Football Palestine’s Team of the Decade (2010-19)

It was my hope that a celebratory look back at the last ten years could be delivered in slightly better circumstances. The senior team due to the ineptitude of Palestine Football Association President Jibril Rajoub has had to contest their last thirty games under a cloud due to a completely fabricated managerial crisis. Without a competent manager, the national team has squandered a golden opportunity to advance further than they have ever before in World Cup qualifying and the unexpected losses to Singapore and Yemen- following an historic win against Uzbekistan will live long in the memory.

That said, if we take into account the progress of the national team in the last decade there is no shortage of things to celebrate.

At the start of the decade, Palestine had only scored 84 goals, they have notched 141 goals since. They had a merger 11 international wins to their name, but have more than quadrupled the total- to 50, currently. The program is moving in the right direction and successful qualifications to the 2015 and 2019 Asian Cup as well as a quarterfinal appearance in the U23 AFC Championship in 2018 is testament to that.

Below are the players who grace Palestine’s team of the decade as voted on by you the fans on Twitter and Instagram:

*Stats displayed only from 2010 onwards. Assists only tracked from 2015 onwards. 

Rami Hamadi 

Stats: 28 caps, 15 clean sheets, 22 goals conceded

Hamadi’s quick reflexes, athleticism, and confidence have given him the platform for a meteoric career trajectory. The Shefa-‘Amr native turned pro at 17 with Thaqafi Tulkarem and was invited into his first national team training camp two years later. An unofficial debut in a 2013 4-1 loss to Jordan followed in 2013 but he would have to wait a full five years before making his official bow.

In the interim years Hamadi made a name for himself in an Olympic Team friendly against Brazil- saving a penalty kick and keeping a clean sheet for over 60 minutes. That performance saw him become the youngest ever player selected to represent Palestine at an Asian Cup tournament in 2015. On club level he holds the record for fewest goals conceded- 9- in a WBPL season. Since becoming Palestine’s number one goalkeeper- Hamadi’s stats have been phenomenal. 28 starts, 15 clean sheets, 22 goals conceded.

At 25, the best is still yet to come for one of Asia’s best young goalkeepers.

Mus’ab Al-Battat
Stats: 42 caps, 38 starts, 1 goal, 2 assists

When Ahmad El-Hassan boldly handed Al-Battat the responsibility of starting all three of Palestine’s group stage games at the 2015 Asian Cup the move was wildly derided. Not least by one of the veteran incumbents he displaced. “I think a game like this could have used the experience of a Raed Fares” Raed Fares boldly declared after Palestine suffered a 5-1 loss at the hands of Jordan.

In retrospect, it was the right move by El-Hassan as Musab Al-Battat learned from his mistakes and got better. He scored his first national team goal five months later- kicking off a 6-0 rout of Malaysia in 2018 World Cup qualifying.

When the next Asian Cup rolled around in 2019, Al-Battat was far more experienced and he benefited from fighting off established veterans for his spot. Al-Battat was by far and away Palestine’s best player (when he wasn’t comically being fielded as a center back) at the tournament and when he was given license to bomb up the pitch he provided great crosses that could have altered Palestine’s fate at the tournament.

Abdelatif Bahdari 
Stats: 65 caps, 63 starts, 9 goals, 3 assists

There are not enough words to do Bahdari’s contribution to Palestinian football justice. First and foremost, the hulking centre back is a freak of nature but more than that he is a fierce competitor and a tenacious leader. The Gazan was too young to link up with the class of 2002 that powered Palestine to some impressive results in the early part of the last decade. Instead he arrived on the scene in the midst of tumult in Palestinian football in spite of all that he carved out a respectable club career with Al-Wehdat (over two stints) in Jordan and was a one-man wrecking crew for Hajer in the Saudi Pro League.
Success at club level would be followed with success with the national team helping Palestine qualify for the 2015 and 2019 Asian Cups and playing every minute in both finals campaigns. Not only does the captain hold the record for most amount of games played for Palestine (73 and counting), he also is the oldest player to ever play for the national team, the oldest goalscorer, and the fifth top scorer. To add to all that he’s also assisted three goals since Football Palestine started tracking the statistic in 2015.

Haitham Dheeb 

Stats: 34 caps, 31 starts, 1 goal

Haitham Dheeb is a player who deserved far more for his efforts with the national team and his inability to represent his country at either the 2015 or the 2019 Asian Cups shows how little the PFA cares for its athletes. As a teacher in the Israeli school system his exploits with the national team were brought to the attention of school administrators who effectively threatened him with termination in 2018 should he ever represent Palestine again.

The inept PFA under the leadership of the well connected Jibril Rajoub weren’t bothered by this development which is what gave us Khaled Salem as a center back in 2015 and Musab Al-Battat in the same position in 2019.

Dheeb started his national team career on the fringes under Mousa Bezzaz but it was Jamal Mahmoud who entrusted him with the task of marshaling the defence at the 2011 Pan Arab Games. That tournament saw Palestine finish in fourth place. In 2013, the Majd Al-Kurum native played a crucial, but oft overlooked, role in getting Palestine to the 2015 Asian Cup. With the national team shorn of its best foreign based players, Dheeb the lone goal to give Palestine a crucial victory over Bangladesh in 2014 Challenge Cup qualifying.

The center back’s dominance is summed up in one simple stat. In the 34 matches he appeared in- Palestine kept a whopping 19 clean sheets.

Abdallah Jaber 
Stats: 56 caps, 56 starts, 2 goals, 4 assists

When it’s all said and done, Abdallah Jaber will hold every single record. At just 26 years of age, he has already led the national to two Asian Cup qualifications and played every minute in the finals.

It’s perhaps best to think of the national team in terms of before and after Abdallah Jaber. The Tayibe native not only solved a problem for the national team he turned it into a strength. Palestine’s left flank had been exploited by teams for years and when he made his debut in May 2014 those problems suddenly disappeared. A mainstay, he has missed only eight games since making his debut against Kyrgyzstan.

Six months later, he was lined up against the best Asian player in the world- Keisuke Honda and despite his inexperience and youth did not put a foot wrong and even showed courage in getting up and down the flank.

Tamer Seyam
Stats: 40 caps, 30 starts, 6 goals, 12 assists

Palestine’s all-time leader in assists has always flown under the radar as a wide player- he isn’t Palestine flashiest player or its fastest or its most talked about. That said, he is by far and away its most effective- Seyam may not produce a dozen mazy runs a game but he is always capable of magic- a banging free kick, a defence splitting pass, or a spark that helps raise the collective spirit of the team.

Since making his debut in 2014 he has become incrementally better with each passing year that it is sometimes easy to forget that he was a part of that famous Challenge Cup squad. Thankfully for Seyam and fans of Palestinian football his talents did not go unnoticed and he’s been carving a nice club career for himself as a member of HUSA Agadir in Morocco’s top tier.

Ashraf Nu’man 

Stats: 45 caps, 35 starts, 12 goals, 2 assists. 

Under the auspices of Jamal Mahmoud, Ashraf Nu’man was simply unplayable- a combination of his sheer force of will to decimate opponents and a manager giving him a platform to do just that. His time with Al-Faisaly in Jordan score nine times in 13 games before moving on to Al-Faisaly of Saudi Arabia where he hit double figures across all competitions in his maiden season. The consensus opinion on the Bethlehem native was that he was one of the best- if not the best- players in the Saudi League not playing for one of the Big Four.

There should have been more to Ashraf Nu’man’s story but when he should have been at the peak of his powers things went in an unexpected direction. Two uncharacteristic misses in 2015 were a harbinger of things to come. He was one-on-one against Jalal Hassan in Palestine’s final game of the 2015 Asian Cup encounter and shot wide costing Palestine their best chance at an equaliser. 10 months later in almost the exact same spot- with the chance to give Palestine a famous win against Saudi Arabia- he shot wide again. There would be a handful of appearances in 2016 but he would never recover that form.

Despite his unfulfilled potential, it was Ashraf Nu’man who put Palestine on his back in May 2014 assisting or scoring every single goal en route to Palestine’s maiden Asian Cup qualification.

Jonathan Cantillana 

Stats: 25 caps, 17 starts, 10 goals, 4 assists

For sheer efficiency, it’s hard to find a player more effective in the attacking third than Jonathan Cantillana Zorilla. In 25 appearances (17 starts), the Santiago born midfielder has 10 goals and four assists to his name. A famous goal against Iran in a 1-1 draw just before the 2019 Asian Cup was a false dawn as his lack of professionalism was exposed. Two yellow cards meant he missed the final game against Jordan but throughout the tournament he was not at his best.

The hope is that his latest move to the Indonesian league will allow him to rediscover his best form (he has assisted three goals in 13 appearances for PSIS Semarang, thus far).  Palestine fans will remember his wild celebrations when he opened the scoring against Malaysia and the famous opening goal against Oman. A player with Copa Libertadores experience while at Palestino, Jonathan should be at the peak of his powers. At just 27, he’s well capable of providing more moments of magic in the next decade.

Mohammed Darweesh
Stats: 38 caps, 36 starts, 1 assist

An unsung hero but one only needs to look at the state of Palestine’s midfield at the 2015 Asian Cup to see how important Mohammed Darweesh is and will continue to be. The midfielder’s contribution to the national team cannot be measured in goals or assists but in terms of distance covered and duels won.

Palestine have been a reactive and defensive team since his debut and it is his work rate that has allowed Palestine to garner results against more established teams. This has especially been the case under the super reactive and tactically bereft Noureddine Ould Ali. The herculean efforts of the Fureidis native are so impressive that he has almost singlehandedly helped lend an air of respebatiblitly to a manger out of his depth.

Imad Zatara 
Stats: 19 caps, 15 starts, 2 goals

One of only two names on this list not to have played at an Asian Cup finals. That said, he played a key role in getting Palestine to the first one in 2015 and was a key player in the 1-0 win over Philippines that clinched qualification.

Zatara made his debut as a 20 year old way back in 2004 and became only the fifth Palestine player to score on his debut- a 4-1 loss to Iraq in 2006 World Cup qualifying. Over the next two years the prodigious talent would become a mainstay for the national team and then, inexplicably, he went off the radar for five years.

He was not the only one- the ineptitude of Rajoub’s first years in charge of the PFA saw the national team shorn of some of its best players for no particular reason. Roberto Kettlun, Edgardo Abdala, Bruno Pesce, Omar Jarun, and Roberto Bishara were all either frozen out or under utilised in the latter portion of the past decade.

Zatara was young enough to make a comeback and he was back with a bang in 2011, scoring a crucial equaliser against Libya at the Pan Arab Games en route to a fourth place finish at the tournament. He also scored in the following year’s 2012 WAFF Championship and featured at the 2012 Arab Nations Cup as well as the 2014 WAFF Championship. The tricky winger’s presence helped resuscitate the national team at a crucial time and he capped it off with an elder statesman role in 2015/16 during Abdel Nasser Barakat’s reign.

One cannot talk about the Stockholm native’s career without mentioning his success in multiple leagues around the world. In Sweden, he scored in the Swedish third, second, and first tier. When he finally reached the Allsvenskan he made his presence felt in a big way. In half a season with Atvidabergs in 2012 he notched 9 goals- making him the second top scorer that season.

Zatara was the first Palestinian to play professionally in Hungary, France, and Iran-scoring in all three countries. For good measure, he also scored in stints in the Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman.

Yashir Islame 
Stats: 19 caps, 16 starts, 7 goals

Since the retirement of Ziyad Al-Kord, Palestine have lacked a clinical finisher with the ability to convert chances on a regular basis. There was a fleeting moment where it seemed that Fahed Attal a revelation in 2006 would be that player but his ascendancy coincided with Palestinian Football sinking to new depths. Who would play striker plagued Palestine throughout most of the decade until March 2016. Enter El Jeque (the Sheikh) who promptly scored twice on his debut against Timor Leste, won a penalty kick on his third cap (3-3 v Tajikistan), and scored a winner on his fourth cap (1-0 v Yemen. Arguably no player did more to deliver Palestine Asian Cup qualification in 2017 with Islame scoring the winners against Oman and Bhutan.

A torn Achilles’ tendon hampered the striker’s progress with the national team but he did score a famous goal against Lippi’s China in a November 2018 friendly. His strike rate- 7 in 19 (16 starts) is especially impressive when considering that the Islame has been victim of Ould Ali’s tactical ineptitude deploying the striker as a winger and a number ten.

MANAGER: Jamal Mahmoud
There was a time not long ago that players called up to the national team had to show up with their own gear. Yes, national team training would be conducted with players wearing a smattering of different jerseys- some even wearing the colors of their favorite European club team. When Jamal Mahmoud entered the fray the national team was going nowhere and had just suffered their biggest ever defeat- 7-0- at the hands of Iran.

The former Wehdat maestro made his presence felt immediately- leading Palestine to a fourth place finish at the 2011 Pan Arab Games. His attempt to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup fell at the first hurdle- losing to Korea DPR at the semifinal stage of the 2012 Challenge Cup. Despite the failure, the team went from strength to strength, securing a famous 2-2 draw at the Arab Nations Cup against a Frank Rijkaard led Saudi Arabia. Mahmoud is also the first manager to lead Palestine to victory at the WAFF Championships- beating Lebanon 1-0.

Not only did Mahmoud end his reign as the longest serving national team manager in terms of time and matches contested he also holds the records for most wins- 15 in 35. The same number of wins the national team had recorded in 83 matches- stretching back to 1998.

Jamal Mahmoud qualified a Palestine to a 16-team Asian Cup despite not having a single capable striker at his disposal during his tenure. Not only that, he handed debuts to Alexis Norambuena, Abdallah Jaber, Musa’b Al-Battat, Tamer Seyam, and an unofficial debut to Rami Hamadi. He also made bold changes- building his attack around Ashraf Nu’man and transforming him into one of the best players in Asia.

To put it simply, Palestine would not be where it is now where it not for the reign of Jamal Mahmoud.

Also Receiving Votes: 

Recency bias played a role in the exclusion of Abdelhamid Abuhabib. While everyone remembers Ashraf Nu’man’s herculean effort in qualifying the team for the 2015 Asian Cup- Abuhabib gets fewer plaudits. Ashraf Nu’man got the national team through the knockout round of the Challenge
Cup but Abdelhamid got the team through the group stage. A spectacular last minute goal against Kyrgyzstan set the stage. He followed that up with a goal at the stroke of halftime against Myanmar. He also set up Ashraf Nu’man’s second goal against Afghanistan in the semifinal. The knock against Abuhabib? He lacked the endurance to go the full 90 minutes at international level. Of his 34 caps, only 20 were starts and after a spectacular 2014 he faded into obscurity when he should have been entering his prime. Despite only being 30 years old, Abuhabib is firmly rooted in Palestine’s achievements in the first half of this decade.

There are some contributions to the national team that could not fit into a Starting XI. For one, Oday Dabbagh only made his national team debut last year and although his prodigal talent was recognised by the voters his contribution to the senior team has been too limited to really merit consideration. That said, Dabbagh has already registered signature performances with the Olympic Team- leading them to the quarterfinals of the AFC U23 Championship in 2018. With the senior team, his ability has been inhibited by Noreddine Ould Ali’s dour tactics but still has registered his moments in 2019- destroying Syria in the WAFF Championship and scoring a famous goal against Uzbekistan to open 2022 World Cup qualifying.

Then there are the players who had great careers but for a variety of circumstances were not in the national team setup during the apex of their powers. Alexis Norambuena‘s debut in 2012 saw him provide some much needed stability to Palestine’s defensive flanks. He also showed off a knack for getting involved in the attack with an assist to Eyad Abugharqud that resulted in the only goal against Lebanon in Palestine’s first ever victory at a WAFF Championship. The bulk of Alexis’s caps came after he had become one of the most established foreign players in the Polish Ekstraklasa and while he was solid he soon became second choice to Musab Al-Battat. In the tail end of his national team career he was being shoehorned into roles that did not fit him but when Alexis was on his game he was one of the best fullbacks ever to play for Palestine.

Also in the “we hardly knew thee” category is Murad Alyan. The man kept out of the national team because he was old had a fantastic debut as a 33 year old. A brace against Bangladesh in Challenge Cup qualifying 2011 ended a winless streak of 22 games that stretched for five years. After a scoreless draw against Philippines. Alyan scored another brace against Myanmar as Palestine registered their first ever come from behind victory. It would not be the last brace of his career- he scored twice against Thailand in World Cup qualifying nearly advancing Palestine to the penultimate group stages.

Having received the entirety of his nine caps in one calendar year- voters decided that other players were more worthy of being in an all-decade team. Alyan, however played a key and understated role in rescuing and re-establishing the national team after years of neglect and mismanagement.

Husam Abu Saleh much like Alyan and Alexis never played for Palestine at the height of his powers. He was the first Palestinian player to play in the UEFA Cup as a apart of the Sakhnin side that won the State Cup but that was a full six years before he made his debut for the national team. That said, his 47 caps are tied for sixth most in national team history and he was an integral part of the side that qualified for the 2015 Asian Cup.

Speaking of the 2015 Asian Cup, Jaka Ihbeisheh is still the only Palestinian player to score at Asia’s showpiece event. It is undeniably one of the seminal moments of the past decade and Ihbeisheh followed that up by leading the side to qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup. While many will recall his dominant performances against Malaysia and Timor Leste, he often was the unknown soldier on the pitch in games when Palestine were outgunned and out possessed- Palestine’s best World Cup qualifying campaign to date was the result of his tireless running against UAE in Al-Ram.

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