. He was one of Ahli Al-Khaleel’s standout performers in their AFC Cup campaign last year and through the first 11 weeks of the 2016/17 WBPL was far and away the best player in the league.
During that time, Wridat couldn’t catch a break from the national team staff. His attitude didn’t change during that time- always positive and confident in his disposition; he brought a ticket and sat in the stands with the fans to cheer on the national team when they played Timor Leste in Dora.
When he had to gamble on himself, he did- taking on more responsibility in moving to a weaker Shabab Al-Dhahrieh side and then testing the waters with a move to Jordanian Champions Al-Wehdat.
His move has been nothing short of an unqualified success- scoring the first goal by a Palestinian in the Asian Champions League and providing a spark to a team that has struggled to score goals.
The fact that Wridat had to come off the bench in his last two appearances is laughable. His CV over the past 12 months should have been enough to grant him a chance to start.
This is not just about one player. It’s not as simple as one player starting all the games. Nor is it about only playing players who are based outside of Palestine.
Competition needs to be fostered. A sense that getting into the national team is hard- and playing in a game even harder- needs to be communicated to the players.
When players are dropped from the national team, they shouldn’t pout, but work harder. If a younger player wants to unseat an incumbent, then the onus is on him to prove that it’s time for the older player to be put out to pasture.
|Mr. Versatility: Jaka Ihbeisheh
Jaka Ihbeisheh goal scoring exploits (11 in 17 games accounting for 20% of his team’s goals) in Qatar for Al-Shammal as well as his versatility should have been enough to see him start. Instead, Mus’ab Al-Battat was played at right back.
Matias Jadue gambled on himself in a move to Malaysia’s second tier last year and was rewarded with promotion and a trip to the Malaysian FA Cup finals. It was a curious move but it paid off and paved a path for Palestinians to go pro in a league that had only been home to one Palestinian before his move (Patricio Acevedo Mehana played for Kelantan in 2006-07). His national team minutes since that move? Zero.
The list of players left off the roster for the Maldives league includes many with plenty to contribute.
Ahmad Awad’s reward for a goal on his debut in 30 minutes of action as a sub? A mere four minutes of action.
Islam Batran has clawed his way to four appearances for Wadi Degla in Egypt but hasn’t been able to appear in a competitive game for Palestine.
Mahmoud Eid was unfairly vilified this time last year for his lack of goals- and although he only missed out due to injury- you would think there would be more excitement about having a 23 year old player who managed to navigate his way from the Swedish third tier to the Allsvenskan (where he’s scored twice thus far) in less than 12 months.
Imad Zatara battled back valiantly from a torn ACL and when opportunities in Sweden dried up he could have come to the WBPL. It would have been the easy way out. Instead, the attacking dynamo singed for Al-Ahli in Bahrain, won the FA cup, and scored four goals in 11 games. This year he has notched 12 goals for Mesaimeer in 17 Qatar Gas League games (22% of the team’s goals). He also scored in the Emir Cup, helping Mesaimeer knock off first tier sides Qatar SC and Al-Arabi.
In the very same time-frame the Stockholm born midfielder received zero call-ups to the national team. The 32 year old has scored league goals in Sweden, Hungary, France, Iran, Bahrain, and now Qatar. He plays like he has something to prove.
Change of mentality
|Jadue: A promising player without a defined role in the national team setup.
Playing with something to prove.
That is the spirit that is needed in the national team right now. The players should look at each other and know that there is nothing to prevent them from beating the best teams in Asia. The goal is not to get back to an Asian Cup in 2019. The goal is to make a statement- that Asia needs to respect what Palestine can offer on the pitch. The team needs to graduate from being difficult to play against to becoming difficult to win against. That means the 0-0 score lines against Saudi Arabia and UAE need to be tipped into the victory column. It also means that every opponent that Palestine comes against from here until the finals should be put to the sword.
Oman are Palestine’s next opponent and Barakat needs to communicate that a win is the only acceptable result. Palestine’s club teams have a 100% record against their Omani counterparts in three AFC Cup encounters on Palestinian soil. Palestine have never lost a senior international in Palestine either, recording five draws and one win since 2008.
With the exception of Ali Al-Habsi, none of Oman’s players play outside of leagues in the Gulf and while every opponent deserves respect- there is nothing about Oman that should cause Palestine to feel inferior.
Everyone involved in the national team needs to take the record book of Palestine’s 140 games recognized by FIFA and light it on fire. It doesn’t matter. Palestine’s 26% win percentage doesn’t matter. Nor does their 1.05 points per game average. Nor does the -46 goal differential.
Palestine’s needs players who want to write their own history and who refuse to be consigned to a mediocre record. The platform is there and Palestine’s next competitive fixture should give us an idea of where they are heading.